Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is War & Leisure, the new album from Miguel.
There’s a reigning season of pop-apocalypto permeating even the sweetest sounds of our hellbent generation. Our impending doom remains atop the newshour and the cultural moment, remixing the paranoia into our pleasure; the best efforts reveal how the two coexist and service each other. Miguel’s a veteran conduit of this intersection: he frolics in the forbidden and the forlorn, searching for love to find himself. With the stakes at ungodly heights, he’s delivered War & Leisure, an insidious fun ride that toys with a tomorrow that may never arrive.
Luckily for us, Miguel makes it all work even when his world’s confusing upon first entry. War & Leisure is a few stray singles away from a concept album, yet far more focused than a mixtape. It’s neither a final proclamation of our damnation nor a sex playlist for the end of the world; either would feel far too predictable. Instead, we’re gleefully freefalling into a universe of devotional odes and metaphorical weaponry that looks something like Los Angeles from afar. Reconsidering the disjointedness as an intentional play, there’s plenty of reason to engage the haze and trust the process. This is Miguel feeling the freest of his career, delivering high-caliber performances as he sheds his inhibitions and basks in his confidence with a timeliness that doesn’t bombard you.
Let him tell it, the record’s highlights came from fucking around: “Sky Walker” is a tongue-in-cheek bop that prances along like its unaware of its own brilliance, urging the listener to stay up and absorb every moment. Given Travis Scott’s feature tear - some working better than others, nearly all to capitalize on his heat - you can hear La Flame’s Auto-Tune scraping the edges of the same range Miguel prances around, tossing a falsetto into the heart of the hook like a throwaway stroke on a canvas. “Stay Up and Chill” showcases Miguel with a freestyle lean, and J. Cole maintains a warm presence in the kickback request like a long-lost friend, save for the oddly-forced parallel of missing a lady like pondering everyday injustices. On the contrary, “Told You So” is the album’s most subversive execution of such theme, juxtaposing the apocalypse as a means to an end for everything we enjoy with no regard for what we destroy. Miguel embraces a devilish perspective from an undeniably hypnotic rhythm, the poppy funk swirling and complicating to the point where you’re unsure whether the freedom he’s offering is the freedom we need.
Thus far, Miguel’s worldbuilding tactics consisted of spellbinding love anthems and sprawling questions of identity, forged in a lineage of Prince and Marvin Gaye that never compromised the personal as political. Yet in the world of War & Leisure, the proverbial melting pot makes for some awkward material worth reexamining. The opener “Criminal” ponders how good the good good can get - with an unexpectedly humorous Satchel Paige bar from Rick Ross - but the free-associative imagery invoking Columbine and 9/11 feel wasted, borderline reckless for such a calculated artist. “Now” is far more measured and sincere in its questions and invocations, yet its placement after a song like “Anointed,” visions of death and destruction aside, dampens the power by sheer proximity. And while “City of Angels” brings a harrowing identity to the end of days, citizens fleeing L.A. for Nevada as Miguel’s cheating somewhere in Venice, it serves as further disappointment considering its potential as a set piece in a universe left rather undone.
With some rearranging and a few riskier selections, the album’s outliers would’ve been far easier to tie into a stunning and visceral pop-apocalypse with a clear narrative. War & Leisure as the tale of love found and lost as the world begins to burn, the forces of good and evil daring each other to make a move? Upon weighing the sum of its parts, Miguel was steps away from a masterpiece. But dwelling too long on what could’ve been only spoils the fun of what we have: another good installment in an oeuvre that makes the sociopolitical sexy without losing us all in the sauce. It’s indulgent, uncertain, and takes a bit too long to climax, but Miguel delivers on his namesake with enough flair and delight to weather any storm on the horizon.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.