Miguel: Second Wind

Miguel: Second Wind

November 16, 2012

Miguel’s sophomore effort is really his first look.

Miguel’s alcohol stash is low. He’s got a glass-worth of whiskey, which he says he prefers, and one bottle of beer. He offers me the whiskey. It’s 8PM on a Saturday in LA, and the plain, two-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend of seven years, an aspiring actress named Nazanin Mandi, droops with the remnants of a recent party. A golden CONGRATULATIONS! banner dangles in a corner, tied up by one end, and deflated balloons wobble idly on the carpet. Taped to the wall, a plastic flag with stick-on letters reads: ADORN NO. 1. It’s a week before the release of Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel’s second album, and its single, “Adorn,” a top contender for our generation’s “Sexual Healing,” holds the highest slot on Billboard’s R&B chart. He recorded the song last year in this very apartment, in the makeshift studio/second bedroom, where a microphone stand is now the sole piece of audio equipment visible beneath trash bags full of scarves, sweaters and black hats.

Out in the living room, Miguel talks sweetly to his two cats while loading a rough cut of his music video for “The Thrill,” shot in grainy black-and-white at a lavish birthday party he recently threw for Mandi. About a minute into the clip, he leaps forward to point out his dad, a light-skinned man with chubby cheeks and a panama hat, beaming with an arm around his son. Tonight the couple will be attending another party, hosted downtown by the actor/rapper Childish Gambino, and a sharp knock at the door announces two friends, ready to carpool. Mandi emerges from their bedroom in a change of clothes, keeping with the small entourage’s unofficial uniform of black leather jackets. Miguel maxes out his MacBook speakers with a playlist titled “Ratchet Music.” Everyone takes a B12 vitamin. In a last-minute inspection before heading out, he tugs the corners of his cheetah-print shirt and curls his ankle to examine a pair of zippered black shoes. “You guys would tell me if I look crazy, right?”

Miguel Jontel Pimentel was born 25 miles south of here, in the fishing port of San Pedro. His father is Mexican and his mother is black, the combination of which has given their son vaguely Asian features, his eyes like thin almonds on a heart-shaped face. Miguel’s parents divorced when he was eight, and he and his younger brother spent the school year living with their mother in San Pedro and summers with their dad in Inglewood, where Miguel first learned how to record his velvety singing voice, and collected the life lessons for his lyrics to match it. “My mother was really, really sheltering,” he says. “Very religious as well. She raised me to be god-fearing, upright. Barely even let us listen to the radio. Then I’d go to my dad’s house and I’m watching mad porn, trying to talk to girls, getting into trouble. It was really double-life shit, but that’s when I started to learn that I had to make decisions. Who I’m going to be, how I’m going to act. My life has always been like that. Are you Mexican or are you black? Are you Christian or are you no religion? I decided I was always going to be different. Because I already was different.”

When he was 14, Miguel landed his first production deal, and at 19 he signed to the independent label Black Ice, a career miscalculation that would derail the release of his debut album by five years. Of Miguel’s ethnic halves, the label placed all their chips on black, positioning him as a cookie-cutter, dancing R&B singer in the mold of Usher. In a low-budget electronic press kit still housed on Black Ice’s YouTube, Miguel looks like a child trying on his dad’s clothes, smothered by a baggy sport coat and an oversized LA Dodgers cap. Performing a cappella, he punctuates every line with a tic: he licks his lips, laughs and whips his head with a sassy, Michael Jackson you-got-TA! His first music video, “Getcha Hands Up!,” features that same ungainly Dodgers hat, and as Miguel pushes to the front of a nightclub to direct partygoers in choreographed toe-spins, he comes off like the lead in an unwitting satire of contemporary R&B. In 2007, he decided to terminate his contract with Black Ice and sign to Jive, but Black Ice sued Miguel and his new major label for nearly a million dollars in expenses, creating, according to Miguel, a “whole fucking shit-storm” that would draw out in court for three years.

The suit was settled in 2010, and All I Want Is You was finally released on Jive. Sales were modest at first—just 11,000 in its opening week—but the album slow-burned its way to moving 400,000 copies. Three of its four singles reached Billboard’s R&B top 10; “Sure Thing” charted for the entirety of 2011, lingering for over 60 weeks at number one, and it ended the year in Billboard’s top 100 best-selling singles of any genre. But the album Miguel hyped as “eclec-tric” in interviews was sporadic to a fault, with no real aesthetic core. He wrote every song on the album but, despite years of technical experience, produced none. At one point, a futuristic song with a plodding synth line bizarrely fades out after only 30 seconds, an awkward bridge presumably inserted to mend the rift between the desperately lonely guitar track that precedes it and the ’90s boom-bap that follows. Whether the album’s confused identity is a case of outsized ambition or simply a conflict over what Jive would tolerate from a new artist, for listeners, All I Want Is You feels like a big house with too many rooms, and Miguel its puzzled inhabitant.

