On a blazing, late-August afternoon, Miguel is hiding out from the heat inside the air-conditioned stillness of a Sunset Boulevard rehearsal studio. The L.A.-based R&B singer ostensibly is here to do a final run-through with his live band — guitarist, drummer, two keyboardists — before heading to London for a couple of gigs, including one opening for Usher at the iTunes Festival. But you get the sense, too, that the refrigerated coolness works to Miguel's sartorial advantage: Rather than shorts and flip-flops, he's wearing a sleeveless denim jacket over a T-shirt emblazoned with the likeness of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Down below, his skinny jeans meet a pair of black-leather Chuck Taylors that look like they've never pounded pavement.
We're talking about other people's music, and Miguel insists that his evidently arty disposition is no impediment to the hearty enjoyment of lower-brow fare. “Trust me, there's a ratchet hour in my life when you will hear 2 Chainz,” he says, busting up a little. “But I'm not a Champagne-popping type of guy; that's not my lifestyle. You're more likely to find me at a divey spot somewhere. I wanna go catch some ill jazz shit or see some electronic hip-hop over at the Airliner. That's the spectrum.”
It's a familiar pop-star tautology, no doubt about it. But Miguel, who is 25, redeems the idea on Kaleidoscope Dream, his appealingly idiosyncratic sophomore album, which may well trigger a post–Frank Ocean breakthrough for this long-hustling avant-soul man.
Preceded by the No. 1 R&B hit “Adorn” — a steamy slow jam that nods to “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye — the disc reflects Miguel's varied interests and mindsets, moving from clubland set pieces like the early '90s–style “How Many Drinks” to darker, more personal cuts such as the grinding “Don't Look Back,” which rides an unlikely sample of The Zombies' “Time of the Season.”
Throughout Kaleidoscope Dream — the full-length follow-up to a series of free digital EPs Miguel released earlier this year under the title Art Dealer Chic — he taps into a unique vibe: weirder than mainstream stars such as Ne-Yo and Trey Songz but way more attuned to the radio than Airliner habitués like Flying Lotus.
At the El Rey in early September, Miguel physicalized that position, offsetting his polished, got-game smoothness with a series of gawky dance moves, including one that resembled a child's attempt to avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. Dude can hop.
“Right now R&B is filled with so many people singing songs that sound like other songs,” says producer Salaam Remi, who worked on Kaleidoscope Dream, as well as Miguel's 2010 major-label debut, All I Want Is You. (Remi has also worked with Amy Winehouse, Nas and the Fugees, among others.) “But Miguel is letting his art rule his whole flow, and that's the best place for an artist to be. To me he kind of feels like Prince, where he's doing this eclectic blend but still coming back to focused songs.”
The singer credits this character of his music to his similarly in-between background. Born Miguel Pimentel, he grew up in San Pedro near the corner of Third and Centre streets — “right where the projects start,” he says. His African-American mom, a deeply religious woman, did what she could to shelter him from gang violence. His Mexican dad, meanwhile, was more permissive and exposed Miguel to funk, hip-hop, jazz and classic-rock music.
Miguel knew he wanted to perform from a very young age, and at 14 told his mom he wanted to be an artist. “She said, 'You can be whatever you want — just get good grades,' ” Miguel remembers. So he did, although that scholarly focus didn't prevent him from stealing his uncle's four-track recorder. “I called him later and told him I took it,” he adds with a laugh. “I felt too bad — that's my mother's side.”
He'd already been writing songs, but the four-track allowed him to develop his ideas, and in ninth grade a mutual friend introduced him to a member of a local production company, Drop Squad. Miguel spent the rest of high school learning how to work in the studio, then looking for a record deal. He signed one in 2004 with an indie label, Black Ice, but says now the company was trying to mold him into something he didn't want to be. “We shot a video, and if you ever see it, you will laugh your ass off. I have a fitted hat on and a white T-shirt and baggy jeans. I was 19 years old and it was the first time anyone had ever given me money.”
The video and its accompanying album didn't take off, but Miguel continued to write music and eventually got his song “Sure Thing” to Mark Pitts, then head of urban music at Jive Records. Pitts played it for Usher, who liked the tune but didn't end up recording it. Pitts decided that was for the best, since he thought Miguel should be the one to sing it.
Two weeks later Miguel was signed to Jive, which eventually released All I Want Is You in 2010 following the resolution of a protracted contract dispute with Black Ice.
Though it spawned a handful of solid R&B hits, including “Sure Thing” and the J. Cole–featuring title track, All I Want Is You didn't quite capture the distinctive wrinkles in Miguel's sound. There's one track, “Pay Me,” that feels like a flimsy attempt to reproduce the Euro-house thump of Ne-Yo's “Closer.”
“Being new to the industry, I think I let people who had experience guide me,” Miguel now says of his debut. “And after that learning experience, I came to the conclusion that you always have to go with your gut.”
That's why, he notes, he did the Art Dealer Chic EPs, which take more sonic chances, and which contain some of the songs that ended up on Kaleidoscope Dream. “That was me wanting to reconnect with my peers — the people I hang out with, who go to the same shows and read the same blogs and drink the same liquor as me,” he says.
It's probably safe to infer what kind of people he's talking about from the rave reviews he's received in hipster reads such as Spin and Pitchfork.
Now that Miguel has reconnected with his core, he has set his sights on folks who might not go to those shows or drink that liquor. “I get to use this [major-label] machine that's not necessarily used to promoting gray-area shit to reach people who only know black-and-white shit,” he says. “It's a great opportunity to educate people, not … only about myself, but lemme somehow broaden your palate and reprogram your perspective so that you might check out a different kind of artist.”
Back inside the climate-controlled studio on Sunset, the members of Miguel's band have arrived and are beginning to tune up for rehearsal. There's some exhaustion in the singer's face from the seemingly endless promotion required of him. But there's excitement, too.
“That's what's cool about being an artist,” he says. “You have this opportunity to take your audience somewhere they may not have taken themselves.”
You get to take yourself somewhere, too.