Review Summary: I came to set you free.
I don’t want to condescend to Miguel as a black artist by generalizing his influences, as his live performances just as well fuse ‘70s cock rock theatrics with early ‘80s synth funk pomposity, but the most analogous historical comparison to War & Leisure
is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On
; a political, sexual, musical revolution, equal parts statement and soulful pop music. Although only tangentially linked to Gaye’s previously well known lyrical tropes, What’s Going On
successfully redefined him as an artist when Motown wanted hit makers; with that album though, Motown got both, and Gaye didn’t have to compromise what he stood for, or what made his music appealing in order to do it. It’s still a standard reference point for politically flavoured pop albums, and it’s informed as much Miguel as it has music in general in adopting a sympathetic, quiet, and graceful anger towards world affairs. Which is a roundabout way of saying: the putting together of War and Leisure is not a new concept.
So, Miguel’s War & Leisure
, ostensibly a riff on his sexualized lyrical matter and its placement next to modern end-of-days anxiety, isn’t covering a concept that is at all new, exciting, or at all very sexy. Part of that isn’t necessarily Miguel’s fault, as ‘Donald Trump’ increasingly becomes a catchall crutch for the inarticulate, along the lines of ‘Ronald Reagan’ or ‘Governor Schwarzenegger.’ But then to forgive Miguel entirely for wanting to make a political album comes with some implications; namely, that those lyrics encapsulate the thematic scope vaunted so heavily in the promotional and press material, at least, enough to justify the imagery. It’s debatable whether or not War & Leisure
does that; “Shockandawe,” a promotional single since dropped from the final version of the album, was probably the most political song Miguel’s released, but was also musically meandering and limp. And so War & Leisure
, in betraying the entire point of its existence, is better off, although nevertheless tethered tangentially to an incoherent political motivation that hamstrings Miguel seemingly all of the time.
Where War & Leisure
does see some success is in its embrace of pop immediacy. Were it fused subversively to politics, it might have been Miguel’s best weapon; instead, it serves to reinforce his already serviceable songwriting techniques. At times, the elastic, processed bounce of the synthesizers recall Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic
, which isn’t necessarily an indictment of quality but a curious redefinition of Miguel’s sound. The best example of that is “Told You So,” a vaguely apocalyptic and funky jam, which could do worse than to slot into pop mainstream territory; other songs, like “Pineapple Skies” and “Banana Clip,” though less successful, follow a similar trajectory. There are lines about North Korean nuclear proliferation and pre-Armageddon sex, but they mostly take a backseat to the oomph, clap, and pop of the backing track. It’s an interesting fit for Miguel, whose flirtations with Prince’s spectre motored Wildheart’s
guitar theatrics dirge and now overpowers the funkier, superficial songs that are War & Leisure’s
The worst part of War & Leisure
doesn’t belong to Miguel, who manages to stay above the fray for most of the album even as he conflates a meandering stance toward political activism with his brand of sexual healing. In keeping with his recent decline into full-throated pomposity and stupidity, J. Cole chews the scenery on “Come Through and Chill,” a laid-back, boss nova R&B trip that paints the romantic scene of phoning an ex-lover for sex because it’s raining, delivering an out-of-place, completely unsubtle, obvious, and turgid set of lines that name Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump, and ‘the ones that got the pigment
.’ The tasteless references to Keapernick are well worn here: Rick Ross also clumsily invokes black protest in sport on “Criminal,” and rhymes it with a line about rare selfies. It would be the worst line on the song if Miguel didn’t base the entirety of it on a Columbine simile. This isn’t sophisticated or nuanced discussion as much as a bludgeoning and forced angle to set it apart from other Miguel albums.
Which is odd, because Miguel doesn’t need to be gimmicky to present his albums as solidly different or incomparable to the one preceding it. I don’t want to sound clichéd or passé in saying that; most will agree that Kaleidoscope Dream
doesn’t sound too much like Wildheart
, and both albums debatably point towards a nadir in Miguel’s career. The same is true of War & Leisure
, which musically directs towards a sort of invocation of hair metal, fashion-over-substance sexiness, riddled with cloudy melodies and bolts of synth plinks and polished guitar riffs. That sound is perhaps more recognizable in Post Malone or Lil Uzi Vert, who give the music a sort of gentrified pastiness and bratty youthfulness, respectively. Here, it’s moulded a lot more tastefully, although nevertheless presented weaker than the last 2 Miguel albums. Gone are slowly unfurling jams like “Coffee” or “Leaves,” and in their place vibey, summery jams like “Banana Clip.” Not bad, but nowhere near as satisfying.
And that’s probably the real problem with War & Leisure
. Lyrically, it’s inconsistent, and doesn’t serve its title or occasional flirtations with current events very well besides a few references smattered in every other song. Musically, though, it feels more disposable than before, and less beholden to locking into deeper, more resonant grooves. Save the occasional hit— namely “Sky Walker,” a Travis Scott-assisted foray into “Black Beatles,” “Rockstar” memeability and melodic precision— there’s few songs here that would inspire as much debate, discussion, or sex as anything on What’s Going On
, or There’s a Riot Going On
, or Black Messiah
, or Wildheart
for that matter. Which isn’t to undersell Miguel’s efforts or natural abilities as an entertainer and songwriter. He’s undeniably strong at this, which makes merely acceptable albums like this all the more disappointing. There’s a riot going on in there, somewhere, it’s just difficult ascertaining what exactly that riot is about, or why the listener should even bother trying to find it; the surface is good enough already.