Miguel's War & Leisure fights for positivity in a chaotic world

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The fourth album from Miguel Pimentel, the 32-year-old soul singer who records under just his first name, stands out for plenty of reasons, from its heady blend of funk and R&B to his luscious croon. But War & Leisure, out today, also has one of the most eye-catching and evocative titles of the year. “It’s the best way to describe the time,” he says. “Culturally, it’s the most fitting title to describe the energy. On so many levels I feel like we’re having to really push through and fight for positivity.”

In the time since Miguel released his last album, 2015’s Grammy-nominated Wildheart, the news has become a steady stream of alarming push notifications, fraught politics, and chaotic current events. This year, musicians from Father John Misty to Kendrick Lamar mirrored the malaise with dense, troubled albums about the state of affairs. War & Leisure is Miguel’s most overtly political work to date, but he takes a groovier approach than some of his peers.

“The biggest thing I was setting out to do was to create something that felt upbeat,” he explains. “I feel like every morning I’m waking up to some new bulls— that we’re facing: some Twitter beef between world powers or some social injustice that’s not being answered or rectified. I want my music to be a place for my audience to go and be able to feel good.”

War & Leisure certainly will be, thanks to Miguel’s brand of sensual, Prince-inspired jams that have already found fans in stars like Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé. “Caramelo Duro” swaggers with a Latin rock groove, while the spacey opener, “Criminal,” features Rick Ross and production work from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kelis). (Miguel compares Sitek to a “big brother shaman.”) But the album’s radiant vibes and bright melodies aren’t about blind escapism. “Songs like ‘Sky Walker’ are important,” Miguel says, referring to another sun-washed R&B highlight, which gets an assist from Travis Scott. “It’s about feeling good and staying positive, but it’s also not doing it mindlessly.”

As a result, War & Leisure doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the troubles from which Miguel is seeking relief. “Banana Clip” ominously references a “war on love” and “Korean missiles in the sky.” On “Come Through and Chill,” J. Cole delivers an urgent verse that addresses Colin Kaepernick and police brutality. And staggering closer “Now” calls for solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico; Houston; Flint, Mich.; and Standing Rock. “CEO of the free world,” Miguel asks on the song, “should we teach our children hate?”

Though Miguel began working on the song a year and a half ago, he struggled to complete it until earlier this year. “It kind of haunted me,” he says. “As the album started to round out, I could feel something in me still being drawn to the song. There were important questions to ask. There’s a lot of people who were asking a lot of the same questions.”

In recent years Miguel has become more outspoken, addressing the Black Lives Matter movement with the 2016 tune “How Many” and appearing at an immigration-policy protest at a Southern California detention center in October. But Miguel would rather encourage listeners to ask their own questions and examine their own roles in the issues. “I don’t consider myself a political artist,” he says. “I’m just trying to be as mindful as I possibly can be. I don’t have the answers — but I know that I have something I can contribute.”

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