We’re in the middle of a creative boom for R&B. It’s an explosion of talent that we haven’t seen since the early nineties brought us a slew of oiled up dude dudes that looked like NFL wide receivers (crooning about making strong but sensitive love to chicks), and a myriad of girl groups comprised of the prettiest jawns from your local pool singing thinly veiled songs about fellatio. In the context of 90s R&B Bill Clinton’s presidency makes so much more sense. While the 90s saw R&B really find itself post Michael Jackson, making pop songs that weren’t afraid to (openly) talk about fucking, the work we’re seeing today is more diverse. Make no mistake it’s still about sex and love, it’s just coming from people who look and sound different. To wildly simplify, on one end of the spectrum you’ve got a dude like The-Dream carrying the torch for more traditional 80s/90s styled R&B (with an overtly hood spin) and on the other of the spectrum you’ve got dudes like How To Dress Well who make oddly compelling outer realm fuck jams, for all the weird cats that work in the keyboard section of your local Guitar Center.
Long ago, (2006?), philosophers/muses/gems of the NYC public education system/rappers DMX and Dipset asked the question “what’s really good?” In the R&B game, it’s gotta be the heads making songs that sit comfortably between Mary J. Blige’s ongoing musical Tales of Woe: Live from the Beauty Salon and the lil homey Frank Ocean’s nine minute long freak out psych jams about strippers, bi-sexuality, and aliens. Miguel’s Kaleiodoscope Dream is that album.
In press photos Miguel alternatingly looks like a generic R&B cat and a dude that was late to an audition for a touring version of an ethnic Grease. Somehow these divergent press photos summarize his musical output. Songs like “Adorn” and “Don’t Look Back” sound like they come from the dude wearing a hoodie in his press photo and giving heavy bedroom eyes. They’re radio hits in the waiting, not quite fast enough for primetime club play, but perfect for a chick named Renée to bump at her desk—as long as it’s at a reasonable volume. Given a week’s rotation these are songs that easily seep into your subconscious, becoming ingrained in the yet to be isolated part of the brain that is responsible for creating “my jam” level adoration. While either of these songs could appear on Hot 97, they both have odd affectations buried in them betray Miguel’s wider range of influences, especially the Radiohead esque vocal line of “Don’t Look Back” and the El DeBarge falsetto of “Adorn.”
When Miguel rocks a high pompadour, wayfarers, and leather jacket in photos he looks like the type of dude that would make a song like “Kaleidoscope Dream.” It’s a four minute song that sounds like it should be about 6 or 7 minutes long. The verse samples Labi Siffre’s “I Got The…” (better known as the skeleton of Eminem’s “My Name Is”) for a thumping bass that Miguel floats over in falsetto and reverb. By the time you get to the bridge and chorus, the song transforms into a sparse delay and electric guitar affair that feels like The Bends era Radiohead, The Wall era Pink Floyd or Ladies and Gentleman We’re Floating in Space era Spiritualized—depending on how nerdy you want to get with your weightlessness inducing musical interludes. The point here is, most R&B cats are not invoking your favorite liberal arts student’s favorite band and my disco loving gay uncle’s favorite hangover music in the same song. Let alone making that shit work. Very rare feat there.
The rest of the album plays out in similar fashion between songs that will relegate themselves to your newfound jams and songs that sound like ballads from a lost Prince side project where dude got way into that period in funk history when everyone was wearing space costumes. What really works on Kaleidoscope Dream is that none of these songs sound at opposition with each other, even though they should on paper. There’s no way a bare electric guitar and vocal song called “Pussy is Mine” should sound like anything other than a simultaneous parody of John Mayer and R.Kelly’s careers. Yet, the shit is actually an affecting and moving ballad about wanting to feel special in a relationship, and less explicitly stated—beating up the pussy. That is the magic world of Kaleidoscope Dream, a place where Radiohead, Labi Siffre, D’Angelo and Tank can have an understated musical conversation about love and sex as channeled through Miguel.