Review: Miguel, War & Leisure

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This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, with lead single “Sky Walker” the complete opposite sort of music that I want Miguel to make, replete with a frat house party-catering music video that looked like there was a conscious decision to make up for the loss of sales between Kaleidoscope Dream (535,000 units sold) and Wildheart (65,000 units sold). Reaching #35 on the US charts, I guess it worked (“Coffee” merely reached #78 for some reason).

The opening song began interestingly enough, with chords that sounded like they were lifted straight out of a Modest Mouse song from The Moon & Antarctica. But Miguel soon dropped one of the worst lines of his career: “I got a mind like Columbine,” apparently to show how supposedly dangerous he is. It makes him equating breakups to Hiroshima on “Leaves” look somehow tasteful by comparison. It certainly didn’t help “Criminal”’s case that Rick Ross shows up to huff around without saying much at all (“Every day she had to find a way to find a way” is the sort of thing that sounds clever), which — following Wale mucking up the single version of “Coffee” — follows Miguel’s penchant for bringing in rappers to “spice” up songs when he certainly doesn’t need to.

Which brings me to my next point: I find it surprising that a handful of mainstream publications focused so heavily on the political angle when they reviewed War & Leisure. Miguel himself has gone on record in an interview with Billboard: “War & Leisure has political undertones because that’s what life feels like right now. This album is intentionally about the ethos right now, that we are right in the middle of all this. We’re trying to flourish in the middle of all this […] but then we’re dealing with these same problems, this injustice, wars between politicians with egos. Like, 140 characters are going to get us into a war right now?”

Surprising, because they really are undertones. There’s what, the accompanying music video to “Told You So” and invocations of “Korean missiles” are as political as the album gets until J. Cole shows up on “Come Through and Chill”, wherein tells a woman that she’s been on his mind as much as Colin Kaepernick or Donald Trump. It’s like they realized that the title of the album was “War & Leisure” so J. Cole hamfisted that bit in; no one talks like that to people they’re interested in. This is as opposed to closer “Now” where the politics aren’t so invisible they’re barely worth mentioning; they’re brought to the forefront (“CEO of the free world now / Build your walls up … Make it rain to keep them out / That won’t change what we are inside”).

A more interesting conversation: with more features than any of his preceding albums (and bigger names, too) and stuff like the aforementioned “Sky Walker,” this has the feel of a conscious course-correction from Wildheart, which, as mentioned, managed only a fraction of the sales of Miguel’s previous albums. Which is a shame because I was genuinely wowed by Wildheart. Miguel isn’t the stronger melodist, especially in comparison to some of his contemporaries, but not only did he come up with some great ones, but he backed those up with plenty of colors; the pulse of “NWA”; the sweaty synths of “The Valley.”

By contrast, there isn’t a single song here that I’d miss if I didn’t hear it again because almost all of that color is gone — when he sings “We gon’ keep it psychedelic…” on “Sky Walker”, you’d think there would be some psychedelia to be had beyond his typical trick of vocal layering. The Prince pastiches — “Pineapple Skies”, “Told You So” — don’t feel as natural as they once did, with Miguel’s ad-libbing cluttering up the former and the latter just rides on that drum programming. Elsewhere, the interesting clamoring throughout “Wolf” has to contend with more bad-boy posturing, which includes resurrecting a dead meme (“Hide your kids and hide your wife”) and quoting Little Red Riding Hood, and the comparatively stripped down “City of Angels” might’ve only benefitted from being more stripped down (show your blues roots!).

Not that there’s anything bad, mostly because Miguel’s a good singer: the way he squeezes “ooh”’s in the choruses of “Pineapple Skies”; the way he sings “woman” on the bridge of “Wolf.” Even “Sky Walker” has grown on me, with the falsetto-ed hook revealing itself to be one of the best tunes on the album, and it’s always a pleasure to hear Travis Scott autotuned drawn-out vowel sounds.

I can’t help but compare this to Prince — namely because Miguel wants us to compare him to Prince — who released his own half-political/half-sexual Controversy in 1981. That album was immense, and the politics didn’t feel like an afterthought but instead led to some of his best and darkest grooves (“Controversy” and “Annie Christian”, respectively). And Prince being Prince, there was plenty of leisure to be had: the album ended with a song called “Jack U Off”; certainly more worthy of a title like “War & Leisure” than this album. Like Controversy’s title track handing off to “Sexuality” or many other examples, there are stylistic switches in War & Leisure too: the aforementioned “City of Angels” between the album’s two best grooves (“Told You So” and “Caramelo Duro”), but the switches don’t feel natural — they just feel like the “shuffle” was the chosen method of sequencing. Too much leisure, not enough war. B MINUS