The term “Rhythm and Blues” (R&B) was coined by music journalist Jerry Wexler in 1948 to replace the moniker “race music.” Within its shade, R&B encompassed everything from boogie-woogie grooves to long, soulful vocal sweeps. Often, it served as blanket terminology for the music of the black community.
Today, R&B can stand for any number of genres, including funk, disco and soul music. Among R&B’s popular brethren are hip-hop, rap, pop, funk-inspired pop and various other experimental forms. Since the eighth grade, I’ve loved R&B. I’m able to drown in the high gloss vocals, electronic engines, and deep synth bass currents that float along every Mario song written from 2008-2009.
But in high school, I stopped listening altogether to R&B. For a long while, I struggled to understand the purpose of the genre. R&B, hip-hop included, became purely about sex, violence and other explicit topics. Don’t get me wrong—I love explicit topics, but only when the song is written well and when it serves a purpose. This hiatus lasted until last week when I broke down and decided to purchase the album of Los Angeles native Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream.
I won’t go into great length detailing the songs and my various interpretations—there are very few in the album that share the same poetic depth of, say, a Bright Eyes song. However, I will say that Miguel chooses his words carefully.
Initially, it sounded good. Of course it sounded good. Funky, off-beat songs. The kind of songs you loop on your iPod so you can relive those treasured ten-second choruses at the height of the musical development. But then I started listening more critically to the songs and the subtle genius behind this album became apparent.
The third song is titled “Do You…” and the lyrics continue “…like drugs? Yeah, well, me too.” The seventh is titled “How Many Drinks?” which listeners can extrapolate to mean, “How many drinks would it take for you to leave with me?” Throughout the remaining tracks, Miguel lays down vocal upon vocal organized around the less-than-appealing theme of indiscriminate sex. But then, at track 10, something drastic happens. The electronic pulse stops and is replaced with an acoustic guitar and fragile voice explaining why that “P*ssy is mine”.
That’s when it hit me—Miguel portrayed the player in a totally different light. In an interview with Lauren Nostro, Miguel said that the song was about the “vulnerability” he experienced among promiscuous women. In his refrain, “I don’t want to believe that anyone is just like me,” he admits his own insecurity around women who act outside the socially-prescribed norm and pursue sex as doggedly as he does.
While listening, I can’t help but feel that in this one song, Miguel reveals the inner workings of the player’s psyche, in which sex serves as an emotional replacement for love. After hearing this song, I viewed the album in a newfound light: a contrast of lyrics that reflect the déclassé, far-too-common trashy messages of contemporary pop music with a genuine vulnerability that hearkens back to the first time you ever fell in love. All you have to do is skip to the last song of the album to discover the message Miguel was really making. “Is there a God? Is he watching? Is she watching us?” Miguel asks, and goes on to describe the world at large, tackling everything from government aid to discrimination. These aren’t the words of your average pop artist.
For once, the singer was not a persona. This wasn’t some bubblegum 26-year old repetitively asking you to call her, maybe. This wasn’t a regular array of Top-40 songs rephrasing rather uncreatively how badly they wanted to f*ck.
This album didn’t treat sex as a product. Rather, Kaleidoscope Dream focuses on a genuine love that is placed in multiple settings: the drug scene, the club scene, and lastly, the bedroom; in this album, the focus is placed on the fantasy—not the f*ck. His message takes on some infinite form—an indescribably intimate portrait of a human desperately searching for love in the bottle-popping, hypersexual atmosphere of the party scene.
That being said, “P*ssy is Mine” is not the type of song you can easily sing along to in public. I cannot support the blatant objectification of women in the album—but I recognize that it serves a greater purpose: to shock the listener. The song is stripped down of practically all production elements of production, save a voice, guitar and ambient bass. It exposes an inner struggle—one that relies on objectification for protection. Miguel, aware of this struggle, chooses to share it with the world in an almost satirical way. And the irony of it all is that the two most honest, reflective minutes of the album bears no similarity to R&B other than a smooth vocal lead. But that’s what’s so great about the album—there’s just about every genre encompassed in the 12 songs. He even ends one track with a psychedelic homage to The Zombie’s “Time of the Season”. The only defining feature is that anything Miguel sings is infused with soul, from a deeply personal and moving place.
One might even say he’s putting the meaning back into “Rhythm and Blues.”