Culture

R&B sensation Miguel has already established himself as the foremost sex jam provider of his generation. Now, he's written a party soundtrack for the end times.

Miguel Is Ready For War

It’s 2 a.m. and I’m stuck in a Montreal nightclub.

There is a DJ, whose name sounds like an upscale Manhattan grocery,1 spinning trap and EDM. There are sparklers in bottles, groups of women flowing gracefully across the dance floor in crop tops and leather skirts, desperate dudes with man buns stalking the perimeter and a smattering of happy couples making out in the rear. Everything feels grimy, as if they had scrubbed the entire place down with water from the Playboy Mansion grotto. Thanks to an early flight and jumbled Airbnb booking, I have not slept in over 21 hours. I have been at this club, alone, since midnight. Because of an admittedly poor packing job, I am wearing Birkenstocks with socks. Worst of all, in the name of good journalism—for you, you ungrateful bastards—I have chosen to remain stone-cold sober.2 I’m miserable.

And then, without warning, the spotlights flash violet and a searing guitar solo wails from a massive stage at the far end of the room. There’s a crash of drums and a thumping bass line before all of the instruments bend to the power of the voice. Standing centre stage in baggy army fatigues, behind a microphone stand fringed in white leather, is the Los Angeles-bred R&B crooner Miguel.

Miguel’s stage presence is nothing to scoff at; he follows in the grand tradition of petite front men with outsized magnetism—Jagger, Bowie, Prince. He thrusts his hips at exactly the right moments, leads call-and-responses with practiced ease and pulls off dad-at-a-wedding dance moves like they’re the sexiest thing on earth. But it’s his voice that I honestly can’t believe. It transforms the room and erases my shitty mood. When Miguel sings, the club ceases to feel skeezy, ceases to feel like a club at all—it’s a woozy, sensual cloud of purple smoke that we’re all floating through together. Miguel’s voice is an amphetamine, an Irish coffee, a Red Bull and vodka. It rouses and intoxicates. It smacks you with the kinetic force of a GGG jab and then caresses you tenderly like a late-night shoulder rub from your girlfriend. It gives you, as the kids say, life.

Since the turn of the decade, when he dropped his mostly-unheralded debut album All I Want Is You, this is what Miguel has done over and over. He has defied conventions and won over skeptical audiences with relentless talent, vision and charm. He stands at the forefront of a current R&B renaissance alongside Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, but he’s gotten there without the affected mysteriousness of the former or the trend-driven pop sensibilities of the latter. Instead, Miguel makes straight-up sex music: the kind of funky, soulful, carnal jams to which Generations X through Z were largely conceived. They’re sometimes tender, sometimes subversive and always intelligent. But more than anything, Miguel’s songs make you want to fuck.

On December 1, he’ll release his fourth album, War & Leisure. It’s his richest, most complete work yet—both a statement of intent and a timely appraisal of the moment. It’s the type of record designed to take an artist from widely beloved to iconic, and, given Miguel’s performance tonight—rangy, inspired, loose—he seems ready for the leap.

By the time he leaves the stage at 3 a.m., a haze of confetti settling in his wake, I’m amped enough to correctly predict that I won’t be able to sleep anytime soon. I’m too dazed to care.

The next day, just past noon, Miguel rolls into a photo studio on the edge of Montreal’s trendy Mile End neighbourhood. Following his Title cover shoot, he’ll be hopping on a plane to London. He’s dressed for travel, but not sloppily: loose quilted jacket, long-sleeved tee, beat-up cargo pants, checkerboard Vans. He’s still got the charisma and confidence he radiated onstage last night, but it’s channelled differently—he’s soft-spoken and polite and self-deprecating, like that cool art teacher you had in high school. When he shakes my hand, I notice a pair of gold incisors in his smile and the two Rolexes—one platinum, one two-toned—he’s wearing on either wrist.

