The concept of the “summer banger”—the juggernaut pop radio single with the catchy hook uniting everybody under one umbrella of dance and ecstasy—has always been pretty dumb to me. As questions of artistic responsibility and cultural appropriation only grow in importance, the latest summer smashes— 2013’s “Blurred Lines” and 2014’s “Fancy”—have proven that we aren’t so unified in our love of the singles that somehow make it to the top of the charts every hot, sticky summer after summer.
But, from time to time, summer does offer pop music that is so refreshingly good, that is unrepentant in its lyrical or instrumental complexity, that doesn’t sacrifice depth for catchiness. “Wildheart,” the third full-length from R&B-meets-everything sensation Miguel, is that kind of music.
Driving on the strength of “Wildheart’s” single “Coffee” (video above), the versatile singer songwriter takes listeners on a rose-filtered journey through the carnal frenzy and anxious isolation of his hometown, Los Angeles.
Miguel, a half-black, half-Mexican Angeleno who distinguishes his ethereal R&B from the likes of Drake and The Weeknd with distorted guitars and rock-star theatrics, is the perfect tour guide for this creative journey. He represents L.A.’s multiracial tapestry and defies easy categorization.
“Wildheart” gives voice to those who want nuance and complexity in their summer jams instead of thoughtless party-anthem nonsense. Its 12 tracks will be identifiable to anybody who can’t find comfort because of their differences from the world.
Now, a lot has already been said about the importance of Miguel’s ethnic background to this album’s general M.O. The lyrics of “what’s normal anyway,” a slow-burning mid-album track with warm-toned guitars, sum up the thesis of the album:
“Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans, too square to be a hood … What’s normal anyway?/ I’m in a crowd and I feel alone/Don’t let them change you”
Throughout “Wildheart” Miguel explores that alienation in more subtle ways. On “NWA,” he coos about a lover who wants an “NWA“—a hypersexual black brute—to fulfill her idealized notion of a black man instead of someone more complex. Filled with understated drawn out guitar-strumming and a sinister guest verse from ex-Death Row v.p. Kurupt, the song is both sultry and angry about that marginalization:
She just wanna have fun, she just want a wild n****, wild now/ She just wanna fuck crazy, She just wanna fuck till she can’t move no more/ She don’t wanna fall for me, she don’t wanna fall for me/ But it’s too late
Of course, “Wildheart” isn’t without its problems. For one, look at that album cover. The singer, poised behind a naked, headless, faceless woman’s torso, hearkens back to a 1960s-style psychedelic ideal where brazen sexuality mimics defiance. And on some songs, Miguel is macho almost to the point of absurdity. Take the “the valley,” where he catalogues a woman’s sexual anatomy (“lips, tits, clit”—these are actual lyrics) over an 808 beat and a synth seemingly sampled from a mid-aughts porn film. It would just be irresponsible to excuse Miguel’s machismo or pretend that some of the songs don’t render women two-dimensional. The album’s highlights don’t obscure that reductive move.
That said, it’d do his artistry wrong to reduce “Wildheart” to the content of its most lyrically problematic songs. Miguel isn’t glorifying machismo as much as he’s just portraying it in the context of a young Angeleno who lives a wild life but still feels boxed in.
On “destinado a morir,” he uses a dark synth that Kanye would cry over to paint nihilistic abandon in the face of constraint and lyrics that mix English and Spanish to convey yearning beyond that constraint:
Destinado a morir baby, but we’re all right, yeah, The night is young and the moon is calling, so we’re all right, yeah/ All right, We’re destined to die baby, but we’re all right, yeah/ Dejame amarte, baby it’s all right, yeah/Hit the lights
All in all, Miguel is in a unique position. He’s a mixed-race entertainer throwing hard-edged rock music into R&B in a way that hasn’t been successful for any musician of color since Lenny Kravitz, who appears on the glorious “face the sun.” Miguel shifts how we understand pop music in an era where cynical appropriation seems to the be the norm. This is the kind of music to play on long drives across L.A., Detroit, Atlanta or Chicago; on crosstown subway rides in New York City or D.C.; and along with all manner of sunset-splayed moments. Miguel makes a grand creative statement by showing just how much a multiracial artist can pull on a variety of influences to architect tales of love, desire, dread and anger that are instantaneously relatable. “Wildheart” is resonant for those of us who don’t feel like we can fit in one box, yet go through the world and party and screw anyway. For that reason alone, it is worth significant attention.
“Wildheart” is officially available for purchase via Bystorm Entertainment and RCA Records.