Covers: Miguel (ft. Wale) – “Bennie and the Jets”

Grant Tillery

R&B in the ‘10s is built on copycatting.  It’s a poor attempt at recreating the bone-chilling minimalism of smooth ‘80s hits like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Prince’s “Pink Cashmere.”  Yet, the average millenial seems disquietingly contented listening to the insipid sounds of crude imitators such as Drake who construct a façade of sensitivity and vulnerability to appeal to the pathos of female listeners and the males who want to get in their pants.  Don’t get me started on the Weeknd, whose emotional emptiness not only speaks volumes about the inescapable emptiness of modern casual relations, but the emptiness that prohibits R&B from moving forward.   No longer is it the genuine bump ‘n’ grind love fest it once was, and there are few singers willing and able to bear the torch that Levi Stubbs and R. Kelly proudly carried.

Miguel is one such singer who knows how to pay homage to his predecessors, yet takes R&B into the future.  With a sonic palette suspiciously similar to Drake’s, he doesn’t seem the likely visionary, and certainly there are more famous hacks that could claim the title of R&B king by popular opinion alone.  It’s what Miguel does with these sounds that set him apart from his peers.  He combines the ethereally smooth chord structures of 1974 (as opposed to Drake’s two-chord pop tendencies) with the trendy minimalist beats of today.  Drum machines and synthesized orchestration barely punctuate his backgrounds, which tend toward silence or controlled cacophony.

Who else would have the chutzpah to cover Elton John’s flamboyantly rousing #1 hit “Bennie and the Jets?”  The cover dropped Friday as a sneak preview to the 40th anniversary reissue of John’s album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”  A bonus CD will feature modern musicians covering each of the album’s song , including Miguel’s cover with rapper Wale.  It begins with a bubbly auto-tuned vocal riff that quickly jumps into the beloved hook, a fuzzy take on the original with garbled, distorted vocals in the background.  Miguel’s vocals are more articulated than John’s languorous howling, yet still maintain a lush, laid-back nonchalance.  Wale jumps in after the second go-round, delivering a Shaggy-esque verse where he employs a forced, yet not overdone faux-Caribbean warble.  Miguel finishes the song off with the time honored R&B tradition of testifying – talk singing and embellishing the melody.  He plays it safe with the notes, yet takes creative liberties with pitch.

This is why Miguel is the only R&B singer who’s able to change the shape of things to come.  He’s memorized the blueprint for a catchy R&B song and knows a thing or two about delivering a hit pop song.  He knows that every other songsmith can do that as well, so he breaks and bends the rules by creating complex chord structures, utilizing intelligent wordplay (listen to his song “Do You…”), or covering songs outside soul territory.  “Bennie and the Jets” hits on the latter, and there’s no artist better cut out to pay homage to it than Miguel, whose mastermind production brings out the best of John’s campy elegance.  This isn’t empty R&B, another ‘80’s clone destined to obscurity after several years of near-constant play; it’s smooth, it’s got feeling and it takes a cue from outside the genre to keep the music fresh, inventive, and futuristic.