“One’s on West Coast time, for home,” the 32-year old explains, meaning Los Angeles. “The other’s East Coast, because my fiancée3 has been out there a lot lately.” Then he smirks and winks: “But it’s also just a nice light flex. Subtle but effective.”

This version of Miguel, similarly subtle but effective, is likely more akin to the person he was growing up. Born to a Mexican father and black mother who split when he was eight, Miguel Jontel Pimentel was raised straitlaced and religious: no drinking, no parties, attended church three days a week. In between school and Bible studies, he began writing songs inspired by the stuff he heard on long car rides with his parents.

“Pops was into classic rock,” he recalls, “and then he would go into hip-hop: Pac. Biggie. He loved the Fugees. Mom was into soul music and old standards, stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I got a nice, diverse range, and I got a lot of that still inside me.”

After a couple of aborted career launches in his teens—he was nearly a member of the short-lived group Fatty Koo4 and had a video for an early single called “Getcha Hands Up” debut on BET in 2006—Miguel signed a major label deal with Jive5 in 2007, and All I Want Is You was released three years later. The record was a modest success and showed flashes—especially on the J.Cole-assisted title track—of the artist he was bound to become. But it was also obscured behind an overproduced sheen and the embarrassingly large red sunglasses he sported on the album cover.

It wasn’t good enough for Miguel. After its release, he embarked on some soul searching. “I wanted to do better,” he says. “I was trying to figure out why I didn’t connect on the right level.” When he re-emerged in 2012, it was with a slick pompadour and Kaleidoscope Dream—a raunchy, cerebral revelation that he produced and wrote almost entirely himself. It landed well-earned comparisons to Marvin Gaye and Prince, a Grammy for lead single “Adorn” and a place on the year-end lists of Robert Christgau, The Guardian and Billboard, among others. Just like that, Miguel the Sex Symbol had arrived.

Miguel’s 2015 follow-up, Wildheart, turned up the psychedelia and sensuality, layered in textures of fuzzed-out guitar and ethereal synths, and further cemented his place as a singular, genre-defying talent. “I want what everybody wants, really,” Miguel says of his main ambitions. “To be the artist that maintains creative integrity but is still commercially successful.” After back-to-back hit records, it seemed like he’d figured out a clear formula for doing exactly that. Everything was rolling along smoothly.

And then, in early 2016—at a critical juncture in American history—he sat down to write his next album and everything changed.

Identity politics have always played a driving role in Miguel’s music. In the Wildheart standout “What’s Normal Anyway,” he laments the confusion his mixed-raced background often incurs:

Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans /
Too square to be a hood nigga, what’s normal anyway? /
Too opinionated for the pacifist, too out of touch to be in style /
Too broke for the rich kids, I don’t know what normal is.

If those questions of ethnicity and belonging loomed large in the relative sanctity of the pre-election Obama era, imagine how magnified they must have felt with candidate Donald Trump receiving endorsements from white supremacists and promising border walls.

“I felt like I was throwing punches in the dark,” Miguel tells me. “There’s so much going on. There’s so much divisiveness. On top of our personal battles—our internal, emotional, socio-economic pressures—you look out, and there’s something going on everywhere, and that puts us on the brink of some really hard decisions.”

In July 2016, in the wake of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Miguel posted a demo entitled “How Many?” to his SoundCloud. Over a stark instrumental, voice strained with frustration, he sings: “I’m tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands / I’m tired of watching murderers get off.” It was a raw and unfiltered reaction in a moment that called for one.

But when it came to working on his next major project, Miguel understood that he couldn’t be nearly as direct. He couldn’t allow his political hang-ups—however potent and pertinent—to overwhelm his art. “The icons I look up to, most of them were good at not bringing their personal beliefs into their music, into their job. And if it was brought in, it was broad. You think of ‘Sign o’ the Times’ by Prince. It’s socially conscious, but it’s not political. Michael Jackson had ‘Man in the Mirror.’ Even Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—it was a response to all of these things happening at the time, but it wasn’t directly political. I’m always honest in my music, but I don’t want my honesty to put people off.”

