Miguel is running behind schedule, and when I spot him enter his hotel lobby—the one in New York where everyone snaps the exact same neon escalator pic, I’m excited to begin. But he breezes past, hits that escalator with a huge suitcase, and disappears for an hour... and then some. As daylight wanes and we bet on whether we’ll pull off our late March outdoor photoshoot, I start to wonder if he’ll return—and which version of the electric R&B singer we’ll get when he does.
War & Leisure, the album he is currently on tour to support, has spawned four wildly different iterations: In “Told You So,” Miguel gives us dystopian Gene Kelly, joyfully dancing in a desert amid intense militarization. “Now” is a somber look inside the largest immigrant detention facility in California. Then there’s the hedonistic house party of “Sky Walker,” and the Miguel we’ve seen most often over the years—the cocksure lothario in “Come Through and Chill.”
When the South LA-reared artist finally descends the escalator, swallowed up in shiny leather pants that zip at the ankle and a graphic Stella McCartney button-up layered over a black hoodie, he is none of the above.
Time tends to be fluid for artists, but to my surprise, Miguel is apologetic for being late. I know because he looks directly in my eyes with a disarming warmth, while shaking my hand and saying, “I’m so sorry.” As our tiny entourage heads outside to a nearby playground, he offers, “I’ll be really easy, I promise.”
Miguel keeps his word. He does the Birdman hand rub, then flexes into poses with no direction needed. His locs dangle half-up, half-down and the gold fang caps on his teeth glisten with each flash of the photographer’s camera. It’s so effortless I ask if his model fiancè Nazanin Mandi coached him. “It’s easy when the vibe is right,” he replies. “It’s a nice splish right now.”
“Splish” is a term coined for War & Leisure’s lead single, “Sky Walker,” which features lit-hop wunderkind Travis Scott. Like, if a vibe had a sound, it would be “splish”—parts adjective, affirmation, and punctuation:
Cap and a stem, catch a wave on us (splish)
Take a shot, make a friend, just enjoy the moment
I'm Luke Skywalkin' on these haters (splish)
“Skywalking” is another catchall term Miguel devised in relation to his latest project. He might have just been fucking around and stumbled upon some faux-spiration, but one meaning for “Skywalking” is to be in your bag, to recognize yourself as the chosen one. It’s an ethos Scott imbues in his guest verse when he brays, “In my 23s having a Jordan moment.”
"I think there’s a Miguel fan in everybody—excuse me, I’m a dreamer. I really do."
It’s also a portal into Miguel’s current outlook on the game. At 32, he’s been navigating the turbulence of the music business for four studio albums now (longer if you count his first production deal, inked at age 15). On some albums, he conquered the wave—Kaleidoscope Dream earned four Grammy noms and its breakthrough single “Adorn” notched Best R&B Song of 2013. But on others, he floundered—2015’s Wildheart garnered critical acclaim, but the guitar-driven fantasia was perhaps too sonically ambitious for mass consumption. The wipeouts have pushed Miguel not to shore, but to a higher vantage point—skywalking, if you will, above the misfires that threatened to stagnate him. Now the artist is refining his strategy.
“That’s why I’ve been doing this, you know? I’ve been trying to identify who wants to hear me,” he says later from the hotel’s penthouse suite. “And I think there’s a Miguel fan in everybody—excuse me, I’m a dreamer. I really do. I think I have something to offer everybody. I have something to learn and to teach, and it’s just about how do we get at the same table?”
“That’s where you get ‘Sky Walker,’” he continues. “‘Sky Walker’ was me going, okay, let me study… how do I be me, and have a conversation with you? What do I know that I can offer you in a way that you can understand it, and then come and teach me something? And so now I have younger kids at my shows.”
Seeing “Sky Walker” reach No. 1 on the rhythmic radio charts, Miguel believes the ravenous appetite among young people for this current class of popular artists—the ones disparaged as mumble or Soundcloud rappers—is a phenomenon to be praised, but also, to be studied. “They’re filling some void. Somewhere, some kid is understanding, and that’s the language,” he says. “They’re communicating. And for the smart person, for the student, for the passionate ones, it’s up to us to take that and to analyze and to learn and go: how do we communicate? Because at the end of the day, that’s all I wanna do; I just want to communicate.”
No, Miguel really just wants to communicate with you. It’s a word he uses often throughout our conversation. And if you’ve listened closely, from All I Want Is You to Kaleidoscope Dream to Wildheart to War & Leisure—as disparate as these bodies of work may seem—this longing for communication has been an undercurrent of each one. There, nestled between and inside the sensual songs that have become his trademark (“Pussy Is Mine,” “Quickie,” “Arch N Point,” etc.) are stories of a man desiring to be understood despite his warring contradictions. It’s even exposed on Miguel’s mixtapes, like back in 2012 on Art Dealer Chic, Vol. 2 when he wails, “Don't you hear my passion? Don't you see I'm ill?”
