BY EVAN VOGEL
Trey Songz and R. Kelly, The-Dream and The Weeknd, Usher and Chris Brown. There are an unbelievable amount of artists whose similarities to other artists within their genre have sparked the great debate about “who is better” for as long as music has had a place in our culture. Perhaps the genre most afflicted by this phenomenon is R&B. Why? Who knows. It could be because the sheer amount of artists in this genre and its sub-genres that get airtime on pop radio. It could be because their music occupies the same headspace and covers extremely streamlined topics. Or it could be because they sound so ridiculously similar that people are upset that they have to look up a song before they can determine which person’s vocal chords are gracing their ears. I can only hope that last reason is what the least amount of people agree with.
One of the most recent of these comparison battles is between Frank Ocean and Miguel. Both are incredibly talented musicians and no human can deny them of their earned places within the music industry. Being human though, our brains must fulfill their desire to create an opinion and thus, a winner must be selected (if you are one to completely disregard any opinion but your own, feel free to stop reading here because what follows has a 50% chance of pissing you off, statistically…I actually did the math).
Now that that disclaimer is out of the way, we can get down to it. First of all, the beauty of comparing these two artists is that they are both masters of their craft and they make equally compelling music. Picking a “best” between the two is something that can and likely will be debated as long as people are allowed to formulate their own opinions and don’t live under the rule of a ruthless dictator. Basic similarities can be drawn from Frank Ocean’s and Miguel’s music simply because it can sound similar at times. Past that, we are dealing with two very different musicians.
When you think of general R&B, Miguel is a newer staple musician in that area of thought which is a testament unto itself. Frank Ocean on the other hand is not so easy to classify, yet that he retains an equally as large fan base shows that his conceptual sound is working. I’m not trying to say that Miguel hasn’t explored other territory musically because he most definitely has–and to great effect, but Frank’s music hardly ever sounds like anything else you are currently listening to. Miguel has very obvious rock influences, even featuring Lenny Kravitz on a song and he is able to make singing over electric guitar in classic R&B fashion sound flawless. In comparison to Frank, Miguel’s music just sounds more familiar, which isn’t a problem; it just isn’t nearly as interesting that way.
Miguel is more direct and Frank’s references and general songwriting style is more complex and obscure. If you look at Miguel’s song ‘Simplethings’, he is straightforward about what he wants and that thing is a woman to smoke with, laugh with and someone that’s real. If you compare that briefly to Frank’s song, ‘Thinkin Bout You’, he is more metaphorical and particular in his language when explaining the person that he wants to be with, potentially forever and yet is sarcastically denying that his love for them ever existed. Both are undeniably great songs with great singing and writing but Frank’s is much more layered and leaves more to artistic interpretation, making for what I feel is a more engaging listen. Whereas I feel like Miguel lays his easily relatable emotions all out before the listener, Frank is constantly fighting with his emotions himself and represents that battle by causing the listener to struggle with him in a sense. Nothing is as cut and dry with Frank’s music as it is with Miguel, who seems to have a better grip on the emotions he is experiencing and tells it exactly like he feels it.
Miguel creates a much more full and lively sound than Frank does. His voice is much the reason for that. Vocally, Miguel is a better singer. His ranges are sweeping and dynamic from note to note. Frank’s style is more reserved and his music generally feels much more ambient. The big voice we get from Miguel fits the directness of his lyrics but it all seems too typical of an artist of his caliber. Frank is almost as gifted vocally as Miguel but while he may lose in that specific area, he more than makes up for conceptually and what he does with the sounds he creates. His lightly keyboarded beats can often blend into his voice almost becoming one instrument altogether. With Miguel’s style, the separation of beat and vocals is much more apparent, which is how all music is produced but the fact that Frank can conceal that aspect within his music is astonishing.
Miguel has the ability to sound like Prince, Queen, Marvin Gaye and many more all on a moment’s notice. His versatility lies in what his voice is capable of. Plenty of eras of music can be picked out from within each of his songs. Frank has the uncanny ability to sound like, well — himself. As weird as that may sound, when you think about it there is literally no other artist right now who sounds like him and he doesn’t try to sound like anyone else. Miguel represents the past so well in his music while still having a modern/futuristic sound and Frank represents the unknown and maintains a unique poetically-driven take on what music can be.
Frank challenges not only himself, but he pushes the boundaries of R&B so much further. He explores new territories rather than simply doing the best he can within the current place that the genre occupies. Again, there is no denying either musician’s credibility or skill when it comes to what they do but the conversations that can be had about Frank’s writing and production essentially take place in an entirely different universe than the conversations happening about Miguel’s music. Frank Ocean more vividly represents the staying power of R&B by experimenting with its very concept and introducing it to new horizons. So as I sit here listening, with equal parts Frank and Miguel in my music library and being a huge fan of both, I have to say, Frank Ocean currently sits on the metaphorical R&B throne in my mind.
WINNER: FRANK OCEAN