Miguel has released two free EPs this year, Art Dealer Chic: Volumes 1 and 2, following his 2010 debut, All I Want Is You. All I Want Is You showed Miguel’s versatility, if not his ability to write big hits. On “To the Moon”, with its steady pulse and rising synths, and “Hero”, with its faux ‘80s guitar and keyboards, Miguel effectively approximated the Dream’s solo work. In contrast, the title track (in collaboration with the rapper J. Cole) was more of a minimal soul creep, with funky drumming and light guitar accents. Miguel sang “Girls Like You”, a sighing ballad of loneliness, and pulled in a muted horn behind the seductive “Vixen”. As a singer, Miguel has a solid pop and R&B voice, polished, honest, and capable of hitting smooth highs. His album matched his voice, smooth and effective, though not always exciting. Free EPs can sometimes be an opportunity for an artist to showcase more experimental work – the three free albums released last year by the Weeknd were unusual relative to a good chunk of r&b in 2011. While Art Dealer Chic Vol. 1 seems more like an extension of All I Want Is You, Miguel shows a newly developing side of his work on Vol. 2.
Each of the two Art Dealer Chic EPs is only three tracks; the three on Vol. 1 don’t break any new ground for Miguel. The EP starts with “Adorn”, in which Miguel pleads, “Just let my love adorn you.” This is not a particularly convincing or invigorating statement – who says that? “That I Do” sounds cluttered and overeager, but the third track, “Gravity”, shows drive and purpose. Fitting its title, “Gravity” rides the one of the biggest rhythms Miguel has worked with – fat and simple with a wicked downbeat. Most of the other instrumentation stays low to the ground, giving ample room for the drums and vocals. Miguel fills this room by multi-tracking his voice to serve as his chorus and engaging in some vocal pyrotechnics with wordless “la-di-da-da-das”, high and pretty, that flutter above the primary vocal line.
Art Dealer Chic Vol. 2 is another story altogether. It takes elements from Miguel’s previous work and makes them starker and more affecting. Like Drake or the Weeknd, Miguel is more effective when looking at his darker impulses. The guitar sound from an earlier song like “Hero” is pumped up for “Arch N Point”. It’s now meaner and more ominous, playing punishing short sequences as the bass pounds the same note. The come-ons are slathered on thick right from the beginning – “Black leather skirt and a leopard print shirt, whoa ooh / We can skip dinner and head straight for desert, whoa ooh” – there is little time wasted on seduction. During the chorus, Miguel sings, “See I don’t suppose / That every good girl knows, nooo / All every bad girl knows / Baby, arch your back, point your toes”. (This is sort of reminiscent of the Dream’s “Fast Car”, in which the Dream sings, “I need a bad girl, and you’re just too good for me”). In conjunction with the heavy riffs, the command to “Arch your back, point your toes” is threatening, but Miguel’s voice is pure sex. “Arch N Point” opens up into “... All”, which begins with the hedonistic statement, “I just wanna have fun / Have fun and make money.” The percussion hits flat and empty with the classic ‘80s r&b sound, and Miguel sings with a more anguish and urgency on this song than he has before, a little less polished and a little more anxious as he tries to rationalize his own desires: after all, “Fuck it, everybody’s selfish.” Like “Adorn,” the instrumentation on “... All” stays low to the ground in a whirling throb of submerged keyboards and bass, which is a good platform for Miguel’s voice, leaving him the dominant force in the higher registers. The EP ends with “Broads”, a piece of piano-driven pop that is appealingly simple. Miguel pitches the instruments one way and his story another; the piano is sunny, but Miguel is singing “It’d be easier to get past / If this bitch wasn’t so bad / Now I’m caught up in a lost cause / Fuckin’ broads.” The lyrics consist mainly of those four lines and repetition of “Fuckin’ broads.” It’s hopeless, easy to commiserate with (if you happen to struggle with broads), and a whole lot of fun.
Miguel has talent, but he didn’t set himself apart on All I Want Is You or the first Art Dealer Chic EP. There will be a third volume in the Art Dealer Chic series: hopefully it’ll follow in the footsteps of Vol. 2, relying less on clichés like “Hust let my love adorn you” and more on the lust of “Arch N Point” or the selfishness of “... All.” An honest sounding voice isn’t as interesting if it’s not being honest.
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// Notes from the Road
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