Release Date: May 28, 2012
The singles from Miguel’s 2010 debut, All I Want Is You — the boom-bap&B title track featuring J. Cole, the gentlemanly, syrup-drunk groove of “Sure Thing,” and “Quickie,” a reggae-tinged celebration of immediate satisfaction that dares to take its time — marked the Los Angeles singer as a newbie with potential staying power. This year, by dropping a trio of free three-song EPs over the course of three months, he has joined an illustrious, rarefied crop of holdouts: You know, those guys (and girls!) who’ve decided to step back and follow their various muses into an insular world of atmospheric slow jams until EDM blows over. Think Drake and Trey Songz, embellishing their emotions with blobs of synths. Think Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, defined as much by the patience and restraint inherent in their idiosyncratic personalities as by their hipster-bait signifiers. Think Beyoncé on her subtle 2011 standout 4, which glides along like an all-hits-no-bullshit quiet storm LP from 25 years ago.
The Art Dealer Chic project is fueled by that same think-inside-the-box risk-taking. Traditionalist in its nods to the past, and polite in its avoidance of trends — no loud pulsing beats, no guest rappers, not one reference to “haters” — the results sound like pop radio if it could fully absorb the lo-fi tricks of “PBR&B” and the coolest contents of Drizzy’s RSS feed. It’s appropriate that the series’ title references art dealers rather than artists, because Miguel is assuming the role of savvy curator.
By combining the EPs, Art Dealer Chic becomes a nine-song, 30-minute statement of purpose — a brisk, confident, futuristic jog through decades of soul and R&B. On “Adorn,” Miguel beautifully harmonizes with himself, recalling ’60s Motown. The lived-in cynicism of Marvin Gaye and other ’70s soulsters is unmistakably present as “Candles in the Sun, Blowin’ in the Wind” paraphrases William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got.” Prince’s ’80s punk-funk menace throbs through “Party Life.” Strange R&B mutations — including such forgotten anomalies as Daniel Bedingfield’s blue-eyed two-step shuffle (“…ALL”) or Jon B’s unabashed woo (“Gravity”) — are invoked as well.
This isn’t pastiche, though. Art Dealer Chic exists in a swirl of influence so confidently projected that it’s tough to truly identify the actual sources. Is “Arch N Point” Miguel doing the Weeknd doing The-Dream doing Prince, or is he going straight to the Purple One himself? On “…ALL,” he confesses, “I just want to have fun / Have fun and make money,” and it’s tough to tell whether this is his idyllic pop-music vision of decadence, or just genuine douchebaggery. Likewise for “Broads,” a misogynist misreading of Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” made charming by its goofy concept: The song has been left unfinished, and Miguel, with the enthusiasm of a chipper Disney World tour guide, encourages networking rappers to complete it by adding a verse or two.
On “…ALL,” he also seductively sings, “Let me put you on that art shit / You know, smart shit,” which is as gauche as Kanye West boasting about his high “taste level” on the recent G.O.O.D. Music single “Mercy.” Art as merely one more chunk of cultural capital to impress chicks, right? But then Miguel pledges to “help you bring your mind to a better place,” like he totally believes in the restorative power of refined creative expression. By half-hour’s end, he’s sampling John Lennon, matching the rock legend’s hipster-hippy cynicism with searching sincerity, referring to God as “she,” and calling out corrupt corporations and politicians.
With the Art Dealer Chic EPs, Miguel sneaks out of his role as a promising traditionalist R&B singer — a dude with a good ear for beats and a virtuoso voice — by exploring the genre’s traditions on a deeper level. He’s a buzzing minor player on the charts who possesses major artistic potential, supported by canny, avant-garde production and the wild freedom of the Internet. Now just might be his time.