Miguel’s Wildheart and the Search for an Authentic Self

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Miguel Jontel Pimentel knows the true power of R&B. It’s too easy—careless, even—to pigeonhole him and his contemporaries as “alternative R&B,” a term that tenuously describes artists whose depth and range have always been part of the genre, whether or not critics want to acknowledge it. Miguel recognizes this. Of his 2012 political anthem “Candles in the Sun,” he says, “I don’t think about love and sex all the time…Social issues, political decisions, failures, economic pressures and so on and so forth all cross my mind. I think that’s another thing that’s been forgotten in R&B. It’s not limited or reserved for the bedroom—for the relationship.” There are countless R&B artists who have effortlessly merged sex with politics; Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack are prime examples. Miguel easily joins these legends on Wildheart. His third album documents his exploration of these issues, including his return to his hometown of Los Angeles, the tension between his sex god persona/artiste aesthetic, and his Latino identity.

Born to a Mexican father and black mother, Miguel grew up between San Pedro and Inglewood, Los Angeles. He cites his father’s obsession with funk, jazz and hip-hop and his mother’s taste in classic R&B as essential influences; his attention to psychedelic guitars and heavy bass lines on Wildheart reflect that. Miguel favors his guitar over drum machines and synths on this album, delivering a killer combination of 70s funk and 90s nostalgia. “DEAL” fuses celestial synths and echoey vocals with a retro groove that’s so funky you’ll have to double check if you accidentally started listening to George Clinton. On “waves,” a not-so-subtle celebration of passionate lovemaking à la “Rocket,” Miguel’s gravelly voice scratches over a steady cowbell and upbeat strumming. Choice lyrics include: “Yeah, get wild baby, so hot, God damn, I need a towel baby/I could wipe you down right now baby.”

Photo by Daniel Sannwald
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Wildheart is Miguel’s journey to selfhood. He’s confessional, unapologetic, and more vulnerable than he was on his debut All I Want is You and sophomore album Kaleidoscope Dream. He has always toed the line between a Top 40 and eclectic R&B sensibility, and he’s finally found a comfortable, authentic middle without losing any complexity. He confronts his Latinidad explicitly for the first time here, probably because the music industry didn’t know what to do with a black Mexican R&B artist whose name is in Spanish. But he’s fearless about who he is on this album, singing in Spanish and lamenting his struggles growing up as an Afro-Latino. On “NWA,” he smooth talks us with heart-fluttering West Coast rap tigueraje, telling us that his girl will be “walking with a gangsta lean” because “she did it till she ODed” (damn). Backed by a hypnotic, lazy guitar groove, G-funk legend Kurupt whispers, “I can make her pay for that.” Miguel also manages to sneak in some silky Spanish murmurs about how he’s a “puro Angeleno.”

“what’s normal anyway” threatens to be an empty teenage diatribe about being misunderstood, but Miguel’s earnest crooning and emotive guitar strokes prove otherwise. He opens the song with a heart-wrenching, soft-spoken admission: “Too proper for the black kids/too black for the Mexicans.” It’s all raw emotion, his voice almost breaking as he reflects on navigating multiple spaces and identities, as melancholy, ethereal synths comfort him.

On the brief but powerful interlude “destinado a morir,” Miguel sings in Spanish again, contemplating a troubled romance over a soundtrack of slow, lurching drum kicks and uneasy synths: “I’ve got a gun called love/let’s have some fun…destinado a morir, baby…déjame amarte.” Miguel masterfully shifts between fuzzy murmurs and defiant howls; he’s an expert in tugging at the heartstrings. His voice is a weapon he deploys with ease and precision throughout the whole record.

Critics have sometimes questioned Miguel’s seemingly inconsistent image, unsure of his ability to reconcile his sultry sex appeal with his singer-songwriter sensitivity. But what they fail to see is that these two selves are not so contradictory after all. We’re taught to think that sexuality is tantamount to the trivial, that it’s purely superficial desire. This kind of thinking informs many critics’ opinions of R&B, often leading them to dismiss the work of influential 90s singers whose work deals with sexual desire. But these types of racialized presumptions neglect the power that the erotic has to help us find ourselves, and it’s something that Miguel isn’t afraid to embrace. In a 1978 essay, poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, “the erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Lorde perfectly illustrates how Miguel uses the erotic through his process of self-discovery. By harnessing the power of his sexuality, Miguel finds a place between pure sensuality and thoughtful introspection that captures the fullness of his who he is.

We hear this journey of erotic self-discovery on tracks like “Flesh” and “Coffee (Fucking).” “Flesh” is a psychedelic ode to carnal pleasure, drenched in hazy guitar distortion and breathy background vocals. Miguel’s voice shines on this track once again—his piercing falsetto inevitably evocative of Prince. He wails with alluring confidence: “I mean it, I’m a mess now/I’m a slave to your flesh/Woman put me right where I belong.” Miguel’s poetic songwriting and knack for lush melodies are effervescent on the cinematic lead single “Coffee,” a song carried by dramatic strumming and twinkling synths. He croons about the tender moments we share as we fall in love: “peach color, moon glistens, the plot thickens/as we laugh over shotguns and tongue kisses.” His sex tracks aren’t just about sex. They’re deeply personal, intimate glimpses of how love and lust transform the way we see ourselves. Miguel finds himself through the erotic; it allows him to better understand who he is. His sex appeal isn’t incompatible with his sensitivity, it actually guides it. He’s versatile, able to pair sex jams with sentimental anthems like “leaves,” a bittersweet ballad about his unforgiving home state. As Lorde suggests, “when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves…then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense.”

On Wildheart, Miguel lets the power of his sexuality lead him in his quest to feel more complete, and, in doing so, successfully cements a space for himself in 2015’s crowded R&B landscape.