Since the dawn of neo-soul, a funny kind of rift opened up in contemporary R&B, with Okayplayer-approved traditionalists aiming for a classic ideal of what soul meant in the ’60s and ’70s, while mainstream performers aimed for more streamlined, theatrical productions. It’s not too far from the backpackers vs. mainstream rappers kerfuffles that have erupted time and again, but with fewer hurt feelings. Over time, however, players in both camps began a game of musical chairs that found John Legend taking on R. Kelly-style slow jams and Beyoncé getting smoky cool on 4. And this is before we get into the more colorful underground experiments of The Weeknd, or the vibrant and cinematic productions of Frank Ocean.
Los Angeles’ Miguel Pimentel doesn’t fit into any of these comfortable niches easily, which is part of what makes his second album Kaleidoscope Dream so engaging on many levels. When the “Sexual Healing”-style beats and synth funk of “Adorn” light up, he immediately presents himself as an artist with great taste, though far from traditional, which is all the more ever-present when followed by the keyboard heavy flashes of “Don’t Look Back.” And when he asks, “Do you like drugs?” on the paradoxically blunt and charming “Do You…”, he comes a half-step from tapping into the morally questionable hedonism of Abel Tesfaye’s eerie jams. That he follows it up with a coy, “Me too” suggests it’s anything but.
Indeed, Kaleidoscope Dream is a pretty stellar balancing act, in which Pimentel is simultaneously the alpha loverman and nice guy, while also managing to pull off the role of avant garde visionary. To Miguel’s credit, however, he makes it look easy, and a lot of that stems from the fact that he never overdoes it. When he croons, “Let my love adorn you” on “Adorn,” he’s expressive without being overbearing, and that he expresses nervousness about making love with the lights on in “Use Me” is vulnerably revealing. And yet, there’s an abstract maximalist aspect to Miguel’s music as well, which is never more expressive than it is on the psychedelic title track, which revives a clomping bassline from Labi Siffre’s “I Got The” and layers on strings, trippy guitar echoes and a cascade of riffs reminiscent the bridge from Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23.” Perhaps this is where those drugs come in.
On Kaleidoscope Dream, for as much time as Miguel spends on courtship, it never feels as if he’s playing a role. Perhaps he’s allowing some exaggeration on the part of his sensitive artist persona, but he can hardly be faulted — chicks dig that guy. More importantly, he’s got the songs to back it up, which show off an artist who has absorbed a lot of classic sounds, but still emerges on the other side with something fresh.
Video: Miguel – “Adorn”