Pazz & Jop: Miguel Is Living The Dream


The first line of the album’s first song sets the tone: “These lips can’t wait to taste your skin.” You have entered Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream, a fantastical, steamy, colorful, gritty-but-polished, polished-but-gritty, dripping-with-sex-sweat bacchanal of Marvin Gaye smoothness. The song is “Adorn,” and it hit the young Los Angeles–based Mexican/African-American singer like a flash of light, the chords coming to him on a cross-country flight, the lyrics following shortly after. He touched down, wrote the thing in a blur, and doesn’t remember much of anything about the process.

Because that’s often how great art is made—a rush of unexplained and inexplicable inspiration, divine or otherwise, knocks the singer/writer/painter/poet flat over, a happy accident, and a song/book/picture/poem emerges from the fog. Like, say, Stephenie Meyer, who went to sleep one night dreaming of shiny vampires and hunky werewolves, and woke up to find the Twilight saga spill out of her, “Adorn” flashed and pulsed in Miguel’s mind’s eye from something or somewhere other. He couldn’t write down the recipe, because there was no recipe. It just appeared, a dream while awake. A kaleidoscope dream.

“There’s got to be a better example than that,” says Miguel, laughing, fresh from our photo shoot in L.A., en route to depart for Europe. “But, yeah, I guess you could make the comparison. It’s the only song that’s ever hit me like that. It was so different, so special. I knew instantly I wanted to start the album with it and that I had a single.”

“Adorn” has a strong “Sexual Healing” vibe, but you’d be deaf or dumb to dismiss it as a mere knockoff. The song is about love, of course, but it’s also about longing, yearning, protecting: every aspect and promise of a relationship all rolled up in a tidy, sweet few minutes. It’s the perfect amuse-bouche for the album it kicks off, priming the ears, opening them.

Kaleidoscope Dream is Miguel’s sophomore effort, and you know how that goes. They’re usually stinkers, unable to live up to whatever wildly inventive, critically acclaimed debut that came before. But this isn’t that. Because Miguel’s debut, All I Want Is You, wasn’t really. His name was attached, but it didn’t say much about him. It showed he could sing—Gaye, Prince, and (his comparison) Van Morrison all linger in his voice. It showed he had chops, but it gave no sense of who he actually was. He was young in the music game. He did what was expected and, in some regards, what he was told.

Kaleidoscope is the album All I Want was supposed to be, Miguel expressing himself, laid bare, taking chances, exposing his raw nerves to air. Thing is, there would be no Kaleidoscope without All I Want. He couldn’t know what he fully believed in until he got a chance to make something he fully didn’t. “That was the purpose of this album, me saying, ‘This is the music I love to make, but I want to make it on my own terms.’ On [All I Want] I was at the brink of discovering what my terms were. I don’t know that I would say it was on someone else’s terms. I think I would just say I was learning myself.”

What he learned, what he believed in and wanted, was to express a deeper, darker side of his personality, the real Miguel. The freak. The romantic. The protector. The horndog. The man who wants you to tell him your pussy is his (“Pussy Is Mine”) and no one else’s. These raw bits of sexuality and frank freak talk were absent in much of r&b in 2012, either masked in double entendre (Usher’s “Climax”), buried in retro Sam Cooke–isms (R. Kelly’s Write Me Back), or ignored altogether (Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange). Miguel tapped into his real, sensual self by recording in New York City’s midtown Platinum Sound Studio, spending nearly two years in the city and on the East Coast to connect with the rougher edges of his persona. “In context of what’s been released, I knew that it was going to stand out,” he says.

“[New York City] helped me emphasize or highlight the grittiness in my lifestyle, the edgy side of my life. This album is a bit less polished sonically,” he says. “There’s this undertone of grit. There’s this scuzziness to the sound of it. And it’s all very deliberate. Being there, being in the midst of it all, kept me in that mind-set. I’m not the ‘go to the club and pop bottles’ kind of guy. That’s not my lifestyle. I really like to party, but it’s done in a more, like . . . I don’t know . . . just darker. I’m looking for the speakeasy on the Lower East Side that has a secret door and a password.”

Call him the anti-Drake, the unlikely and rare r&b singer who eschews bottle service and the velvet rope. Fuck a cover price. He’ll have another boilermaker. And while those aspects of Miguel aren’t readily apparent on Kaleidoscope, what is clear is that he has tapped into some new vein.

“I don’t act like this album is so innovative or that I’m doing something that’s never been done before,” says Miguel. “You never know how people are going to look at things or take things that are different.”

Turns out people took it just fine.