It’s not that Miguel’s first two albums weren’t notable. In fact, 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream is rather exemplary. It’s not that the self-producing multi-instrumentalist maestro is lacking in personality either. The problem is and always has been that with those first two albums, Miguel was lacking a distinct identity, unsure if he wanted to be a commercially-successful trend chaser or a boundary-breaking avant-soul stylist. You can chalk this up in the “problems you want to have” category, but for Miguel, the struggle to carve out a distinctive career for himself was something that was constantly on his mind, each new release teasing a new experiment and possibly even a whole new direction to travel in.
And yes, his 2010 debut All I Want is You is basically a generic R&B wash, but Kaleidoscope Dream showed Miguel building on the promise of his Art Dealer Chic mixtapes and honing in on a looser, more sensual sound that was more fitting of his persona. It certainly didn’t hurt that Kaleidoscope was anchored by one of the single best R&B songs of the past decade in the form of “Adorn“, but Kaleidoscope‘s problem was that it was never able to top such a stunning moment, the rest of the disc ranging its way from casual club fare like “How Many Drinks?”, stripped-down laments like “Pussy is Mine”, and even a stab at social commentary in the form of “Candles in the Sun”. None of these songs were bad, and all of them were light years away from his mismanaged debut, but the shadow of “Adorn” loomed long, that single achievement netting him a Grammy, multiple high-profile guest spots (including on Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady), and the chance to write and produce Mariah Carey’s only Top 20 single in the past five years.
So what a surprise it is to experience Wildheart, his third full-length. This is an album that is practically dripping sweat, obsessed with eroticism while also being musically and lyrically confrontational in a way he hasn’t been before. At times, Wildheart can even be downright aggressive, exploring the darker side of lust in a rather unapologetic fashion while still treating it with reverence, taking after his hero Prince by fusing carnality and spirituality in a way wherein they cannot be removed from each other. Wildheart may be a different kind of animal than what we’re used to, but never has Miguel sounded so much at home.
“The muted world / Does it dream in colors?” Miguel asks during the rather atonal verses of opener “A Beautiful Exit”, which makes a hell of a tone-setter, the crunchy guitar strikes immediately warding off listeners expecting “Adorn, Pt. II” or anything remotely like it. The chorus, about “dreaming a beautiful exit” and dying young, also notes how “wildhearts can’t be broken,” which serves as the album’s adrenalized thesis. Yet the beating core of Wildheart is “The Valley”, an explicit tale of sexual congress set to a slow-motion synth pulse so sinuous and lurid that it would probably react to blacklight. Miguel wastes no time in laying out his wanton agenda:
I’m your pimp, I’m your pope, I’m your pastor baby
Confess your sins to me while you masturbate
Shepard Fairey shit, obey like I’m your master, babe
This is hard babe, play your part baby, then we all get paid
Although Miguel does make one more pass at watered-down social commentary during “What’s Normal Anyway” (i.e. “Too opinionated for the pacifist / Too out of touch to be in style / Too broke for the rich kids / I don’t know what normal is”), the rest of the disc remains a celebration of love and lust, as even during the somewhat on-the-nose showbiz lament “Hollywood Dreams”, he still makes the album’s themes come alive, describing a woman who moves to the big city but is soon told to make fame her religion, the whole song a cautionary tale about existing for “fame sake”, coke parties and walks of shame peppering the verses, casting Hollywood in a dark shadow befitting of Wildheart‘s intentions.
Yet as this Wildheart beats on, Miguel tackles every perspective he can, from being a submissive “slave to your flesh” on the aptly-titled “Flesh” to playing the surprisingly conventional “Only you can save me / I’m a sinner” card on “…goingtohell”, which carries this message on a solid rock groove and those reverb-heavy 70s backing vocals he loves to bring in from time to time. The use of the word “gun” as a eumphemism is another surprising occurrence, as on “Destinado a Morir” he says that he’s “Got got a gun called love / Let’s have some fun” while on lead single “Coffee” he croons about how “Wordplay turns into gunplay / Gunplay turns into pillowtalk”, giving his nightmoves an underlying sense of danger, even if his metaphors never cross over in the realm of the threatening. This is actually as surprisingly fine line Miguel is walking here, because by grounding most of the album’s dialogue in this softly-provocative manner, an overly-lewd moment like “The Valley” can still stand out without ever fully crossing over the line of out-and-out creepiness. After all, people want to be crooned to by lovers, not stalkers.
Perhaps most surprising though, is how outside of the excellent lead single “Coffee”, Wildheart‘s most optimistic moment is a full-blown guitar number about predicting heartbreak that sounds like a perfect cross-splicing of Miguel’s Mariah cut “#Beautiful” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979”, comparing the signs of a doomed relationship to the lack of changing foliage in California, all over a driving, open-air rock chorus. Moments like these (and the classic rap throwback “NWA”) sometimes feel out of place in Wildheart‘s overall endgame, but they also serve as a welcome respite from Miguel’s unabashed celebration of lust. Too many out-and-out sex jams would have rendered the disc monochromatic, so finding that right amount of deviation was important to preserving Wildheart‘s more artistic merits.
Yet even with that in mind, Wildheart still feels more emotionally undercooked despite its thematic consistency. Miguel has clearly found a persona that works, although much like Kaleidoscope Dream, Wildheart ends up coming off like a collection of well-executed ideas than it does a roll of end-to-end great songs. His boldness on songs like “Coffee” and “The Valley” paint Miguel as the R&B auteur he clearly wants to be, but with enough other tracks succumbing to clichés in order to get their point across, we’re left feeling engaged but not thrilled, satisfied with the night out but lacking the impulse to text him back the next day.
Wildheart is the sound of Miguel fully coming into his own identity. Now, we just have to wait for him to do something with it.