When my good friend Calvin told me that I needed to stop everything I was doing and listen to Miguel’s latest album Kaleidoscope Dream¸ I was a bit skeptical: “We’re talking about the same Miguel, right? The R&B newbie whose only hit thus far was “Quickie?” Yes, that guy. He knew what I was thinking. How could a guy whose best lyrical substance didn’t surpass “No bite marks, no scratches, no hickies, I just want a quickie,” release an album that was worth the stop-in-your-tracks kind of listen session that Calvin suggested? But I rarely disagree with him on matters of hip-hop and r&b, and this case was no different. If you haven’t listened to Miguel’s album, consider this a pay-it-forward from Calvin. Stop everything you’re doing, and give it a listen.
From start to finish, Kaleidoscope Dreams is a fantastic piece of work, well worthy of its Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album. If Miguel weren’t going against Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange¸ another R&B masterpiece, I would call his loss the biggest snub of the year. We haven’t seen this many high-quality R&B albums since D’Angelo and Ginuwine ruled the scene. Yet, I think the Grammys created a separate category for “Urban Contemporary Album” because these young crooners are taking R&B to a place the genre has never been before. Gone are the days of A Capella harmony ballads and smooth jazzy riffs. Miguel and his talented peers (Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and The Dream to name the elite), have created a new sound for love songs, intertwining synthesized heartache, thick bass, and sexy funk. Accompanied with the growing prevalence of love drugs in R&B, we’re seeing a new sense of euphoria overtaking the genre.
By now you’ve probably heard Kaleidoscope’s radio single “Adorn,” which won Miguel his first Grammy for Best R&B song. “Use Me,” my personal favorite from Miguel’s album, is an anthem of sexual surrender. The first lines “Sedate me…so that your salty is sweet” commence a slow, brewing buzz into a chorus of sensational bliss. “Do You,” perhaps the most catchy song on the album, is gaining radio play as well for its dream-like, hypnotizing crooning and repetitive chorus. What all these songs have in common is their natural, simplified expressions of companionship. Very much like his approach to sex, Miguel takes metaphors of love that we’ve heard 100 times over—“I’m gonna do you like drugs”–and makes us feel like we’re hearing them for the very first time.
I could go on naming other quality songs on the album, but listening to the album as a whole is an experience in itself. You’ll find yourself getting lost in riffs that mix pain and pleasure, heartache and newfound love, celebration and mourning. And even with all these contradicting emotions, the music comes as easy on the ear as a KC and Jo Jo song you’ve heard 100 times over.
My biggest problem with R&B is that often, the music lacks any sort of political message. The soft sound and funky vibes don’t leave much room for an aggressive message of change that rappers such as Lupe Fiasco or Kanye West achieve on every album. Frank Ocean and Miguel are beginning to change that. Frank’s “Crack Rock” is tells the sad story of how the crack epidemic can destroy lives: “Hit some stones, and broke your home, Smoking stones in abandoned homes.”
He criticizes corrupt police and racial profiling:
Crooked cop, dead cop
How much dope can you push to me
Crooked cop, dead cop
No good for community
Fucking pig get shot
Three hundred men will search for me
My brother get popped
And don’t no one hear the sound
The final verse depicts how corrupt police can make extra money involving themselves in the drug trade with very little risk, whereas young black men are dying every day from gang violence, largely fueled by the war on drugs.
Take a look at Miguel’s latest visual treatment for his song “Candles in the Sun,” the most politically charged track on the album:
The opening verse criticizes a lack of peace and compassion in the world:
Hey, Say we’re all created equal..
That’s what they teach us
But that ain’t how we treat each other
Naw, that ain’t how we treat each other
Shit, the truth is that we need each other, yea
We consistently preach equality in schools and fairytales, but in reality, we never live up to these standards. The chorus brings back Frank Ocean’s portrayal of the destruction of crack-cocaine, and further addresses a lack of peace in the world:
Diamond in the back, babies on crack
Kick in the door, wavin’ the 4-4
White collar, war, crime, money gets spent
Candles in the sun, blowin’ in the wind
Sun goes down, heroes often get shot
Peace has long been forgot
Ooh will it be too late when we find out?
All in all, these songs present a cry for help to the American people. While they lack the aggression of traditional political hip-hop, the sad lyrics and smooth sounds provide a much more peaceful criticism of our current values and actions. These songs build a platform for R&B artists of the future, enabling them to incorporate a political critique into a genre that is used to nothing but sex, love, and heartache. I’m excited to see where Miguel, Frank Ocean and this new crew of R&B pioneers take the genre next. Moreover, I look forward to hearing how they might inspire our youth to build on their innovative music. I’ll conclude with a cliché, yet perfectly fitting quote from Miguel: “Tomorrow’s just a day away.”