It was hardly obvious at the time, but R&B crooner Miguel Pimentel’s May 2013 performance on Saturday Night Live heavily foreshadowed the direction of his third album, Wildheart. He transformed the macchiato smooth grooves of “How Many Drinks?” into a freaked-out, short-circuited hard rock head-scratcher. Miguel sang-shouted his vocals, forsaking his characteristically smooth delivery. The singer spastically leaped and gyrated on stage to a backing band that abandoned the song’s melody entirely in favor of an alternately languid and frenetic jam session. For a contemporary pop artist, the move made little to no sense.
Little did we realize that Miguel was simply invoking the intertwined dynamic between rock 'n' roll and R&B that has existed for a half century of American music. Like Hendrix, Prince, and Kravitz before him, Miguel understands that both genres share a strong appreciation for percussive rhythm, the ability for music and vocals to mimic and provoke human movement — dance, sex, and otherwise. The occasionally psychedelic detours of Miguel’s prior effort Kaleidoscope Dream reach fullest fruition on Wildheart, a record that constitutes Miguel’s head-on dive into the depths of electric ladyland (see: the album cover). In a moment where contemporary rock and R&B could not sound more different, it’s heartening to hear an excellent reminder that these two primal sounds fundamentally come from the same place.
Opener “Beautiful Exit” establishes the record’s rock-leaning pedigree in its first few seconds, ushering Miguel in on a wave of echoing, crunching guitar chords that mimic the ignition of a motorcycle engine. Closer “Face the Sun” builds on a layered wall of fret activity before erupting into a searing solo from the aforementioned Lenny Kravitz. The deeply sexy highlight “…goingtohell” offers pitch-perfect sonic fusion, seamlessly melding modern R&B production values with Strokes-style riffage. Gone are the commonplace studio flourishes of debut All I Want Is You — Miguel is unequivocally trying to sound unlike anything else you’ll hear on Hot97. It should also be noted that the singer makes a great rock frontman. Miguel’s voice can growl like Prince, soar like Marvin, and croon like Stevie, all within the span of three minutes. Pimentel’s vocal talents have been underrated his entire career — Wildheart makes a worthy stab at course correction for widespread appreciation.
Wildheart could only have been released in the summer, and not purely because of the record’s frequent evocations of California, that pop-imagined Neverland of endless sun. There simply have not been very many recent albums this thick with humidity and heated with erotic charge. Every guitar chord reverberating with condensation, every key change languorous from dripping sweat — Miguel certainly knows how to conjure a mood. At this point it’s no surprise that sex is his favorite topic of discussion, but Wildheart takes Miguel’s satyric preoccupations to new heights. “Valley”, an extended riff on the San Fernando’s sleaziest entertainment export, sports a refrain that would make R. Kelly blush. The subject matter of “FLESH” should be self-evident. Miraculously, the album never grows too blunt to the point of compromising quality. Miguel has thankfully dropped the needlessly explicit refrain and unnecessary Wale cameo that blemished the radio edit of “Coffee”, an otherwise excellent, morning-after fantasy. With content as consistently steamy as Miguel’s, an occasional bit of restraint goes a long way, and Wildheart exhibits a smart understanding of when to go too far and when to hold back.
There are inevitably a few misses amidst the plentiful hits. Pimentel’s mixed African American and Mexican American background provides a compelling Angelino persona behind his ceaseless genre bending, so “What’s Normal Anyway” should theoretically work. The track offers a genuine, if slightly maudlin, meditation on the singer’s heritage and feelings of isolation. However, sandwiched between post-coital requests for a towel and resignations to damnation, the song comes off as heavy-handed. Miguel exudes such natural swagger that proving his street bonafides should hardly be necessary at this juncture. Yet, here we have “N.W.A.”, a clunky stomper that wants to conjure the ferocity of the eponymous rap group, but largely fails. “Leaves” might have benefitted from a little bit of lyrical variety, repeating the name of Miguel’s west coast homestate so many times that the track grows grating by the minute. It’s important to remember though that in the state of modern R&B, Wildheart is a considerable gamble, its occasional failures ultimately ennobled by the record’s adventurous spirit.
As recently noted by a fellow PMA writer, Miguel has often been critically overshadowed in his career by R&B wunderkind Frank Ocean, whose new album will once again fall on the same year as Miguel’s. It’s an accurate observation, but nevertheless an unfortunate one, as both artists have endeavored to push R&B beyond the morass of synths and snares. While Ocean’s sound moves contemporary production into a jazzier, more virtuosic direction, Miguel is content to be a little bit of an anachronism, a guitar player in a machine’s world. Wildheart is his finest and most stubborn statement yet — a provocative, swooning mess, the 45-minute manifestation of that alternately deranged and inspired five-minute SNL performance. It also just might be one of the best rock albums of 2015. Certainly unexpected, but then again, what’s normal anyway?
Wildheart is out now on CD and MP3.