“I consider myself a fairly realistic man,” Miguel riffed slyly to a packed crowd Tuesday night at Joe’s Pub in downtown New York City. “Tell me that that pussy is mine,” he crooned to female squeals and male hoots, before keeping it all the way real: “‘Cause I don’t want to believe that anyone is just like me.”
He doesn’t have much to worry about. With just one proper album and a trilogy of short EPs under his belt, Miguel has burned slowly over the past two years to become one of the most distinct male voices in mainstream R&B, delivering inescapable hooks with a guttural wail and rich falsetto that harken to better, simpler times without pandering. “Even when the sky comes falling, even when the sun don’t shine/I got faith in you and I, so put your pretty little hand in mine,” he sings on the metaphorical “Sure Thing,” his biggest hit to date. On this night, Miguel arrived commanding and exhilarated, with an imaginative live band that included a DJ triggering vocal samples from a Midi controller. His dips, spins, and gyrations recalled a long-lost member of the Five Heartbeats – somewhere between Duck’s showmanship and J.T.’s hubris. Within five minutes onstage, he dropped to a split. Within 10, he changed outfits.
There was reason to celebrate. The evening marked the release of Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dreams: Air Preview EP, the first of two previews that will culminate with Miguel’s second album. He previously employed this tactic with the free self-released three-part series Art Dealer Chic – a dreamier, riskier body of work than his debut All I Want Is You, built on languid grooves and trippy lyrics that were lapped up by indie pundits after his initial mainstream success. This time around, he’s meeting in the middle. Using iTunes’ Complete My Album feature, fans can purchase Kaleidoscope Dreams in sections as it’s released, and pay the difference when the full album drops this fall. “The money you spend on the first and second portions, they all go to the buying price of the final,” he explained to Rolling Stone backstage. “I guess I would liken it to how a great chef would prepare an entire meal – he would send out courses.”
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Miguel’s latest single, “Adorn,” is quite the appetizer, and the dinner crowd at Joe’s Pub was clearly starved, belting along above menus when he launched into the track onstage. It’s a pulsing, minimalist cut over which lyrics unfurl slowly: “These lips/Can’t wait to taste your skin/And these eyes/Can’t wait to see your grin,” he serenades in clear homage to Prince and Gaye.
“It’s the first song I ever wrote and produced,” Miguel said. “The biggest change with this album was me. What was really important to me this time was being a part of the production, because I write all the records. The majority of the album I’m either co-producing or playing on, to get the vibe and the feel and to introduce the fans to what my life is really about.” The rest of the EP retains the scope and tone of “Adorn,” and he even interpolates the Zombies psychedelic standard “Time of the Season” – somehow, it doesn’t feel trite.
Onstage, Miguel feels like a one-man show even while sharing the spotlight with four band members. He directed the crew with a snap of the neck or the jab of a hand, and took a few seconds between songs to adjust his microphone’s reverb. He playfully rapped along to Tupac’s “I Get Around” before diving into “Quickie” – his L.A. roots were on full display, as a steady stream of N.W.A dominated the pre-show playlist. He can play the part of seductor well: “Lift up that fucking skirt and let me see you, baby!” he begged to the crowd. “Wait, can I curse?” One female audience member answered emphatically: “Yes!”
Comparisons to critical darling and nu-R&B posterboys Frank Ocean and the Weekend are nearly unavoidable, and Miguel sees his peers as all part of one stew. “Frank’s another one of those artists that are pushing the boundaries of what’s expected from R&B,” he explained. “What I love about his writing is it reminds me of [David] Bowie’s writing, in his approach to storytelling. I’m very much influenced by classic rock, so my approach is a bit different, but I think the objective is the same: to be ourselves in a genre that has become more of a stereotype as opposed to a feeling. It really is a renaissance, and I hope other people consider me to be one of those people.”
At the close of his set, Miguel dove clear over a row of tables and landed in the middle of the crowd, leading them in a sing-along without a microphone. He hopped from table to table as the audience chanted the “Sure Thing” refrain, “You can bet that, never gotta sweat that.” He was ecstatic. “I’m really excited to put music out that is a clear projection of my lifestyle,” he said later. “That’s the most gratifying part of it. To find people that it connects with. I think at any point, as an artist, whatever the medium – just having an audience means the world.”