On New Album ‘War & Leisure,’ Miguel Explores Political Turbulence and His Latinidad

Lead Photo: Photo by Timothy Saccenti. Courtesy of Biz 3
Photo by Timothy Saccenti. Courtesy of Biz 3
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On his fourth studio album War & Leisure, Miguel seems to make his grand entrance in a puff of colored smoke. His voice echoes over the crackles and reverb of the first song “Criminal,” creating a sudden wooziness and off-kilter daze. Most of the sounds are classic Miguel — tipsy and distorted, although a little bleaker than usual. But within minutes, the second track, “Pineapple Skies,” bursts through with the ghosts of Marvin Gaye and Prince in tow, clearing out the album’s purple haze in a flash of funk, soul, and tropical fruit.

These two songs reflect the broader tension of War & Leisure, an album that was made in politically fraught times, but isn’t conventionally political. Throughout the release, there’s joy amid distortion, dancing amid unease. The anxiety of today’s world creeps in deftly, in the lurching blues melody of “Wolf,” in stray lyrics about ongoing wars and falling missiles on “Banana Clip,” all while Miguel keeps the party, sex, and romance he’s known for going strong. He weighs dim downbeats and buoyant synths, sensuality and angst, without getting too heavy-handed in any one direction.

Production-wise, War & Leisure is Miguel’s glossiest release yet. In another life, it could have been the mainstream debut he dropped before stepping into his artsy Kaleidoscope Dream phase. Some collaborations read as though they’re explicit efforts to prove Miguel’s versatility and wider appeal; “Come Through and Chill” with J.Cole is evidence he can make more straightforward hip-hop beats work; “Sky Walker” with Travis Scott is a touch of trap in a psychedelic soundscape. These might have been written with Miguel’s goal “to reach the masses,” as he explained to NME, and as a reaction to the commercial underperformance of his last album, 2015’s Wildheart. (“Last year was one of those years for me where I think I was really beating myself up about the reception of my last project,” he told Blag magazine recently.) Still, the album allows for plenty of the weird Miguel experimentation that has made him a singular force in R&B — “Told You So,” for example, was clearly raised on an eccentric playground of Prince influences.

Most of Miguel’s time is dedicated to smooth-talking and delivering sweet nothings, whether that’s luring women into love fests on “Harem” or letting out carnal desires on “Wolf.” But in an album comprised primarily of bedroom jams, Miguel’s heritage triggers War & Leisure’s socially conscious maneuvers. Since his last release Wildheart, Miguel has been vocal about getting in touch with his Mexican roots. He has a track record of singing in Spanish, recently participating in a duet with Mexican songstress Natalia Lafourcade for the Coco soundtrack. Earlier this year, he released a video of his first visit to Mexico to see family in Michoacán. On “Now,” the album’s most blatantly political song, Miguel lets some of his frustrations out, singing, “CEO of the free world now/Build your walls up high and wide/Make it rain to keep them out/That won’t change what we are inside.”

But Miguel also understands that social awareness isn’t just shown through polemics and preachy lyrics. There’s power in pride, and there’s resistance in joy. Janet Jackson showed us as much when she recreated an apartheid-era dance hall for her 1997 “Got Til It’s Gone” video, capturing the beauty and bliss of a local South African celebration, scrubbed of sadness. Miguel pairs up with Colombian singer Kali Uchis and brings out the euphoria of a dance party with “Caramelo Duro,” a nod to Latin funk and Celia Cruz with its refrain of “regalame un poco de azúcar.” The song avoids unspooling into an obviously tropicalized rhythm, with warbling layers instead building into the groove. It closes the cycle on the questions started asking about his Latinidad on Wildheart, marking a new place in his evolution. If he was pensive and inquisitive on “What’s Normal Anyway?,” he’s triumphant and proud here.

A reference to buzzing fighter jets on “City of Angels” becomes the album’s apocalyptic peak. Miguel sings about grappling with who he is and who he’s hurt as Los Angeles crumbles around him — an exercise of self-reflection that surely a lot of people can relate to as they wonder what kind of person they are amid national disillusionment. Even as the world ends, Miguel remains a romantic and a lothario who wants to spend the end of the world holding someone in his arms, feeling anointed in someone’s bed.

That Miguel could remain himself while lightly reflecting the darkness of the times is the feat of War & Leisure. Some critics could read his commentary as too subtle, but it’s his restraint that ends up being an interesting choice. He could have easily bludgeoned listeners over the head with politics or forced something to say (we already have Katy Perry’s Witness as the example of what packaged profundity sounds like). Instead, the album is a reminder that personal reckoning and reconciling happens in levels. Miguel decides not to derail who he is as an artist and, in the process, he gives us a portrait that slyly captures what everyone else is doing right now: trying to balance being themselves in uncertainty.