Since the days when he went by his full name on MySpace, Miguel Jontel Pimentel has always crafted songs that elasticize R&B, his voice oozing like lava over shifting tectonic plates of genre. The nebulous subgenre “alt-R&B” has been the closest he’s come to categorization, but even that falls short. He’s the kind of artist who can get accused of doing too much, but it stands to reason that a person who embodies ambiguity would make art that is an extension of himself.
“There’s just so much duality in my life, contrasting things in my life,” he says. “My mother raised me to be religious, my father believes in a greater power, but he’s not religious at all… So I have those two things. My ethnicity, you know what I’m saying. I think I was raised to be very polite—that’s my mother. My father is the no-nonsense: Don’t fuck with me, I’ll fuck you up, and I have that. I could go on…”
Although he’s been laid bare in song, Miguel the man still reads like a mystery. It’s why the personality I become privy to throughout our conversation is the biggest surprise of all. He turns his phone off when it rings and doesn’t look at it again; he never interrupts or rushes; he actively listens to my questions and calls back to them later on. His sense of humor sneaks out as well. When I tell him it bothers me that people say he only writes about sex, he replies, “To your point, it’s not like I haven’t incorporated other things in my music, it’s just…” Here he takes on a sing-songy, exaggeratedly feminine voice, like KiKi. “What can I say? I am a pretty nigga, what do you want me to dooo?”
And, he’s naturally as mischievous as a little boy. Miguel tries to distinguish that he doesn’t play the guitar, necessarily, but he writes songs on the guitar, “and I produce music, so I know how to get what I need from what I want. And I know what I want, and I know how to get it.” Here, he is contemplative, reasoning this out in his own mind so he repeats it aloud, “I know what I want and I know how to get it—from music.” The impish aside makes me wistful after we stop laughing, like, Damn, more people should get to see this side.
You could point to other artists who only mete out what they want the public to have, and no more—Beyonce, for example. But you must contrast this with the People’s Champ, Cardi B. For a long time, her product was her personality, which made it easier to sell her music when the time came. The veneer of accessibility can make disciples or detractors, and the line is very thin. That, too, has been a process Miguel has been learning in real time.
“I think the best to do it have learned how to stay in your face but not become oversaturated, you know? And I think for me, it’s been kind of just trying to understand how everything works and evolve with it to understand how deep into it I want to aim to be engaged,” he says. “At the same time I really do enjoy my privacy and being to myself, for real. But I also know that I have a lot to give and a lot to offer. Now I’m at a place where I’m like, okay, I think I’m getting my balance.”
Over the course of his career there certainly have been times when the public has demanded more transparency; in March of 2017, for example, the singer was accused of sexual assault. SPIN reported last December that through a publicist, Miguel called the accusation "unfair and unwarranted," and perhaps because the claims were made just ahead of the #MeToo movement, he emerged relatively unscathed. And no one can forget the infamous leg drop at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards that left a fan seriously injured. When I ask about the collective ups and downs—not one point in particular—I get the sense that Miguel has been processing the moments he can't rewind, but determining not to be moored to them.
"I have my scars; no one goes through any of these battles that we deal with without ‘em. But it’s how we choose to look at them and keep them in check, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, do we remember it and go woe is me, or do we remember and go that was a lesson learned? And move forward."
"I am playing chess now because I’ve had enough time to study the tapes and go, OKay, this is how I’m gonna attack this."
His embracing of homeostasis—determining to be and present his authentic self moving forward—is what should have fans excited to see what Miguel does next.
“War & Leisure was the setup,” he says. “I am playing chess now because I’ve had enough time to go and re-analyze, study the tapes and go, okay, this is how I’m gonna attack this, and this is my strategy. And I wanna do it in a way that’s true to Miguel and I think is gonna bring my fans with me. I think that’s what War & Leisure was for, it was also to remind the fans from all of those different places of what they have in common, what we have in common, still, and that they should come with me.”
Miguel goes into a zone now, breaking eye contact and staring ahead as the words start to tumble out. The sun is doing the thing where it gets brightest right before it sets, and Miguel is radiantly backlit as he tries to elucidate his future hopes. The “dreamer” in him is on full display: “I wanna show you all the shit that I’m seeing, I wanna show you what I’ve learned. There’s something beautiful on this side, and for those of you that are with me that have came with me, I love you even more for it. For those of you that I lost along the way, let me show you like, aye, it’s me; I’m still your nigga. It’s still me—and by the way, we got some other shit to talk about too, so let’s go! And let’s be on this cloud, let’s see the world from this height.”