There's a venerable tradition of Los Angeles soul music—not just R&B crafted by California-born musicians like Etta James and Brandy, but the litany of wistful songs about La-La Land and its deferred dreams, from Dionne Warwick's 1968 "Do You Know the Way to San José" to Rufus featuring Chaka Khan's 1977 "Hollywood." In the late '60s, boho icons like Joni Mitchell and The Doors turned Hollywood's Laurel Canyon into a countercultural rock homebase, supplanting New York's Brill Building pop factory. By 2015, an entire fleet of music aspirants has fled the über-gentrified Big Apple in search of cheaper rent, suntans and film & TV sync licenses, once again turning Los Angeles into Pop Central Station. Doe-eyed R&B savant Miguel has followed the flock, relocating to his hometown (he was born and raised in San Pedro, as well as in Inglewood) after having crafted his 2012 Grammy-winning album Kaleidoscope Dream in New York. Beyond just getting a new zip code, Miguel draws on Los Angeles' patented mix of burnished hope and inherent vice as thematic inspiration for his third studio album, the tristful and richly psychedelic Wildheart.
Miguel's ascent in the last five years has been like watching lightning in a bottle. After a lukewarm, producer-driven 2010 debut album All I Want Is You, the singer bearhugged a trendier alternative R&B sound for follow-up Kaleidoscope Dream, which marched up the charts on the sleeper success of throbbing slow jam "Adorn" and the fusion of introspection, sex and politics on tunes like "Candles in the Sun." Since then, Miguel has made a series of career moves that are as carefully coiffed as his notable pompadour, collaborating with the likes of Mariah Carey, Jessie Ware, J. Cole (again), A$AP Rocky and the Chemical Brothers. And, joining the company of moving social media targets Drake and Ryan Gosling, Miguel became meme fodder, due to a much-publicized 2013 DWI and an ill-timed jump across the stage at the Billboard Music Awards that injured two audience members. But last year, he Beyoncé-dropped a free three-song EP, nwa.hollywooddreams.coffee, that suggested a return to a DIY, "artiste" sensibility.
For an album that is so focused on a single city, Wildheart is musically and sonically polymorphous. Crunchy rock guitars get front row seats here much more than on the last album (and guitar hero royalty Lenny Kravitz even makes a cameo on "face the sun") but Wildheart is a powerfully atmospheric, post-genre mix of soul, funk, synth pop, reggae, post-punk, grunge and hip-hop. Miguel, who is half black and half Mexican, offers an explanation for his restless style on the pensive shoegaze soul of "what's normal anyway:" "Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans, too square to be a hood ... What's normal anyway?" True to his own lyric, Miguel sees himself as a stylistic nonconformist who gets off on evading any and every pigeonhole. Trippy, bleached-out album opener "a beautiful exit" mixes TV news clips, new age inspirational lyrics, chimey guitars and beatific harmonies. The freaky, bumping bass groove of "DEAL" mixes hallucinogenic synthesizers, heavy delay and echo effects, pitch bending and menacing Funkadelic-shouted lyrics: "Before I show you the money let me slide you a pill." Wildheart sounds like what '80s neon served up through an extreme Instagram filter looks like; it's a heady dose of retro art soul sonic experimentalism, best digested on your Beats earphones.
Though Miguel's atypical artistic choices ask us to question what's considered normal, his obsession with sex is what makes the album's out-thereness entirely accessible. The in-your-face album art features the tattooed stud emerging from the cloudy cosmos, staring into the camera, grasping a naked, bent over woman — and the music follows suit. Boudoir tune "FLESH" is a falsetto Prince-homage in which Miguel confesses "I'm a slave to your flesh / woman put me right where I belong." On "the valley," Miguel wants to have sex "like we're filming in the valley" before he lists his female partner's body parts like checking off a to-do list; the song's mix of robotic, electro porno chic, amped up machismo and Los Angeles shout-out is like a musical version of Paul Schrader's weird 2013 film The Canyons. "NWA" reminds us that Miguel's California dreaming also means nostalgia for '90s west coast hip-hop. In case you needed the added emphasis, Death Row rap legend Kurupt makes a characteristically ribald guest appearance.
But Miguel sidesteps his own interest in the carnal for the fireplace romance of "Coffee," in which he croons to his lover "I just want to watch you sleep" over a hopscotching beat and a twinkling arpeggio. Lyrics like, "We talk street art and sarcasm / crass humor and high fashion / peach color, moon glistens, the plot thickens / as we laugh over shotguns and tongue kisses / bubble bath, Truth or Dare and Would You Rather" suggest Coldplay, Keane or maybe even Savage Garden more than Marvin Gaye. Miguel really excels as a songwriter on the soaring melody and overcast drama of "leaves." And "Hollywood Dreams" is a thoughtful read of Los Angeles as a double-edged sword: "Sweet Hollywood sign, you're my salvation," he admits. Miguel's earnest romantic declarations for women and for his hometown reminds us that his path to R&B has less to do with the gospel-drenched, sin vs. redemption approach that defines the careers of icons from Al Green to D'Angelo. Miguel's music is diaristic, confessional and (when not being explicitly sexual), willfully abstract. He's on his way somewhere, a journey to self, and you're along for the ride.
In the aftermath of tragedies in cities like Ferguson and Charleston, and musical responses by artists like Kendrick Lamar, some will listen to Wildheart hoping for a more trenchantly political statement. But Wildheart is in its own way political, at least in the sense that it insists on a non-conforming identity and the search for authentic self in an era of collective tumult and disappointment. Some will also go to Wildheart looking for a sequel to the radio-ready nugget that was "Adorn." But like Kanye West and Frank Ocean, Miguel seems to want to make albums as lasting concept statements more than he wants to churn out easily digestible hits. And so Wildheart's hazy looseness will read to some as formlessness and undisciplined; for others, it will sound like a powerful declaration of artistic freedom.
Still, Miguel — so shrewd that he once named an EP volume Art Dealer Chic — is also a bit like Kanye in that he understands that pop music stardom, especially in the R&B and hip-hop world, is no longer about cultivating street cred. It's increasingly about cultivating style and design cred (inspired as much by music as innovations in the art / tech worlds) for a generation that does not distinguish between the alternative and mainstream. In that light, Wildheart is a consistent, bold collection of commercially artful songs, as beautiful and singular as this season's Rick Owens fashion line or a Kehinde Wiley gallery exhibition or a carefully curated series of Apple Watches. It manages to capture an emotional precinct, an impression of a complex city going through changes and a man working to define real intimacy in the midst of so much tarnished beauty everywhere. Miguel remains a dreamer, and the landscape of R&B is profoundly richer for it.