Last year concluded grandly with D’Angelo’s long-awaited Black Messiah, an album dropped without warning, in seeming defiance of the sacred traditions of year-end list-making. A stunning collection of majestically constructed prog-soul, its fusion of live instrumentation, multi-tracked vocals, and baroque, religiously tinged songwriting felt both loosely improvisational and impossibly dense, setting a high bar for this year’s crop of highbrow slow jams. Six months later, it’s easy to make comparisons between D’Angelo and Miguel, a fellow falsetto-inclined crooner also releasing an anticipated third album, sharing a similarly expansive, organically focused aesthetic and a cerebral approach to sexual politics. Wildheart initially seems to suffer from this association, its uninhibited portrayal of emotional confusion at first sounding sloppy and unfocused. But cast in an opposite light, as an album whose fractured unruliness stands in contrast to D’Angelo’s archly structured balladry, it takes on a different significance altogether.
Another flawed point of comparison would be Miguel’s breakthrough Kaleidoscope Dream, a relatively restrained work of investigational R&B that remained buttoned-down and sleek even as it strained against the genre’s limits. Here, the opposite occurs. Emboldened by some miraculous mixture of fearlessness and self-doubt, Miguel collapses the idea of the soul singer as preacher, issuing extravagant edicts passed down from some remote higher power. Instead, each song presents a variety of conflicting emotions under the guise of a single prevailing pose, cycling through a litany of takes on the standard love song: He’s a tortured beach bum on “Waves,” a handwringing would-be gangsta (complete with Kurupt co-sign) on “NWA,” a starry-eyed but apprehensive seeker on “Hollywood Dreams.” As with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, another work whose laser-focused assuredness counterpoises the ambivalence on display here, Wildheart stands out as a collection of songs about the significance of roots, using an assortment of West Coast imagery to communicate the splintered state of the artistic psyche Miguel presents.
This is all exemplified by the chilly nastiness of standout “The Valley,” which more than any other song here operates off a Prince-style blend of love, lust, and squalor, soiling the sacred while elevating the profane. Yet for all his perversions and power complexes, Prince was never so interested in humiliation or debasement. In addition to boasting the album’s best production, the track is Miguel’s most extreme example of outré iconoclasm, a coarse anti-ballad that reduces a sexual partner to a dehumanized roster of body parts, while fixating on violence to an unsettling degree. He opens by labeling himself “your pimp, pope, and pastor,” continuing running themes of ritualistic seduction and symbolic domination, then expressing the desire to “force my fingers in your mouth” and “fuck you like I hate you.” Combined with the titular reference to the San Fernando porn industry, the song both presents a noxious, limiting caricature of sexual authority and fully captures the spirit of the album, which is as often disgusted as it is enthralled by the demands, concessions, and limitations of love.
The opposite side of the equation appears on follow-up “Coffee,” which immediately reverses the bumptious “push and shove and paint your hills and valleys” refrain of “The Valley” to a softer imprecation: “I wish I could paint our love/These moments and violet hues.” Violence is reduced from a core element to a distant memory, as the track costs gently along a soothing continuum from gunplay to pillow talk to “sweet dreams and coffee in the morning.” This dramatic one-two punch goes a long way toward pinning down the album’s prevailing Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic, its intermingling of grotesquely conveyed licentiousness and chaste puppy-dog love.
Most R&B albums pursue a carefully structured platform of amorous fantasy, the bewildering minefield of sex coded into something smooth, safe, and sacrosanct. Wildheart does the opposite, communicating the realities of an ever-more-fractured sexual landscape by dancing between extremes of light and dark, the invocation of a mythical California—a land defined here both by seedy vice and gorgeous ocean sunsets—furthering this premise. This chameleonic approach finds Miguel trying on a variety of masks, all of them potential refractions of a single complex personality. And all this on an album defined by kitschy, bombastic flourishes, which closes out with a cheese-laden, but completely earned, Lenny Kravitz solo.
At the heart of all this confusion lies “What’s Normal Anyway,” with its marginalized narrator elaborating on his outsider status. It’s a sentiment that goes a long way toward explaining the album’s obsession with balance-sheet equivalencies, the trading of money for sex and the struggle between degradation and power, part of a continuing effort to find an elusive equilibrium. D’Angelo may have struck a new gold standard for intellectual R&B, and even recorded a more traditionally cohesive and satisfying album, but Miguel’s cocktail of furious angst, pained perplexity, and damaged tenderness is just as relevant, acknowledging the complicated realities of modern sexuality while pushing to expand its horizons.