Usually, the record label is one of the least interesting nuggets of information on the back of an album. But in the case of Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream, the ancient stamp of RCA Records is indicative of the 43 minutes awaiting a listener. Miguel’s raspy R&B croon, his homages to past music greats, and a strong adherence to the “four minutes or less rule” for pop music would make Kaleidoscope Dream feel at home in any decade since the ’60s. But there are just enough moments in Kaleidoscope Dream that put it safely in the here and now.
Just as the RCA label seems like a throwback, Miguel’s toils in the music reflect a more traditional trajectory of music success. Instead of gaining fame via YouTube or via a high-profile cameo on a track, Miguel paid his dues as an unsigned act before signing onto Jive Records – only to have his debut album languish for promotional support while that label disintegrated. Still, even with a lack of proper ad resources, All I Want Is You found an audience and it gave him the artistic and commercial capital to make an immensely rewarding follow-up.
The opening track “Adorn” casts an unmistakeable nod to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, complete with a minimal keyboard arrangement and a heartfelt plea to “let my love adorn you.” And like a great leadoff track for an album, it seamlessly leads itself into the more futuristic “Don’t Look Back”. Accompanied by a slithering snare and subwoofer-testing bass, the track shifts from traditional R&B to sci-fi nodding hip-hop in such a fluid style that the change is barely noticeable. The major curveball Miguel throws happens toward the end of the track when the Zombies “Time of the Season” gets a 21st century reworking.
Amazingly, all of this happens within the first 10 minutes of Kaleidoscope Dream. The third track finds Miguel trying to stretch R&B’s boundaries by using an almost industrial sounding mix of guitar and percussion. If the opening track drew comparisons to Marvin Gaye, “Use Me’s” closest comparison would be Björk’s “Army of Me” And like Björk, Miguel vocals and lyrics are able to convey a warm humaneness while being surrounded by musical gadgetry.
The lyrical content of Kaleidoscope Dream could be described as confessional, but most of the tracks seem to fall under the “frankly honest” as opposed to “starkly confessional” school of writing. In the wonderfully hazy “Do You …”, Miguel promises “I’m gonna do you like drugs tonight.” The intention behind “How Many Drinks?” is pretty much summed up in its title — “How many drinks will it take you to leave with me?” It’s in these tracks that comparisons to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (another genre-bending classic in the making) will no doubt be raised. In Miguel’s case, he plays his emotional cards closer to the chest, but in tracks like “How Many Drinks?” and “Pussy Is Mine”, he isn’t afraid to bear his insecurities.
If there’s a flaw in Kaleidoscope Dream, it’s that it resembles the typical album format to a fault. The side one tracks on Kaleidoscope Dream contains some of the best songs you’ll hear anywhere in 2012. Unfortunately, with that type of artistic bar set, the second half of Kaleidoscope Dream suffers slightly from having tracks that while still solid, don’t quite reach the heights of the album’s Side A.
But even with a weaker Side B collection of songs, Kaleidoscope Dream is a thrilling listen that draws comparisons to D’Angelo’s Voodoo or Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One on first listen. It may not blindly take the artistic risks of Channel Orange, but it’s a more consistently enjoyable album than Frank Ocean’s magnum opus. Arguments of excellence aside, each album shows that in terms of mainstream music, the trailblazers of 2012 are firmly entrenched in the R&B community.