Rhythm and blues star Miguel may be the only singer charismatic enough to release a sunny radio jam centered around the M16 assault rifle and make it feel sexy rather than ignorant. “War & Leisure” features a confident Miguel who infuses vibrant party music with subversive references to political turmoil.
Since the release of his debut album “All I Want Is You” in 2010, Miguel has been steadily climbing toward stardom. Though his first project peaked at only No. 37 on the Billboard 200, his 2012 sophomore effort “Kaleidoscope Dream” reached No. 3, aided by the success of the single “Adorn” and significant critical acclaim.
“Wildheart,” Miguel’s third album, explored a more psychedelic and dusky sound, earning a No. 2 chart position in 2015 and solidifying the singer as an important fixture in the R&B world. With “War & Leisure,” Miguel is at the peak of his career, stepping into the sunlight with a collection of beachy pop hits.
Each song on “War & Leisure” showcases Miguel’s immense vocal talent and knack for catchy hooks. The singer needs no auto-tune to hold a steady note, a factor that will appeal to more traditional audiences who value an unadulterated voice and raw ability.
Miguel’s singing chops shine especially bright on “Pineapple Skies,” anchored by a soaring chorus that recalls purple sunrises viewed from sandy shores. “Harem” takes a more seductive approach with equally impressive results, featuring crescendos as the singer entices listeners into the shadowy corners of his love life.
These powerful melodies are occasionally overshadowed by corny lyrics like “I’m Luke Skywalkin’ on these haters” on “Sky Walker,” which elicits eyerolls rather than smiles. Miguel also struggles to fit the word “anointed” into the track bearing the same name; the more the term is repeated, the more out of place it sounds.
However, these are minor critiques rather than major flaws, and the disconcerting lyrical themes are hidden beneath the album’s colorful veneer. Miguel subverts the romantic and carefree tone of the music with references to destruction and apocalypse, as on “City of Angels,” in which he describes how he “stayed behind when everyone left for Nevada” to search for a lover in the rubble of a destroyed Los Angeles.
To explore current issues in more detail, Miguel enlists rapper J. Cole on the track “Come Through and Chill.” Although most of the song is about a lazy night at home with a lover, in his second verse J. Cole smoothly transitions to politics: “In case my lack of reply had you catchin’ them feelings / Know you’ve been on my mind like Kaepernick kneelin’ / Or police killings, or Trump sayin’ slick s— / Manipulatin’ poor white folks because they ignant.”
The sudden shift from romance to politics mirrors the way political issues are often secondary to the joys of our personal lives until we turn on the news or are personally affected by an event. The relationship between war and leisure that Miguel highlights throughout the album reflects a society that is filled with entertainment and flashy diversions, yet contains the constantly lurking threats of police brutality, terrorism and nuclear war.
The lyrics of “War & Leisure” may address grave issues, but the message and tone of the album are hopeful. On the final track “Now,” Miguel urges the listener to act immediately and concludes on an uplifting note, singing, “We are the sound of freedom.”
The vibrant instrumentals are also a vital contribution to the project’s cheerful mood. Buzzing strokes of electric and acoustic guitar provide “Criminal” a rich and layered texture, while the bouncy synths and quirky sound effects give “Told You So” strong chart-topping potential.
Musically, “War & Leisure” mimics current trends without much experimentation: Many songs sound as though they are straight off Calvin Harris’ June 2017 project “Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1.” Miguel has an expressive voice, but the album falls short of achieving true greatness. Despite its generally hopeful tone and frequent references to current issues, “War & Leisure” never reaches any profound emotional heights, fixating instead on shallow cheerfulness and desire.
Still, “War & Leisure” is a fun collection of energetic tracks propelled by Miguel’s charisma and bold melodies. The album is most effective when it combines sugary hooks with thumping bass on songs such as the Spanish-language “Caramelo Duro.” Bright and triumphant, but infused with an undercurrent of today’s political turmoil, “War & Leisure” is a testament to Miguel’s talent for exciting and creative pop music.