Next week Miguel will release his third album, Wildheart (June 30, RCA). For those who can’t wait – and you shouldn’t be patient – NPR has the album available for a First Listen. It’s easy to characterize Miguel as “increasingly adventurous” or “experimental,” which is true. Wildheart is frequently psychedelic and features some Miguel’s most sexually explicit lyrics. Often lost in the conversation, however, is his 2010 debut, All I Want Is You. Miguel earned critical praise for that album’s followup – 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream – but his debut is too often written off as conventional and uninteresting; NPR calls it “lukewarm” and “producer-driven.” Although Miguel tapped into something more unique on Kaleidoscope Dream, All I Want Is You is far from being just a platform for a pretty voice.
All I Want Is You’s best song is its title track, which actually mischaracterizes the album. Produced by Salaam Remi (most famous for producing slick hip-hop-heavy R&B for Amy Winehouse) and featuring J. Cole, “All I Want Is You” is incredibly well executed, but still very conventional. That drum-beat-heavy sound shows up pretty sparingly on the rest of the record; even “Hard Way,” Remi’s other contribution, doesn’t sound so typical.
The record, more than anything else, actually has an electro tinge. “Pay Me” is a fast-paced catchy song, but with a truly dumb hook: “Give me pound, give me euro, give me yen.” “To the Moon” is equally upbeat, but is a prime example of Miguel’s still green songwriting ability. (The song begins with “I’ve got a rocket in my pocket and I’m ready to go / I’m talking tick, tick time bomb, ready to blow.”)
Wildheart is Miguel’s best work yet because he can now balance his cornier tendencies with his forward-thinking sound. On “NWA,” for example (first released last December on the surprise nwa.hollywooddreams.coffee EP), Miguel piles electric guitar riffs on top of a West Coast hip-hop beat. The sound is familiar but not too familiar. It’s self-consciously sexy, but Miguel’s strong vocals and the song’s bluntness (“She just wanna fuck crazy”) avoid any sort of cliche – not to mention Kurupt’s great laid-back g-funk-era guest verse.
These are the kinks that Miguel worked out on his Art Dealer Chic EP series, during which he found a middle ground between cheesy electronic and standard R&B beats, and became more nuanced as a songwriter. “I feel invincible when we create this art,” from Vol. 1’s “Gravity,” is a deft turn-of-phrase that takes its subject seriously without becoming overwrought.
Wildheart is experimental and conceptual, but above all, a great album. Miguel’s ability to craft something so complex didn’t come out of nowhere. It took some missteps and some learning, but traces of All I Want Is You are still present. It’s an album that shouldn’t be disregarded.