Recently, when singer-songwriter-producer Miguel performed on Saturday Night Live, Mariah Carey sent an ebullient tweet: “slam dunk. R&B is alive!” That statement is not as simple as it might sound. The survival of the black pop tradition isn’t just a matter of preserving its history — although Miguel does that too: the soul seducer’s Grammy-winning hit single “Adorn” ingeniously evokes Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and “Let’s Get It On.” What has nourished that tradition over the past 70 years, though — what has kept it not just alive but thriving — is what makes Miguel’s recent music so special: constant innovation, formal daring, unexpected sources of inspiration, and emotional directness. His audacious, hazy album Kaleidoscope Dream aims for the psychedelic as much as the erotic. (The hook that goes “Do you like drugs?” isn’t just a question; it’s a come-on.)
He often gets compared to ’80s-era Prince, which is another way of saying that he’s tricky to pin down. “I want to change the sound of what’s expected from R&B songs,” Miguel announced when Kaleidoscope Dream came out last year. So far, he is succeeding.
Wolk is TIME‘s music critic
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