"It was just like pushing a boulder up and up and up a hill and then you finally get to the top," singer Miguel Pimentel says about his rise to fame. In 2012, his breakout album, Kaleidoscope Dream, was one of the most innovative pop records of the past few years, hitting Number Three on the charts and winning a Best R&B Song Grammy for "Adorn."
Career-making appearances on Saturday Night Live and at the Grammy Awards broke the singer through to the mainstream. "It was right after that Grammy performance that we had a tremendous amount of momentum," he says. Since then, Miguel has become pop's most wanted man, singing alongside Mariah Carey, appearing on the star-studded Catching Fire soundtrack and making a surprise appearance at Prince's "Rally 4 Peace" concert in Baltimore.
For his follow-up record, Wildheart (out in June), Miguel set an ambitious goal: crafting what he calls "an ode to love of self... [and] the ongoing infatuation with whatever you're fucking into." Working with collaborators both old (Kaleidoscope Dream producers Pop and Oak) and new (like Benny Cassette, who worked on Kanye West's Yeezus, and Benny Blanco), he pushed his last album's mix of rock, soul and post-Prince freakiness into stark, atmospheric territory. "I do this shit because I love it," Miguel explains. "This time it was like I finally want to have an identity as a tastemaker, as someone who's ahead of the curve, someone who's intellectual, someone who's striving to push the boundaries, someone who's ever-growing and evolving, someone who's open-minded," he says.
Miguel began production of his new album in January of 2014, working on it for a month before a tour in Australia slowed down the process. "I had an incredible amount of rhythm," he recalls. "There was a clear vision, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say."
He thanks the "machine" behind him for helping him focus, calling the team of producers and directors his "spiritual warriors," a reference to Jodorowsky's Dune. "I didn't care as much [with] Kaleidoscope Dream," he recalls. "There was a bit of carelessness in the response and how it would be taken. This time around I feel more carefree. Not careless, but carefree."
Kaleidoscope Dream was recorded during a two-year period in New York. For Wildheart, Miguel returned to his native Los Angeles. "I just wanted this album to look and feel and taste like twilight in L.A.," he says, "just light enough to see the beauty, but then dark enough for all of the sketchy shit to happen."
The lyrics are also decidedly Cali-centric: "Leaves" is a love letter to the state, "NWA" features local rap vet Kurupt and "A Beautiful Exit" explores L.A.'s grittier side over dark guitar crunch. "Los Angeles is just this amazing beautiful and hopeless place," Pimentel says. "Growing up here, I feel it prepared me for a lot."
As a kid, the singer split time between the lower income housing areas of San Pedro and his grandmother's house in middle class Inglewood following his parents' divorce. Half Mexican and half black, he recalls the race wars of the early Eighties and Nineties between the two communities that put him "in the middle of a lot of bullshit." "I was just trying to figure out where I belong or who I am, which directly affects how I create my music and why I create the way I do," he says. "I'm rooted in soul, but I'm in love with rock & roll and I'm not gonna conform to any of their expectations because I do what the fuck I want, you know? There's no box for me. There was never any box for me."
With Wildheart, Miguel is continuing to create music by his own rules. "Nothing great ever happened because the person was antiquated or was completely by the book," he says. "They had to be a little delusional, a little wild. They had to dream a little."