If you're a music journalist and you've written about R&B dynamo Miguel in 2012, chances are you've put the 27-year-old and Prince in the same sentence, as I have. And that's cool, says Miguel. Just don't get used to it.
"I'm offended for Prince because I'm such a huge fan of his and you can't compare anyone to Prince," says Miguel. "But if I'm associated with any ounce of greatness then that's a huge compliment - and that's what I think of when I think of Prince; I think of greatness, I think of timelessness, creativity, longevity, just unapologetic and unwavering sense of self. I can only hope to remind people of greatness."
There's no doubt that 2012 was Miguel's breakout year. True, he had shown promise on his 2010 debut album All I Want Is You, but it was this year's follow-up, Kaleidoscope Dream, that earned high praise from critics and fans alike, who unanimously seemed to agree that Miguel was part of an exciting crop of artists intent on saving a dying genre. "[Frank Ocean's] Channel Orange, [Miguel's] Kaleidoscope Dream, and [The Weeknd's] Trilogy rescued the art form from the monotony of 'baby, baby please' as Ocean, Miguel and Weeknd casually re-created it in their own images," wrote Rebecca Thomas at MTV.
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In many ways, that monotony Thomas writes of began when the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B himself, R. Kelly, committed career suicide circa 2002. The game was just never the same – until now. As music journalist Erik Parker puts it, "Miguel's music came at a time where there was a wide open lane. He split the difference between Trey Songz' sex appeal and Frank Ocean's exotic and left-field style. He's pushing the boundaries in an artistic way that is not too much in the clouds. He's stretching R&B but it doesn't feel forced or too self-aware. "
With five Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year and Best R&B Performance for "Adorn," and Best Urban Contemporary Vocal Album and a spring tour with Alicia Keys coming up, 2013 is looking even better for Miguel.
But if greatness is what he's aiming for – and he's certainly moving in the right direction, as a singer, writer, and producer skirting the boundaries of traditional R&B - then Miguel has been influenced by more than just one musical great before his time, or "musical mentors," as he likes to call them. "I think that's [Prince] the easiest one because I guess I walk a certain line," says Miguel. "That and the ability to say really dirty things and get away with it," he adds with a laugh. "I'm like, ok guys, I get it, I see why you make those comparisons but don't forget Van Morrison, the Beatles, Donny Hathaway or Stevie Wonder, David Bowie or Freddy Mercury or Jimi Hendrix, or fuckin' Miles Davis, don't forget the Temptations and Smokey Robinson, Funkadelic, Hall & Oates…"
Born in Los Angeles to a Mexican father and African American mother, Miguel Pimentel was exposed to all sorts of music growing up - including Spanish oldies. "Every morning my [paternal] grandfather would play his records, just blasting lots of rancheras but then also boleros. I can't remember the names of the artists but I remember the writing style - I feel it's so much better [in Spanish]. It's so much more romantic and emotional."
Miguel could go on and on about musical mentors – and he does - but one thing is clear: he knows exactly what kind of artist he is as an individual, who's listening to him, and where he wants to go.
Timing is Everything
As solid a debut as it was, All I Want is You wasn't really making a statement the way it needed to in order to stand apart from the Chris Browns and Trey Songz of the world. Miguel and the album were snubbed by the Grammys, something he felt so strongly about he took to Twitter to vent.
"After that moment last year it really made me go back and reassess why I wasn't there and remember that I was doing this way before that even seemed like a possibility," says Miguel of the Grammy snub. "I was doing this well before I had a deal. It made me remind myself that having an audience is the true blessing. So fast-forwarding to this time around [with five Grammy nominations], I just felt this overwhelming sense of appreciation and felt very humbled by just having the ear of my peers."
In early 2012, Miguel released a three-part concept mixtape series, Art Dealer Chic, which was born out of that initial frustration. The series was released as a lead-up to Kaleidoscope Dream, which came out in October and contained many of the Art Dealer Chic songs. "Despite the commercial and radio success of the singles, like 'Sure Thing' and 'Quickie,' my peers weren't paying attention to my music," confesses Miguel. "When I say peers I mean like-minded people, those who are always searching for great new music, who don't really listen to the radio, they're always asking themselves, 'What's the new avant-garde rock or soul or funk or folk shit?' They're the ones who work at ad agencies and the ones who write for magazines and blogs that college kids are into. They weren't listening and paying attention and I was trying to figure out why and I came to the conclusion that I wasn't feeding them. So I was like, 'You know what, I'm just gonna put music that I love and produce out, I'm gonna shoot the videos, I'm going to paint, I'm going to design the art work.' It was a very personal thing; it was my way of marketing myself."
And his peers definitely took notice. Jordan Sargent of Pitchfork wrote, "The most unique and magnetic thing about Miguel's music is how hard it is to pin down, and just how deep and diverse his bag of tricks seems to be."
The self-released mixtape series was a smart move, says Georgette Cline, Editor-in-Chief of TheDrop.fm. "These days, artists and their team have to find an angle that sets them apart," she says. "When Miguel decided to drop the Art Dealer Chic EPs, people took notice because it was an unconventional rollout for an album. Plus it was free and offered soulful R&B without the EDM flavor that has saturated many singers' albums this year."
