Miguel is out to rearrange the genre. And with "Adorn" topping the R&B charts, he's well on his way.
Miguel is not a bottle-popper. He's not buying tables or swilling Champagne in the club. He's not inside the club at all. Instead, you might find him sipping Jack and Coke and talking about his favorite blogs with whoever's on the stool next to him at the local dive bar. He's the rare R&B star who might be more comfortable nestled in a crowd of indie-rock nerds than a throng of models. "I remember seeing Radiohead the first time they played Coachella," Miguel boasts.
That was in 2004, when Miguel Jontel Pimentel was still a teenage music junkie of mixed race trying to find his mission as a performer, producer and songwriter. Eight years later, the 25-year-old identifies himself as part of a new wave of R&B artists less concerned with singles that nod to EDM and promise to make you scream and more interested in unfurling slow grooves that explore new territory. With his music joining that of Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and Elle Varner, he sees what he calls an R&B "renaissance" taking shape.
"Somewhere along the way... the genre became a stereotype, and I've never been one for stereotypes," Miguel says. "I'm Mexican and black -- my father is Mexican, my mom is black. I've been in the middle my entire life, having to make decisions as to who and what I am. It was really important for me to stand out. I wanted the music to stand out that way."
Miguel's debut album, "All I Want Is You," was released less than two years ago, but the singer considers follow-up "Kaleidoscope Dream," due Oct. 2 on ByStorm/RCA Records, to be "a reintroduction." The new album is more daring in its synthesis of unfussy instrumentation and intimate songwriting -- witness the careful guitar haze of "Use Me" or the falsetto-strewn metaphors of the title track.
The album's first single, "Adorn," has sold 190,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan; ascended to the top of Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs tally in its 19th week; and is making inroads at top 40 as well, clocking in at No. 35 on this week's Billboard Hot 100. SiriusXM VP of music programming Dion Summers says that the song has amassed 1,600 spins and is still in power rotation, while R&B/hip-hop WVEE Atlanta PD Reggie Rouse says requests have been flooding in from men and women for the adoration anthem. "He's got a great following, and he's not selling sex per se-he's selling romance," Rouse adds.
After Mark Pitts, the then-president of urban music at Jive, signed Miguel to his ByStorm Entertainment imprint in 2007, the singer's debut album sat completed and unreleased for more than two years due to legal issues with Miguel's former production company. When "All I Want Is You" was finally issued through ByStorm/Jive in December 2010, the album's title track was still slowly growing at radio, and Miguel was finding his way as a performer, having recently joined Usher and Trey Songz on tour.
The disc debuted at No. 109 on the Billboard 200 with 11,000 copies sold, according to SoundScan. "I was sick to my stomach," Pitts recalls about the first-week numbers. "I didn't really want to put it out at that time, but we knew he was going to tour and needed to get some product out there."
Miguel and manager Phillana Williams agreed that he should spend the next year supporting "All I Want Is You" on the road, and as Miguel polished his stagecraft, more singles connected: "Sure Thing" hit No. 1 in May 2011, and "Quickie" followed with a No. 3 peak in October 2011. Meanwhile, Wale's No. 1 single "Lotus Flower Bomb" featured Miguel on the hook and reached 552,000 downloads. Sales for "All I Want Is You" now stand at 404,000 copies, according to SoundScan.
Still, Miguel feels that the artist who made "All I Want Is You" wasn't the real him. "That album was a huge learning experience," he says. "I left the marketing of my album and me as an artist up to the discretion of the label. They marketed me like the typical R&B artist, which I can't really blame them for, because that's what they know. But that's not what my lifestyle was."
When Jive, along with Arista and J Records, was shuttered and absorbed by RCA Records last fall, Pitts was named president of urban music at RCA. Miguel remained part of ByStorm Entertainment, and the jump from Jive to RCA gave the R&B singer a new label team (with a key supporter in a powerful position) to appreciate the development of his persona.
Last February, Miguel released "Art Dealer Chic Vol. 1," the first in a three-part mixtape series that introduced a more ambitious sonic approach. Vol. 1 included a two-minute, 18-second song titled "Adorn" that was a quick burst of new-school soul never meant to grace the radio. But when Pitts played the mixtape for the first time while driving down the West Side Highway earlier this year, "Adorn" made him want to dance in his car. "No matter what record he sent me next, I knew this was the first single," Pitts says.
With radio stations already asking for the mixtape cut, Miguel agreed to return to the studio and add a bridge to the track, and soon "Adorn" became a three-minute, 14-second official single. RCA senior VP of marketing Lisa Cambridge says the song started off at rhythmic radio and eventually became a focus for top 40. In its seventh week on the Hot 100 Airplay chart, "Adorn" is No. 23.
Last July, "Adorn" was featured on "Kaleidoscope Dream: The Water Preview," a digital EP that contained the first three songs on his forthcoming album. "The Air Preview" followed in September with three more songs, including the album's Salaam Remi-produced title track. The EPs were Miguel's idea for reaching new fans, and while Cambridge recognizes the risk of releasing six of the album's 11 tracks before the full-length hits stores, she stresses that the label wanted to herald the vision of its talent and the quality of "Kaleidoscope Dream" instead of focusing solely on first-week sales.
"The stakes are high for everybody, but we knew that the music was there," Cambridge says. Additionally, the "Water" and "Air" EPs will be pulled from digital retailers once the album is released, and fans can use iTunes' Complete My Album tool to scoop up the remaining tracks. "The idea of rolling it out this way is a great mix of a promotional opportunity and an early revenue stream."
Miguel kicks off a short U.S. promotional tour on Sept. 26 in Washington, D.C., and Williams says that the singer will stay on the road in North America and Europe during the next six months. A partnership with Grey Goose for the brand's "Rising Icons" video series will continue for a second year, with more branding opportunities being mulled over. Meanwhile, "Kaleidoscope Dream" will receive a more extensive big-box rollout than Miguel's debut, highlighted by Target-exclusive tracks and endcap placement at the retailer.
And while "Adorn" may prove to be Miguel's biggest hit yet, it's only the beginning of the makeover that R&B fans are going to hear. Woozy follow-up single "Do You" will soon bring the hook "Do you like drugs? Well, me too, me too" to R&B/hip-hop formats.
"I want to change urban radio," Miguel says. "I want to change the sound of what's expected from R&B songs on the radio, and I really intend on doing that -- especially with this next single."