“It’s not like I speak like a fucking hood dude,” Miguel says, discussing the misconceptions that followed his debut over spinach salad and mint lemonade the next night at a small restaurant near his apartment. “My mother is a very eloquent woman, and my father is a teacher. Between the two, they raised me to speak a certain way. So the way I spoke, the way I dressed, all of that was like, ‘Wow, wait a second. This isn’t black… Oh, then he must be gay.’ Now, whether or not I’ve worn things that are questionable—oh my god—I look at pictures of shit I’ve worn, and you know what? I don’t really blame anyone. I get it. But I was learning. I was trying to hold on to some sense of individuality in the midst of being convinced that I had to appeal to a certain kind of crowd.” On the cover of All I Want Is You, Miguel’s small head is shaved; he sneers behind oversized, frameless, red-lensed sunglasses and a leather jacket with a triple-high collar, pulled up to his ears. “I was exclusively marketed as an ‘urban artist,’” he says with air quotes, “and I mean that in the most generic way. But I have never been one to live within a stereotype. My lifestyle has always been alternative in comparison to what’s expected from an ethnic male from Los Angeles. With my first album, not only was I being misunderstood, I was misunderstood, and it was distracting people from the music. Now, I want to make sure that everything I do is the best, most rounded projection of who I really am.”

Miguel insists he has no regrets about his first release, but these trials have undoubtedly stoked the flame of his perfectionism. His concerts involve no overt choreography, but Miguel will spend four hours rehearsing in a dance studio, just him singing in front of a mirror, and it’s easy to imagine him trying out more everyday gestures there, too: how to check his watch, how to smile if a stranger calls his name. “I’ve been reading about the Rat Pack and finding out that everything was rehearsed,” he says. “I don’t smoke, but I know how to hold a cigarette.” Unfortunately, there’s a thin line between managing your public face and appearing overly made-up, or worse, seeming to try too hard. He rarely says hello without following up with a compliment—“I’ve never seen your hair down, it’s beautiful;” “I love your bag.” To doormen and valets, he is gracious, snapping into Spanish at any chance, always lingering a few lines longer than is required. He’s quick to laugh. He picks up the phone. He never interrupts.

Miguel drives a white BMW X6 with a new leather smell and a change cup holding euros and a guitar pick. Besides his wardrobe, the SUV seems to be his only costly material investment. Today he is wearing three large rings: a snarling silver wolf head, a silver pyramid and a folded-up hundred dollar bill. He sports a tan vest, tan jeans with a black bandana in the back pocket and an illustrated Sade T-shirt, the first in his collaboration with the designer Deer Dana, for whom he’s selected a trio of female music icons to be drawn and emblazoned onto clothes and accessories. (So far, he’s settled on Sade and Grace Jones.) While driving home after dinner, he fields a business call about an in-production music video. “It’s not wack,” Miguel tells someone on the other line, “but it’s not my vision. All you gotta let me do, bro, is be creative. It doesn’t take rocket science at this point, it’s not hard to do, to let me be creative and make decisions.” He lowers the phone as we pass a police car. “It’s about settling and being short-changed,” he continues. “I don’t want to say it’s okay, I want to love it, I want it to be undeniable. The music is too good not to compete on the visuals. Have you even watched ‘We Found Love’?” After hanging up, Miguel links his phone to the car’s dashboard computer and scrolls through his music—Glasser, Curtis Mayfield, Little Dragon, M83. He lands on a song by the Swedish electronic duo The Knife: “Have you heard the live version of ‘Heartbeats’? It’s sooo much better…I do listen to my own shit, though,” he says, scrolling to “The Thrill.” Driving down Melrose, he reclines his seat and begins mouthing the words.

Recording for Miguel’s second album actually began while he was unhappily working on his first. He wrote “Kaleidoscope Dream” as a reaction to the more predictably “urban” songs that he was strong-armed into making for All I Want Is You: “They were like, Can you please do a song like this? And I said, Fuck it, okay, cool. But it took me so long to get it done, because I didn’t really want to do it. So I was like, I’m going to do another joint and just be creative. This isn’t even going to have a hook. It’s not going to have form. There’s no chorus, really,” he says, noting that for an R&B song, the lyrics are unusual. “I taste you in infinite colors/ Collide in a fountain/ Amidst all the lovers/ Kaleidoscope dream,” he sings, quoting the song. “What the fuck is that about? And why can’t I just do that?” After his debut was released, Miguel prepped a trio of self-financed and largely self-produced EPs to cultivate this more esoteric side, pushing his sound closer toward his perception of himself. He called the EPs the evocative but meaningless Art Dealer Chic. Each would include three songs, totaling nine—essentially a full album of material. With this gradual, bite-sized approach to releasing music, Miguel could build a sustained buzz of his own control, reaching a zenith with the official release of his sophomore album, which would include the best song from each EP.

