Watching the kaleidoscopic praise that’s swirled around R&B artist Miguel’s second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, it’s easy to forget how boring his career looked just a year ago. On paper, he’d done passably enough, jobbing as a songwriter and hook singer and even earning a No. 1 urban-radio hit with “Lotus Flower Bomb” — but that was a Wale song, an environment hostile to personality. He asserted himself more on his 2010 single “All I Want Is You,” (featuring newcomer J. Cole), but neither guy was as recognizable as producer Salaam Remi’s trademark simmer. Miguel’s other solo efforts weren’t much more memorable. The supposedly sexy “Quickie” started and stayed limp. (Writer Brad Shoup: “He asks for a quickie like a four year old orders cereal.”) “Sure Thing,” built to the “you be X, I’ll be Y” template, was sturdier, but with Miguel’s neophyte track record, you couldn’t tell whether his phrasing was understated or just undersung.
At the time, that is. These days, you’re more apt to find Miguel’s past work praised, thanks to the man’s activities this year. He didn’t so much develop as an artist so much as seize that title, starting with his three-EP series Art Dealer Chic. What he dealt was indeed arty, sometimes self-consciously so — but also self-produced, free, risky and undoubtedly compelling, even more so once followed up with two more EPs previewing Kaleidoscope Dream. They contain fascinating songs on their own, and people were entranced by them — or in some cases, by their packaging. “Art dealer chic” is brand puffery, but it’s puffery with connotations: as critic Nitsuh Abebe wrote at the time, of “a million trends, a stock market of style … ultra-hip, ultra-bohemian, ultra-competitive.” (Also: ultra-curated, ultra-rarefied.)
Of those million trends, one stood out. You saw it in the split-EP structure; The Weeknd wasn’t the only guy doing this, but he’s the one closest to Miguel’s sound. You saw it as more and more people clamored to either welcome Miguel to the parallel let’s-call-it-a-genre that included Frank Ocean and How to Dress Well or insist Miguel was the guy the weirdo welcoming squad was ignoring. The layers of authenticity and audience and indie and R&B and arguing are astonishing — but then, that’s always the case with this genre everyone agrees exists but nobody wants any part of (including most of the artists) or has even managed to name properly. “PBR&B” was a joke. “Hipster R&B” both explains that joke and glops on a dozen stale assumptions. “R-Neg-B” is the result of playing telephone with a comment about Drake acting like a pickup artist. Those are the codified ones, but Wikipedia’s entry (trafficked enough that multiple SoundCloud randos are editing themselves in) is still trying: post-R&B. Prog-R&B. The worst thing that could happen to Miguel — or anyone — is to get engulfed by this grey goo of fake context. It defines artists by a fraction of their audience. It ignores history — even the towering figures like Jimi or Michael or Prince. It leads to problematic crap like praising artists for upping the guitars and cutting the rapping. And it’s the least interesting thing about Kaleidoscope Dream.
Even the title’s more telling. In context, a “kaleidoscope dream” is just your everyday psychedelic freakout, but as a metaphor for the album, it’s pretty apt. Kaleidoscopes work better the more colors you throw in, and Miguel’s got them all. He’s got nods to the greats, most immediately Marvin Gaye (“Sexual Healing” on the baroque love song “Adorn”; “What’s Going On” on album closer “Candles in the Sun,” which also invokes Jay-Z) and Prince (just about everywhere, but particularly on the title track: “Can you imagine a field of red lights?”). He’s got his guitar and rock nods — a seething interpolation of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” after wailing like an emo singer on “Don’t Look Back,” the wall of prog on “The Thrill,” the insistent bass that drives “Use Me,” the unadorned strum-alongs “Do You” and “Pussy Is Mine.” And fake context aside, he hasn’t abandoned mainstream R&B at all. “Adorn” is doing as well on urban radio as any other single, and the Usher-like “How Many Drinks” is a likely follow-up. Genre stalwart Alicia Keys sweetens “Where’s the Fun in Forever,” the Labi Siffre sample on Eminem’s “My Name Is…” shows up again on “Kaleidoscope Dream,” and, most tellingly. almost all these tracks are takes on classic song templates. There’s the player of “Don’t Look Back” who can’t or won’t change. He goes to the club for “How Many Drinks.” He turns lothario for the sex jams, then lover for the slow jams. You know how they go.
You know how the templates go, that is, before Miguel gets started loosening them up. “Pussy Is Mine” is a template, for instance, and not a particularly pleasant one; ask Lloyd, himself due for a breakthrough like this. But it’s hard for Miguel to come off too cocky when he’s left in the studio outtakes like, “Are we recording right now?” and when he’s pleading, “Lie to me … I don’t want to believe that anyone is just like me.” Elsewhere in raunch, “Arch N Point” is kinky enough — leather, leopard, fishnet bodysuits and self-shots all make appearances — but “Use Me” is cavernous, its air thick with anticipation and power games. It’s almost autoerotic, even; Miguel knots together two vocal lines and two personas to match: the nervous beginner (“with the lights on, if I could just let go/ Forgive me, it’s my very first time”) and experienced teacher. If that’s complex sex, “Do You” is complex courtship; the title ends in “like drugs” and goes for the double entendre, but then there’s that gloriously dorky middle section, celebrating matinee movies and rock-paper-scissors (“Wait! Best outta three!”) and hugs. Never has compatibility-via-shared-likes sounded so exuberant, and never does it sound out of character; it just seems like another thing Miguel does, and the skittery percussion and end-of-summer guitars just sound like more things Miguel dreamt up one day. He’s simply built up this much personality and this many ideas. If this is art dealer chic, the catalog should keep getting better.
Kaleidoscope Dream is out now via RCA.