- SPIN Rating:9 of 10
During the run-up to his second full-length, R&B polymath Miguel pre-released many of its songs piecemeal, through both his free online EP series Art Dealer Chic, and his label's pair of "official" three-song teasers (subtitled The Water Series and The Air Series). But even with those sneak peeks, the full Kaleidoscope Dream is startling and invigorating, a fully formed statement from an artist hungrily surging toward the front of pop music's creative pack.
"Adorn," the erotically charged opening track, first single, and (yes!) radio hit, kicks us off, flaunting a sizable debt to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." Yet its details — like the off-kilter vocal echoes and buried-in-the-mix synth bursts — ground it firmly in the present day. And Miguel's vocal bravado certainly enhances the song's seductive properties: He lets loose on the coda, bursting out with a delighted ululation that's either an all-in attempt to seal the deal with his desired, or an expression of delight that said consent has already been given. Or both.
Much of Kaleidoscope Dream sounds, as the title might suggest, fractal. Reverb abounds, and Miguel is more than ready to fuck with popular music's current structures — how a song should travel its three-and-a-half-minute path, whether or not he should stay in his genre-appointed lane. (His funked-out 2011 cover of Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me" was a hint that he was ready to travel even further down the unbeaten path suggested by early hits like the loping "All I Want Is You" and the woozy "Quickie.") But this album is no loose collection of semi-formed songs and bad-trip memories — Miguel has impeccable songwriting chops and a deceptively supple voice, not to mention total command of both.
And so the stormily minimalist "Don't Look Back" has booming drums and an inherent by-the-throat urgency that dissolves into Miguel's cough-syrup take on the Zombies' "Time of the Season" (an adventurous rock-radio programmer would do well to slot it between, say, tracks from AWOLNATION and fun., since it possesses the bombast of the former and vocal-gymnastic prowess of the latter). "The Thrill," arriving at the album's midway point, sounds almost elegiac, with Miguel singing of "the thrill I feel" and "my heartbeat race" backed by a moody choir; the slow tempo and dark-side-of-#YOLO imagery combine with those layered vocals to stoke a potent, almost gut-punching awe at the idea of living at all. The sun-drenched "Do You" flips from a sweet-natured, getting-to-know-you-and-your-pharmaceuticals questionnaire ("Do you like drugs? / Do you like hugs?") to a come-on in its final line ("I wanna do you like drugs tonight"), although its rolling bassline and submerged army of falsettos make the closing proposition seem inevitable.
Kaleidoscope Dream is fairly drenched in sex: Tongues and lips and skin dot the album's landscape, and the sonic haze can come off like steam heat. "Adorn" has proven to be such a turn-on that every MC in need of some extra Twitter buzz has hopped on the beat with his own boasts of sexual potency. (Thanks, but no thanks, Ma$e.) "Use Me," meanwhile, is a song-as-romance-textbook, with Miguel outlining how, exactly, a partner might toy with him. And then there's "Pussy Is Mine," which in the hands of a lesser Don Juan could sound more than a bit off-putting to any woman worth their copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves; somehow, though, he makes the prospect of a night involving sexual colonization sound downright appealing.
R&B is at a commercially uncertain time; recently in the Village Voice, Chris Molanphy detailed the problems that genre stars have had crossing over to pop radio in recent years. To help hedge this bet, some go the synergistic route: Ne-Yo hit pop pay dirt by teaming up with Afrojack and Pitbull on the sinuous "Give Me Everything"; Usher previewed his album with the sinewy, Diplo-produced (and R&B chart-topping) "Climax," but his collaborations with Max Martin and EDM party-starter David Guetta proved more effective at keeping him on Top 40 playlists.
While Miguel has lent hooks to the likes of Wale and Nas, Kaleidoscope Dream bucks that trend, arriving as a surprisingly singular statement free of gratuitous features: He even ably handles the rap verse on the swaggering "How Many Drinks." The only true guest spot here is a backing vocal from Alicia Keys, who appears on the loose-limbed "Where's the Fun in Forever"; and while it's the most thoroughly retro song by far, with a call-and-response chorus that recalls the likes of her own "No One," Miguel is unfazed by his guest's powerful aura. He concentrates instead on providing a huge boost to his own rising star.