Kaleidoscope Dream has the good and bad fortune of being released during a high-water mark for more alt-friendly R&B, helmed by artists like the softer Frank Ocean and sleazier The Weeknd, whose music has been championed in places once reserved only for rock criticism. In a world without Ocean’s Channel Orange, it’d be hard to imagine NPR’s website premiering the Kaleidoscope Dream album stream, or Pitchfork bestowing it with a “Best New Music” tag, as both outlets did. (Miguel says he and Frank Ocean, who moved to LA in 2005, were once close, but he would not discuss their relationship on the record.) But unlike Frank Ocean, who, with his debut, Channel Orange, has only once enjoyed the benefit of major label promotion, Kaleidoscope Dream is Miguel’s sophomore effort. At times, the record feels less like a sequel than a honed-in second draft. For everything Miguel has in common with left-of-center artists, his finest attributes as a musician—a powerful voice laced with a honeyed falsetto, vivid yet economical songwriting, tightly coiled but expansive production—were learned from, and thrive within, the major league commercial system.

As with his first album, Miguel wrote every song on Kaleidoscope Dream, but this time he produced many of them too, making it a rare work of artist-conceived, radio-ready R&B. And while the terrain is familiar—Prince and Marvin Gaye being the album's most notable touchstones—there is an aesthetic through-line that is Miguel’s own. Chunky bass lines stomp across the album, as synths torque compellingly askew. Guitars are everywhere, with great range, sometimes tenderly coaxing and sometimes anthemic, and Miguel’s voice performs an equally varied scale. He writes about adult love and meaningful sex with yearning, vulnerability and resilience. On “Do You…,” Miguel evokes an entire relationship with three crushingly simple lines: What about matinee movies, pointless secrets/ Midnight summer swims, private beaches/ Rock, paper, scissors. Wait! Best out of three. But the finest parts of Miguel’s sound, and the most compelling aspect of his personality, come together in a soul-baring, insecure blaze on “Use Me,” the album’s rousing third track. The chorus has two parts, the first portraying insecurity in a one-night stand and the second a show of gentle dominance. First, he sings: Use me. Wanna give you control/ With the lights on, if I could just let go/ Forgive me, it’s the very first time/ And I’m nervous. Can I trust you? Then, the response: Trust me, while I take this off/ With the lights on, ’cause it turns me on/ If you’re nervous, just let me show/ You how to touch me. I could teach you. Conventionally told, this would be a gendered story—Drake and Nicki Minaj in duet, maybe switching roles for an attempt at subversion—but Miguel uses no pronouns, names no names. He plays both parts. Or maybe the two voices are that of one person in ultimate anxiety, debating, at the most tender moment, which face to show.

Miguel wants nothing more than to endear himself to the public, but this obsession with putting his best foot forward can be its own barrier. On a Monday night in Hollywood, he has just a half-hour until his set time at a GQ magazine release party, held in The Sayers Club, a secretive spot accessible only through an unmarked door in a Papaya King juice bar. He’s 15 minutes away, in a hotel room he booked only to change clothes, reclined and shoeless in bed beneath a large photograph of a woman’s black-pantied backside, watching the singing competition The Voice with the volume down. Deliberately, he rises to piece together his outfit: a jet black Thierry Mugler blazer, a collarless Alexander Wang dress shirt, vintage Versace sunglasses, leather pants, leather shoes and two silver necklaces with a microphone and a cigarette for charms. Somehow, Miguel’s truancy doesn’t feel like power play; it’s more like he’s deferring for the sole reason that good things take time. But still, he’s very late.

He buttons then unbuttons his jacket, fussing unhappily with the shirt. He peels it off, and in the process, reveals a block-letter tattoo running up his left side reading: ASPIRE TO INSPIRE. He digs out an ironing board from the closet. Someone on The Voice enchants the judges, the singer’s beaming face met with riotous applause. After ironing the shirt, Miguel puts it back on. “I look tired as fuck,” he mutters. He takes it off and irons it again. “I may not wear this fucking belt either.” At last, sufficiently crisp, the shirt goes on, the belt comes off and Miguel heads out through the lobby, where a black Escalade waits. “We gotta grab hairspray,” he tells his handler in the car. The driver knows a place. Forty-five minutes after Miguel is due onstage, we pull into Walgreens on West Sunset. While his handler holds a place in line, Miguel roots out a canister of Bed Head and strolls to the perfume display. He glances over his shoulder, eyes his reflection in a thumb-smudged mirror between shelves of celebrity-endorsed fragrance and begins to spray.

Nowhere does Miguel's tireless self-cultivation and dogged willpower pay off more than in his live show—that is, once he finally makes it to the stage. He flips his pompadour head-first through Little Richard gyrations, leaps to the left and staggers in a dramatic James Brownsian fashion. His shows are the expression of hard work; what Miguel lacks in natural grace, he makes up for in crowd-rallying shows of effort. When guitars wail, cymbals crash and Miguel’s perfect falsetto rises above it all, it’s surely impressive, but what’s most endearing is the way he works for it. His breathing slows, he quiets the band, he falls to his knees. Then he roars.

Miguel: Second Wind