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The Weeknd or Miguel: Who's the king of progressive, psychosexual R&B?

Miguel and the Weeknd last performed in Tampa in 2013. I was at both shows, and both men blew me away. Even months afterward, I couldn't tell you who was better.

So I started asking others: Who's your druggy, psychosexual R&B dynamo of choice? Are you Team Miguel or Team Weeknd? Team Weeknd or Team Miguel? I once put the question to R&B singer Jessie Ware. "Oh, that's so mean!" she said, pained by the prospect of picking.

She's right: It shouldn't be an either-or thing. There's plenty of room in our collective boudoirs for both (to say nothing of Frank Ocean, Trey Songz or Jeremih).

This summer, however, Miguel and the Weeknd both dropped sizzling new albums — Wildheart and Beauty Behind the Madness, respectively — and so the question has once again reared its grunting, glistening head in tantric ecstasy: Who really is progressive R&B's top dog?

Are we as a nation Team Miguel or Team Weeknd?

•••

In the beginning, Miguel Pimental was a lot like his slow-jamming peers: sleek, swaggy, sultry, et cetera. Then came 2012's Kaleidoscope Dream, a hallucinogenic haze of illicit, obsessive desires that kick-started comparisons to Prince. For Miguel, that constituted a license to fly his freak flag even higher.

"Too immoral for the Christians, too moral for the cutthroat, too far out for the in crowd," he bemoans on What's Normal Anyway? If that doesn't exactly sound like pillow talk, welcome to Wildheart, an LP that insists you make love the Miguel way: dark, distorted demons and all.

The fuzzy pulse of A Beautiful Exit throbs like a hungover mind, with Miguel groaning, "We're gonna die young, we're gonna die young." Deal flirts for a few minutes with funky old-school hip-hop until the final 30 seconds, when it pumps the brakes and drifts into a dopamine coma that persists on the pornographically graphic The Valley: "I'm your pimp, I'm your pope, I'm your pastor, babe / Confess your sins to me while you masturbate." That's some messed-up, Reznor-level darkness, right there.

Wildheart's few heartening moments — the clicking, clattering disco of Waves, the California-sunset strumming and tambourine rattles of Leaves — are fleeting, always followed by something much more off-putting. And, curiously for a budding R&B icon, Miguel's voice — which floats, in its finest moments, between a gritty moan and a pained falsetto — tends to take a backseat to Wildheart's production. His showy crooning on Flesh ("I'm a slave to your flesh") sinks into a swirl of warped funhouse weirdness; his spiraling wail on Face the Sun clashes with guest Lenny Kravitz's frenzied shredding.

The one track that strikes the right balance is Coffee, an epic plunge into how flirty connections over "street art and sarcasm, crass humor and high fashion" can lead to "tongue kisses, bubble bath, Truth or Dare and Would You Rather." He lays the whole night out: "Wordplay turns into gunplay / Gunplay turns into pillow talk / Pillow talk turns into sweet dreams / Sweet dreams turn into coffee in the morning."

Coffee is lush and real and hopeful, a true sip of sweetness on an album that's otherwise too abrasive, too challenging, for a candlelit dinner date. Then again, if you're feeling sinister enough to put on Wildheart, candlelit dinners might be the farthest thing from your mind.

•••

As Miguel descends deeper into his own shadow, the Weeknd is pulling back velvet ropes left and right, inviting the world into his warped sense of sensuality.

The Canadian singer born Abel Tesfaye once possessed a compelling air of anonymity, his stormy mixtapes conjuring tableaus of narcotics and bondage and Caligula-like excess. Then he started giving interviews, singing on TV with Ariana Grande and releasing massive hits like the vampy waltz Earned It and roller-rink summer jam Can't Feel My Face. Now he's one of the most popular stars in music; in December he'll headline Tampa's Amalie Arena.

Beauty Behind the Madness is an ambitious, polished album; its sprawling list of collaborators includes Swedish pop svengali Max Martin on three songs, and Ed Sheeran on the torchy blues duet Dark Times. "I'm just trying to live life for the moment," Tesfaye sings on summer hit The Hills. If that means adding strings and major chords to Real Life, or shivering Iberian guitars to Shameless, so be it.

At its glossiest, the album highlights comparisons to Michael Jackson that Tesfaye has worn with pride throughout his brief career. Exhibits A through D: The swinging, snapping Can't Feel My Face and In the Night; As You Are, a glassy dose of nocturnal Miami Vice cool; and epic closing ballad Angel.

But there remains plenty of darkness throughout Beauty — an obsession with drugs and dispassionate sex, for example, and a discomfort with fame that hasn't entirely dissipated. On Tell Your Friends, a lengthy, dreamy slow jam co-written by Kanye West, he gets prickly about his new public image: "Don't believe the rumors, b----, I'm still a user," he sings defensively, insisting he's "still rocking camo" and "singing about popping pills." And while celebrity has its perks, including his choice of cars and women, it also has drawbacks: "My cousin said I made it big and it's unusual / She tried to take a selfie at my Grandma's funeral," he sings.

Tesfaye reflexively addresses critics on The Hills, acknowledging some will "want a relapse" to the days when he still behaved like an uncracked cipher. But the truth is, several Beauty tracks sound like classic Weeknd: the Gothic Hills certainly, plus sparse, sexually charged tracks like Often, Acquainted and Prisoner, a dramatic duet with Lana Del Rey.

As he sings on The Hills: "When I'm f---ed up, that's the real me." There's still a lot of the real Weeknd on Beauty Behind the Madness. Like his previous albums, it's not for everyone. But it's clearly intended for more.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Ranking the contenders

1. The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness: It's still dark and stormy, but bigger, more ambitious singles make this his most accessible record yet.

2. Miguel, Wildheart: Aggressively challenging, its moments of pure beauty tend to get overwhelmed by its abrasive, at times grating production.

The Weeknd or Miguel: Who's the king of progressive, psychosexual R&B? 10/05/15 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2015 10:48am]
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