R&B singer Miguel doesn’t want to be called “smooth” and he’s tired of hearing his music described as “sexy.” In fact, he’s pretty much sick of all the standard terms that have been used to described male R&B singers over the last 30 years.
“With any R&B artist it’s like, ‘Oh he’s a ‘sexy crooner,’” the 25-year-old L.A. native said before a recent show at D.C.’s Howard Theatre. “It’s always the same words used, like ‘ladieeees,’ or ‘bedroom.’ My life exists 95 percent outside of the bedroom. That’s the real.”
And that reality is reflected on Miguel’s superb new album, “Kaleidoscope Dream,” out Tuesday. His sophomore effort is an ideal vehicle for luring commercial R&B listeners into riskier territory and a clear attempt by Miguel to find a new home for his music that’s not just between the sheets.
“This album sounds more like my lifestyle,” Miguel says. “The first album sounds like what my love life sounds like, but this is a bit more rounded, I think. The first album wasn’t like a misrepresentation, it just was very one-sided.”
“All I Want Is You,” was that critically acclaimed and commercially successful 2010 debut that announced Miguel — born Miguel Jontel Pimentel — as one of R&B’s more inventive and adventurous voices. He’s also amassed an impressive list of songwriting credits, writing romantic lyrics for everyone from Usher to Mary J. Blige, and has become one of hip-hop’s go-to feature artists whenever a rapper wants a softer edge. (Miguel guests on “Lotus Flower Bomb,” the biggest chart hit for D.C. rapper Wale.)
It’s easy to lose count of how many singers declare to be moving in a more eclectic direction with each project, while also claiming that their music goes beyond traditional genre boundaries. Miguel is different, though. He is a proud R&B artist who is not trying to ditch the genre, but to diversify it.
“There was time when there was room for individuality in R&B, and people had their own thing,” he said. “While James Brown was creating funk . . . you had artists that were still doing things that were different, but successful at the same time. You think of artists like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye. And then, as James Brown progressed, you had bands like the Temptations. ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,’ that’s not about love.”
While the not-love songs on “Kaleidoscope Dream” are great, freaky moments still remain. “[Expletive] Is Mine” is the raunchiest track of the lot, but with just Miguel’s sweet voice and a guitar line carrying the song, it’s more Prince than porno.
“Don’t get me wrong — ratchet hours exist in my life, but there’s a time and a place,” he said. “I’m just saying, like, let’s still be creative.”
Born to a Mexican father and an African American mother, Miguel started singing and writing songs in elementary school. He broke into the business by writing love songs for others, in part because he had a tough time fitting into the narrow “urban” box into which much of black music is shoved.
“I just want to get back to reminding people that this is a genre — it’s not a stereotype,” he said. “I wanna engage sensibilities. I’m not trying to engage ethnicities or demographics created by a business to somehow figure out [an album’s] place in a store, you know?”
For the show at Howard Theatre, Miguel’s opening act was Bobby Valentino, who has definitely been described as a “sexy crooner” a time or two. His approach to R&B is starkly different to Miguel’s. During his set, Valentino was shirtless, well-oiled and he distributed roses — one of which he suggestively stuck in his pants.
Miguel, by contrast, came out in a T-shirt, jeans and a blazer. He removed his jacket when it got hot on stage, but remained fully clothed and oil-free throughout. He did a James Brown split, and otherwise used his slight build to his advantage, jumping around the stage energetically.
He sang that raunchy new number to a young woman in the audience and, in a rare heartthrob moment, stroked her face, looked into her eyes and belted his heart out. At the end of the song, he asked her, “So, is it mine?” She vigorously shook her head. No. The crowd gasped, but Miguel just shrugged. If you’re trying to get away from sex-driven R&B, you can’t have it both ways.
He recovered with “Adorn,” the new album’s lead single, which is one of the more traditional R&B cuts on the album, but has a crushing bass line and enough interesting transitions to make it fit with the rest of the album. The crowd erupted, the security guys bopped their heads, the wait staff danced and an older couple broke into a little Chicago two-step. It was smooth and sexy, but also risky and edgy. It was perfect.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.