So Miguel simply did what he does best: He made sex music. Like all his best work, War & Leisure is sensual and vital. But scattered throughout the record, there’s an added level of consciousness that manifests itself in peculiar ways. Racy club bangers are inflected with a creeping sense of paranoia: The second single, “Shockandawe,” makes reference to dropping bombs and being watched by the United Nations. Even the album’s most lighthearted trifle,6 the upbeat dance number “Caramelo Duro,” takes on greater weight when you consider that its Spanish lyrics were inspired by a trip Miguel took to Mexico to meet his father’s extended family for the very first time.

“It’s all there in the title: War & Leisure,” says Miguel. “It’s about trying to be positive in the face of harsh realities. There’s a lot of love on the record, a lot of concern. But there’s also party stuff, because sometimes you just need to blow off some steam. I’m going ‘Hey guys, I’m trying to figure it out, just like you. This stuff is on my mind. Let’s not forget, but let’s keep our spirits up.’”

He succeeded, and he knows it. As we shoot photos, he’s comfortable and relaxed, if a little subdued—understandable, given he was gyrating all over a stage at 3 a.m. the night before.7 A couple of hours in, though, he looks around the room and asks, “Do you mind if I put my new album on?”

We do not.

He connects his phone to the studio’s Bluetooth speaker, and on comes “Banana Clip,” a Rick James-ian joint with a bouncy groove. As the first verse begins, he can’t help but sing along:

There’s a war on love /
Just look around you /
It’s hard to know who to trust /
I’m glad I found you.

Suddenly, Miguel comes alive in front of the camera. He’s bopping his head and twirling in circles and throwing his arms wide open, and the photographer can’t snap fast enough. And then I realize that I’m in on it, too, unconsciously tapping my foot and rolling my shoulders. I look to my left, and the stylist is dancing over by the clothing rack in the corner. Behind me, Miguel’s publicist sits at her computer, swaying back and forth to the beat. This song—this album—is infectious, undeniable.

If Miguel was already a star, War & Leisure has the potential to propel him to greatness. Today, he’s priming himself for liftoff. “I’m so excited, man,” he says. “I see this as the beginning of a five-year thing. I’ve created more in the past year and a half than I ever have. I have a lot of music left to give. I’m not just looking at this as a single-album cycle, but a run. I’m going. I’m not stopping for five years.”

When I ask where he hopes he’ll be after those five years, Miguel flashes his gold incisors again. “I want to control my audience,” he says. “I don’t mean in the sense of telling them what to do; I just want to communicate with them on such a level that I don’t have to play any games. I want to have a fluid conversation, where I’m releasing music in a way that’s just for us—like Radiohead or Tech N9ne. I want my fans to be invested in my creative freedom. I want us to be in lockstep.”

It’s big talk, and most long-term plans that ambitious tend to go awry long before they reach completion.8 But I’ve just watched Miguel evangelize two roomfuls of people in the span of 12 hours. If anything, five years is too long of an estimate.

Photos: Richard Bernardin
Styling: Cary Tauben
Grooming: Leslie-Ann Thomson
Photo Assistant: Don Loga & Mael Bernardin

RELATED: Watch Miguel Review Baby-Making Music

References   [ + ]

1. Stef Agostino. I bet they’d have really fresh organic kale.
2. Okay, fine: I had a Jameson on the rocks. But don’t think I didn’t want five more.
3. The actress and model Nazanin Mandi, whom he’s been with for 12 years.
4. Fatty Koo was a co-ed R&B sextet that formed on a Making the Band-esque reality show on BET. Based on the music video for their song “Bounce,” which you can find on YouTube, Miguel dodged a serious bullet.
5. Jive was later absorbed by RCA, who now publish Miguel’s music.
6. I mean this literally: The song’s title translates to “Hard Candy.”
7. And, needless to say, Miguel is in much better shape than I am at this same moment.
8. Just ask Hillary Clinton.