Sitting at a driftwood dining table in his Hollywood Hills home, surrounded by psychedelic paintings of moon goddesses, Adam Lambert cues up a few tunes from his second LP, Trespassing. When his iPhone rings midsong, he apologizes and steps out to accept two huge feathered headdresses – the centerpiece of his costume for Katy Perry's Wild West-themed birthday fiesta later that night. "Perfect!" exclaims Lambert, who's already sporting skintight leopard trousers, a studded leather belt and mascara that matches his jet-black pompadour. "I've got to get my war paint on."
After becoming one of American Idol's biggest stars with his near-victory on the show's eighth season, Lambert struggled to find his voice. And his controversial same-sex kiss at the 2009 American Music Awards highlighted the challenges of being an openly gay pop star. When a grueling world tour wrapped last December, he spent a month "vegging and relaxing" at L.A.'s Sunset Marquis Hotel. "I was dramatically shut in," Lambert says. "At first I was trying to figure out how to please my fans – but then I started trusting my instincts. It's the same as what I learned on Idol. You have to fight for this shit."
This year, Lambert assembled hitmakers including Pharrell Williams, Dr. Luke and "Teenage Dream" co-writer Bonnie McKee to replace his 2009 debut's glam pop with a club-ready sound inspired by classic disco, Nineties electronica and Skrillex-y dubstep. He even got Chic's Nile Rodgers to play on "Shady," a sexy cut that Lambert describes as "Nine Inch Nails meets Saturday Night Fever." "There's party music, sex music, fucked-up-relationship S&M music," says the singer. "But every song explores something real."
Realest of all is "Outlaws of Love" – a smoldering serenade about gay marriage. "I'd never considered marriage before," says Lambert, who's dating Sauli Koskinen, a Finnish reality-TV personality. "But now that I am, I can't do it."
Lambert hit his creative stride at a session with Williams in June. "This kid has a voice like a siren – there's no guys singing in that Steve Winwood- Peter Cetera range," says Williams, who produced the LP's title track, a swaggering cut that evokes "Another One Bites the Dust." "Pharrell is postmodern, like Warhol," says Lambert. "If you riff on something and make it your own, it becomes pop art."
Two years after being launched into America's living rooms, Lambert still feels like an unlikely star. "No major label would've signed a gay 27-year-old white theater dude without Idol," he says. "Now it's about how I use the platform. Whoever you are, I hope you can find yourself in these songs. If that happens, I've won."
This story is from the December 8, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.