In 2017 America, there seems to exist very few moments of pure happiness. You could have just aced the exam that had a 56 percent class average, landed your dream job, gotten asked out by that guy / girl you always thought was out of your league and be surrounded by a litter of golden retriever puppies and still be weighed on by a headline you read that morning.
LA-based R&B artist Miguel is painfully aware of this tainted happiness on his new album War & Leisure. While the artist’s past discography relies primarily on eroticism, Miguel adds a new social dimension on his latest release, painting sexual experiences with political metaphors and evoking the stark juxtaposition suggested by the album’s title.
Rick Ross collaboration “Criminal” starts off the album with a refrain that exemplifies this duality: “It’s so good it feels criminal.” Similarly, promotional single “Told You So” straightforwardly preaches “every pleasure you taste has its price, babe.” While not particularly profound, both lines set a clear precedent for the “nothing good comes without something bad” message that is splattered across the entire album.
With this in mind, the album’s lyrics take a turn toward social commentary, implicitly and explicitly referencing a number of headline-worthy names and issues. Among the most referenced are controversial figures President Donald Trump and professional football player Colin Kaepernick. On “Come Through and Chill,” collaborator J. Cole finds a way to mention both in a single flow — “Know you’ve been on my mind like Kaepernick kneelin’ / Or police killings, or Trump sayin’ slick shit” — while comparing the preoccupation with these current events to the sexually entrancing quality of a woman.
A number of other social references, particularly references to war, are made in erotic contexts. In “Banana Clip,” Miguel blatantly refers to a boner as a machine gun clip and later proclaims “I put the D in defender / You know I never surrender.” In “Anointed,” he sings “your body’s ready for war and my body’s built to endure.” Alluding to war in describing such sexual scenes further underlines how anxiety prompted by current events has come to pollute life’s good moments.
The album’s grave aura lets up on “Pineapple Skies” — a synth, autotune experience with a refrain that somewhat convincingly proclaims “promise everything’s gonna be alright” — immediately followed by “Sky Walker,” a Travis Scott collaboration and the album’s lead single. The latter feels out of place on the album, shirking political drive in favor of what seems like a playful competition for most clever flow. No matter the best line (it has to be either Miguel’s “I’m Luke Skywalkin’ on these haters’’ or Scott’s “In my 23s, havin’ a Jordan moment” in my opinion), the song feels forced onto the album for radioplay purposes and strays from the album’s otherwise succinct concept.
Album closer, “Now,” is unique, given it’s the only song on the album that focuses directly on social issues rather than contributing social commentary masked by sexual metaphor. Lyrics “Is that the look of freedom, now? / Is that the sound of freedom, now?” raise the question that we’ve all asked ourselves: Can we really call today’s America the “free world”? Miguel goes further to assert “‘Cause it’s plain to see a man’s integrity by the way he treats those he does not need,” perhaps referencing President Donald Trump’s less than merciful actions toward minorities, or otherwise drawing focus on the general population growing selfish sentiment.
This track, and therefore the album, concludes with “We are the look of freedom / We are the sound of freedom” — a call to action to remedy the pains underlying the body of the album.
Having proven his masterful songwriting and production ability on past releases, Miguel continues to flex these talents on War & Leisure. Still, he evolves from past works by adding a new socially conscious layer without losing the sexual and emotional edge that launched his career. Miguel gives us a new interpretation of the current tumultuous social climate. While this interpretation may seem dire, he also reassures us that we have the power to love and change the world for the better.