Cline also notes that Miguel had a strong presence in social mediain 2012. As someone who's connected to different people from all walks of life, she says she noticed that the one artist that united each of them through places like Twitter and Facebook was Miguel. "His lyrics from songs like 'Adorn,' 'Do You' and 'Lotus Flower Bomb' were everywhere," says Cline, "from the avid R&B fan to the devoted rap supporter who wouldn't be caught wearing the same skinny jeans Miguel rocks, they were able to find common ground through his music."
Miguel attributes the success of Kaleidoscope Dream to a few variables.
"Timing would be the most important factor," he says, "but then also on a more personal level, I wanted to set the tone for the kind of music that should be expected from me in the future. It was me trusting my instincts. Then the other variable would be my label just trusting me to create and project my vision."
If Miguel seems keenly aware of who his audience is, it's because he knows himself. "I'm a firm believer that art and creativity find the proper audience because the core of every artistic expression is human emotion," he says. "I hope it doesn't sound cliché - but art is celebrating individuality but more than that it highlights commonality and the one thing that brings us all together is the fact that we can feel. If my music is any reflection of who I am as an individual, then it's about finding like-minded individuals."
His Own Man
If the key to finding success – and keeping it – is individuality, then Miguel is in this for the long run. Art Dealer Chic was more than just a cool name for a mixtape series – it's a perspective and a lifestyle that Miguel created, the narrative thread that runs through all of his music.
So what does it mean, exactly? Miguel will gladly break it down in a somewhat long-winded fashion that reveals his more philosophical side.
"Art Dealer Chic starts with understanding that every individual is the creator of their own reality," he says. "They essentially are the painter, painting the beauty or the chaos, curating their experience, their sensibilities, their decisions and self-conscious thought patterns, and painting with the texture and the color that they secretly love. Understanding that helps us paint the picture that we truly desire...
There's a line in my favorite song of all time, it's called "Good Thoughts Bad Thoughts" by Funkadelic, and there's so many gems in this song, but the one that I hold the closest to my heart goes: "be careful of the thought seeds you plant in your mind for seeds grow according to their kind. And there's nothing more true to life than that."
The Midas Touch
Behind every great emerging artist is a great A&R. Miguel has Mark Pitts, a man with an enviable music biz resume and currently the President of Urban Music at RCA Records. He's also the CEO of Bystorm Entertainment, the imprint of RCA to which Miguel is signed (cool fact: the Notorious B.I.G used to call him his "manager extraordinaire").
Pitts first came across Miguel two years ago, when he was working on Usher's album Here I Stand. "His manager at the time sent 'Sure Thing' to me for Usher," recalls Pitts. "When I heard it, I fell in love with the record, fell in love with his voice and I wanted to meet him. Before I met him, he sent in 'Quickie' and another record and I was like 'This is crazy!' I flew him, didn't let him leave and I signed him on the spot. The last time I had that immediate gut feeling was with Chris Brown and J. Cole and I was absolutely right about both."
What most sets Miguel apart, says Pitts, is "his style, his pen game [songwriting] and his sense of melody, there's no one else like that. Even more so, it's his style and daring to be different."
It was Pitts who insisted that "Adorn" be the first single off Miguel's sophomore album. "Miguel sent the short version to me one morning and I was listening to it while driving on the Westside Highway on my way to the office," recalls Pitts. "I was getting goose bumps, my eyes got watery and I was like, "This is it. I told him, 'I don't care what you bring in, what other songs you do, this is the jump off.' It's that type of slow song that make you want to dance."
The song took off on radio, making a splash on five different Billboard charts, and peaking at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, where it's still No. 1. Wiz Khalifa jumped on the remix. It was just one of the many gems on the album.
As for his strategy in 2013 for Miguel, Pitts says it's all about focus and continuity. "You know how artists would just want to jump into another vibe, another world? They want to push the envelope and go somewhere else? It works for some and that's the beauty of what they do, being able to make all type of records, but I don't want to take that approach with Miguel," says Pitts. "His live performances will continue to get better and better, and he'll grow as an artist but musically, I want to keep focusing on where we are right now," says Pitts, "I want to find more clever ways of getting his music heard all over the world, by the masses. I don't want to try to make a completely different album or try to change things to help that process. I feel eventually, it's going to catch on all over."
Miguel sounds excited about going on tour with Alicia Keys starting in March. The two collaborated on the track "Where's the Fun in Forever" from Kaleidoscope Dream. "I've never toured with an artist with the kind of reach that she has," says Miguel, who has opened for Usher and toured with Trey Songz and Elle Varner. "The kind of artist that she is, the expectation of her artistry, I'm excited to be associated with that kind of musicianship."
Keys recently expressed her admiration for Miguel during a Google Hangout session while promoting her album last month. "The way you piece ideas and concepts and thoughts, you are really special," she said.
It takes one to know one.