In the lead-up to Miguel’s fourth album, the newly released War & Leisure, fans were teased about a project that would ostensibly feature the singer-songwriter leaning into subject matter that was more outwardly political. That is not to say the discussion of sex, a topic Miguel has covered extensively in his career, cannot in and of itself be considered a political statement. It very much can, but in this instance, it appeared that Miguel would deviate somewhat from the bedroom in order to touch on the bevy of problems so widely on display in our headlines—so often driven by that apricot-hued asshole’s tweets.
In October, Miguel was profiled by The Guardian and had the following to say about both the chaotic era we live in and how his latest may serve as a soundtrack to it:
You see us on the brink of nuclear war over Twitter ... or the rise of the far right in Germany and France. So my whole mindset for the album is: what are we supposed to do caught in the middle of this? We’re at the brink of complete war and complete pleasure, at all times, every day.
Granted, it is an artist’s prerogative to address these things as he sees fitm and it is subjective how we, the listeners, interpret whether or not he delivered on those intentions. Still, when you read other profiles, such as Rolling Stone’s “Inside Miguel’s Political Awakening,” it’s understandable to make certain assumptions on the final product. To be fair to Miguel, he is undoubtedly more political in his interviews, across social media and in the visuals associated with the new music.
Even so, in terms of the actual music on War & Leisure, it’s not that political. There are references made to Colin Kaepernick on the opening track, “Criminal,” but it comes from featured artist Rick Ross. As far as Miguel’s contribution, he does sing, “Got a mind full of TNT/I got a mind like Columbine, a vigilante/I’m volatile.” That’s a boast more than anything, but if there’s anything revelatory about Miguel on the track, it’s the line “I just want someone I can trust/Baby, is that you? Is that us?”
The other Kaepernick reference comes courtesy of J. Cole, who, on the revised “Come Through and Chill,” raps, “Know you’ve been on my mind like Kaepernick kneelin’/Or police killings or Trump sayin’ slick shit/Manipulatin’ poor white folks because they ignant.”
I know Miguel has feelings about these issue, since he’s offered musings in the interviews promoting the music. Yet it’s only on the album’s final track, “Now,” where you hear Miguel offer any sort of sociopolitical commentary. He asks “CEOs of the world” if “we should teach our children hatred” and references various subjects that have consumed the news—Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and Houston and Puerto Rico in the wake of devastating hurricanes. Beyond that, though, and I suppose a few lyrics here and there, this is pretty typical Miguel.
He asks women to join his harem on the song “Harem” and overall gives a lot of guitar riffs and more of the psychedelic R&B found on 2015’s Wildheart. That’s more than fine. Miguel has a stunning voice and can make anything sound beautiful—which has aided him in his versatility and further distanced him from his contemporaries who, sonically, don’t push the boundaries nearly as much as he does. But if you’re going to sell us a political album—notably at a time in which we could all very much use one—why not deliver on that?
As a half-black, half-Mexican child of Los Angeles who grew up poor and managed to become a Grammy-winning songwriter who works with the likes of Mariah Carey and Usher, his perspective would be distinct and vital. If one is to talk about it in the press, why not in song? Miguel has offered a suggestion on why he’s reluctant to go there in his cover story for Title magazine:
But when it came to working on his next major project, Miguel understood that he couldn’t be nearly as direct. He couldn’t allow his political hang-ups—however potent and pertinent—to overwhelm his art. “The icons I look up to, most of them were good at not bringing their personal beliefs into their music, into their job. And if it was brought in, it was broad. You think of ‘Sign o’ the Times’ by Prince. It’s socially conscious, but it’s not political. Michael Jackson had ‘Man in the Mirror.’ Even Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—it was a response to all of these things happening at the time, but it wasn’t directly political. I’m always honest in my music, but I don’t want my honesty to put people off.”
Miguel has often been compared to Marvin Gaye, Prince and, in light of War & Leisure, Michael Jackson, but this is glaringly ahistorical. During the decade in which he was most popular, Prince released tracks like “Ronnie Talk to Russia” and, during the last years of his life, repeatedly offered directly political works such as “Baltimore” after the death of Freddie Gray.
Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star to have ever lived, released a song like “They Don’t Care About Us.” There were also “Earth Song,” “Black or White” and other songs, but again, a song called “They Don’t Care About Us.” We all know who “they” refers to.
And for Gaye, an act on Motown, which intentionally told its acts not to delve into politics for fear of alienating them, the story of “What’s Going On” alone shatters Miguel’s insistence that none of these men brought their personal beliefs into their music. Then there is the reminder that the current biggest pop star on the planet, Beyoncé, paid homage to the Black Panther Party during the Super Bowl halftime show not long ago.
So while War & Leisure is a fantastic listen, I do wonder what might have been had Miguel directly addressed his political proclivities. My guess is that Miguel, who over the years has been honest about his need to be a bigger star, assumed that going too political would alienate audiences and potentially dim his light.
In the aforementioned Guardian profile, Miguel said this:
You’re not supposed to say: “I wanted it to be better, or to perform better” ... But we all want our shit to win. So for artists to pretend they’re OK with their shit not being the best ... I mean, that’s not real.
And with Title, he noted:
I want what everybody wants, really. To be the artist that maintains creative integrity but is still commercially successful.
If Miguel wants to be as commercially successful as possible, he should hark back to his older works—notably hit singles like “All I Want Is You” and “Adorn.” As much as I like War & Leisure as a body of work, there are not many songs that feel primed for radio. The best option is “Come Through and Chill,” but overall, the album is a lot like Wildheart, which Miguel admits has not performed as well commercially as he would have liked.
Much like that album, there’s more funklike ad-libbing, as opposed to solid melodies and, more important, hooks. It all sounds sublime because of the singer’s voice, but as beautiful as Miguel’s instrument is, if commercial viability is the goal, there are certain rules one has to play. He knows this.
To that end, War & Leisure is a good album, but it is not that political; nor does it sound like something intended to appeal to the masses. I appreciate it for what it is, though the buildup does make me wonder a few things: Who is Miguel? What does he have to say? What does he really want? We’re not owed his political thoughts or innermost secrets. All we want is good music.
Miguel provides that, but if he wants to be the star he speaks of being without sacrificing his artistic integrity, a bit of advice: Give us what you think we need rather than what you’ve found to be safe.