While it’s often lazy to draw comparisons between artists, it helps when an artist does it themselves.
In 2015, in the wake of his successful album “Wildheart,” Miguel threw down the gauntlet against his contemporary Frank Ocean. In an interview with NME, he said he makes better music than Ocean does.
He’s since cooled down on the beef, but the two artists still seem at odds in their respective styles. For Ocean, “Blonde” and “Endless” were “statement” albums. Each involved heavy thematic presence, and there was a core understanding that each song operated on an individual level and as a part of a whole.
But for Miguel, “War & Leisure” is governed by impulse.
This isn’t to say that this album is slapdash, though it is at times, but rather each track seems as if Miguel was seized by a certain impulse, built a song around it, before moving on to the next impulse and next song. Each song is different because of this, but some commonalities tie the album together.
And, on certain tracks, some impulses are more interesting than others. Miguel leads with Rick Ross-assisted “Criminal,” which kicks things off so-so with a song about finding the right kind of messed-up partner.
His knack for melody is ever present, and he tells a good story in the song’s second verse. A weak Rick Ross verse and similes like “I got a mind like Columbine,” preceded by lines like “Lalalalala,” however, are distracting and don’t disappear on this track alone.
Other tracks marred by weak writing and weird impulses include “Told You So,” a track at the album’s midway point. With an out of place, techy beat, Miguel just sings over and over again about how he’s really good at giving pleasure, and for the recipient to not forget from whom this pleasure comes.
“Told You So” was probably the low point on the album. Luckily, there are multiple peaks which make it a much less difficult pill to swallow.
“Sky Walker,” with Travis $cott, is a track marked by defiance. Miguel almost raps, but with enough melody to retain his silky voice. He frequently loops his own vocals to create a sort of hypnotic effect that really immerses the listeners. His lyricism is also sharp with lines like “Saint with a sinner’s mind/she’s vegan but she wants the steak tonight.”
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“Come Through and Chill” is another standout track, and probably the album’s best, perfectly capturing the need to just have someone. J. Cole leads the charge with the opening verse, and the momentum is carried by the sudden shift from Cole’s straightforward rapping to Miguel’s nebulous melodicism.
This album is all over the place both literally and figuratively. It’s free of constraint, and this is both harmful and good. When Miguel happens on good inspiration, he runs with it, but he also does the same when it’s not as promising.
Though it may sacrifice his freedom moving forward, it would be good to see an artist of his talent channel one really good impulse and use that for an album, exploring its different angles with different times in his life.