“Damn — I should’ve brought the weed with me,” says Miguel, staring out at the rows of yachts moored by the waterfront patio of the Marina del Rey Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles.
It’s another sunny SoCal afternoon, two days before the singer born Miguel Pimentel’s 32nd birthday, and he just politely ordered avocado toast and an almond-milk latte. He’s clearly ready to unwind: After a year-and-a-half in the studio, Miguel is finally finishing up his fourth album, War & Leisure, and he’s in the middle of planning a wedding to his fiancée, model Nazanin Mandi. But, most of all, “Yesterday was an emotional day,” he explains, tugging at his navy sweatshirt with the words “War and Love” emblazoned on it. He had spent his Friday protesting with immigrant rights advocates in front of the controversial Adelanto Detention Center, a privately owned federal facility for undocumented immigrants two hours from Los Angeles where in recent months three detainees have died, five have reportedly attempted suicide and several more have gone on a hunger strike to call attention to alleged inhumane treatment. The protest was followed by a free concert by Miguel and a late-night bus ride back to Los Angeles, during which the singer spoke with several immigrants affected by America’s toughening policies, and places like Adelanto.
“They call them ‘detention centers,’ but they’re really jails,” Miguel says. “You start to see the real reason behind innocent people’s lives being ruined — it’s just money. The corporations are getting money from cheap labor, essentially.”
That’s right: The guy who once sang “Pussy Is Mine” is becoming woke. After building his career — which includes two No. 1s on the Hot R&B/HipHop Albums charts, 2015’s Wildheart and 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream — on songs about lust, love and lechery, Miguel has gradually been putting his political beliefs more front and center, starting with the Black Lives Matter tribute “How Many” he dropped on SoundCloud in July 2016. On War & Leisure, due later this year, his focus is still on the bedroom, but the music is threaded with a subtle yet undeniable subtext: Donald Trump and the dystopia he’s ushering in.
“Banana Clip” is mostly an extended my-love-is-a-gun metaphor, but in between, Miguel sings of “missiles in the sky” and “terror on my mind.” The Salaam Remi-produced “Come Through and Chill,” originally released as a SoundCloud loosie last year, is a late-night “U up?” text in musical form, but newly added guest J. Cole’s second verse references Colin Kaepernick, police brutality and Trump “manipulating poor white folk.” Think having Tantric sex with CNN on in the background. Like a lot of us, Miguel is seemingly trying to go about his life as it was before Nov. 8, 2016 — the album’s first official single, “Skywalker,” is about partying and posturing — but an uncomfortable reality keeps butting in.
“We’re trying not to pay attention, but we have to pay attention,” says Miguel. “With my albums, I always try to take a picture of what’s going on in my life. War & Leisure has political undertones, because that’s what life feels like right now. This album is intentionally about the ethos right now, that we are right in the middle of all this. We’re trying to flourish in the middle of all this. We all wake up, and it’s time to be creative and amazing and positive and all the things that we’re supposed to be when you look on Instagram, but then we’re dealing with these same problems, this injustice, wars between politicians with egos. Like, 140 characters are going to get us into a war right now?”
The message rings loudest with “Now,” easily his most overtly political song to date. The soft guitar ballad starts by directly addressing the “CEO of the free world,” asking if building “your walls up high and wide” is “the look of freedom” before name-dropping the things his policies have affected, from Dreamers to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. “In my mind, I was having a conversation with [Trump] and playing it out,” says Miguel. “Like, ‘You’re in charge now, and this is what you want to do? These are the seeds you’re planting? Go ahead and watch what happens. Not even judging. But let’s talk about this.’”
Miguel acknowledges that appealing to Trump’s humanity might not match the resistance zeitgeist — it’s certainly in stark contrast to Eminem’s widely shared recent freestyle on the BET Hip-Hop Awards, which ended with the rapper yelling “Fuck Trump.” “Eminem’s verse was so visceral, and that’s why we all loved it,” says Miguel. “That’s how I feel too. But how I deal with things, after I get over my emotions, it’s always: Let’s talk.”
There’s one line on “Now” that pleads, “let’s not waste our common ground.” Is Miguel trying to find common ground with Trump? “No,” he responds quickly. “That’s for ethnic people. And poor people. People who are lower on the ladder. We’ve all felt the oppression in some shape or form, and on that level we can understand each other. Let’s use that and galvanize and say no — we will not accept this.”
Miguel’s advocacy for immigrants comes at a time when he has been deliberately reconnecting with his own roots. He was raised mostly by his African-American mother in Los Angeles’ San Pedro neighborhood, but his father is a naturalized citizen who immigrated from Mexico’s Michoacán region as a child. Earlier this year, Miguel traveled there for the first time to meet some of his extended family, as seen in a recent episode of Viceland’s Earthworks. “It’s amazing how somehow you cannot know someone, you’ve never met them, but the energy is like you’ve known them your whole life,” he says. “Before [my Latin heritage] wasn’t really a big part of my life — that trip to Mexico really changed it for me. It made me want to make music that gave me a reason to go back.”
He did just that with “Caramelo Duro,” one of the new album’s standouts, and his first predominantly Spanish song. (It translates to “Hard Candy” — another signature Miguel sex metaphor.) “I’m really proud of it — I only had to change one lyric after I had a couple of people listen to it who know Spanish better than me,” he says with laugh.
Miguel is willing to take new chances in his music, but he’s ready to establish a more solid foundation elsewhere: at home. He and Mandi got engaged around January 2016 after dating on and off for more than a decade; they recently decided to push back their wedding so he could focus on War & Leisure and she on her new E! reality show, The Platinum Life, which also stars the significant others of Nelly and Ne-Yo. “We always make sure we’re on the same page. I was young, making dumb mistakes,” he says, taking responsibility for their past ups and downs. “But we always had a very strong connection, and that always brought us back.
“I’m glad we took the time we needed to figure it out,” he adds, getting up leave so he can head back to the studio and prep for a birthday trip (he and Mandi are going to Joshua Tree to meditate and get a sound bath). “I can’t fuck it up now.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of Billboard.