These are hardly trying times for the male R&B singer, for whom making a hit album is practically croon-by-numbers: half dance cuts for the young ladies, half sultry ballads for their moms, and always remember to fly in a few tough-looking rappers to guest on your singles (your way of saying "no homo" to your male fans). Follow this formula and your ride up the charts can be as smooth as your sex panic-inducing falsetto. But newcomer Miguel Jontel Pimentel—that's just Miguel to you—insists on making things difficult for himself. When being terse, he calls his music "eclec-tric"; when not, he describes it as "fly, funkadelic, intergalactic hip-hop meets sexy, orgasmic, crazy dope shit." And though he's touring with lady killers Usher and Trey Songz, Miguel says he dreams of sharing the stage with the likes of Gnarls Barkley, OutKast, and D'Angelo.
I'd say he has a shot at it. All I Want Is You blends slick, radio-friendly R&B with Prince-aping theatrics, both refracted around a sense of humor that, surreal and sexually unsubtle, would have to make His Royal Badness proud. The short mood pieces that break up the album's actual songs aren't interludes, they're "Enter.Lewds." And when Miguel wants to seduce a girl, it's not just about getting her naked. He'd rather get her into his spaceship, zip her "To the Moon" and back...and then get her naked.
The album leads with a pair of knockout singles, the chopped-and-screwed "Sure Thing," which has Miguel ticking off quirky devotionals ("If I'm the blunt, you could be the lighter, babe/Fire it up!"), and his Salaam Remi-produced, J. Cole-featuring breakthrough "All I Want Is You." He follows up with a giddy club cut called "Pay Me" and "Quickie," a reggae-tinged ode to NSA-sex, proving that noirish brooding isn't all that he's good for. The second half of All I Want Is You is less stimulating, but it's worth sticking around for its two highlights, on which Miguel demonstrates that the Telecaster he's been known to sling around on stage isn't just a prop. "Teach Me" is a slow-building slice of Prince-worshiping funk, all layered falsetto and snarling electric guitar, while the second half of "Hero" suggests that when Miguel named Queen as an influence, he meant Brian May as much as Freddie Mercury.
It's easy to imagine an oddity like "Hero" being released as a single, then blowing up on R&B radio just like "All I Want Is You" and "Sure Thing" before it. Miguel is not a whirlwind of eccentric innovation like Janelle Monáe, but it's still easier to imagine him as an extra in her space-funk saga than as a super-star Lothario a la Mr. Raymond or Mr. Songz. Actually, the artist that Miguel most reminds me of is Kelis, whose work has an undeniably commercial cunning to it, but who never fails to imbue her pop confections with real personality. For whatever reason, those qualities seem to mingle more freely among performers like Miguel, Ne-Yo, and Lady Gaga, all of whom began their career as in-house songwriters before making their own run at the spotlight. The latter two have spent the least few years pushing Top 40 radio to smarter, stranger places, and with All I Want Is You, their insurgency grows a little bit stronger.