As one of today's foremost purveyors of baby-making R&B jams, you wouldn't expect Miguel Jontel Pimentel, better known by just his first name, to have much of a political agenda in his music. And he doesn't, really, even if his latest album bears the provocative title of War & Leisure. Miguel isn't one to engage in outright sloganeering, but there is an underlying current of unease on the record, which is perfectly understandable given that it was made by a young mixed-race man living in the U.S. in the Age of Trump. If "City of Angels" is a tad melodramatic in its imagining of bombs raining down upon Los Angeles, "Told You So" comes across as an admonition of thoughtlessly conspicuous consumption when Miguel sings "Every pleasure you taste has its price, babe." Mostly, though, this is the type of music you reach for when you want to get freaky in the bedroom, which means no one should be shocked if Vancouver's birth rate spikes nine months after Miguel plays the PNE Forum tonight (February 24).
MIGUEL'S SPACE. Remember Myspace? It’s what your parents used to use for social networking and discovering new music before Facebook and Spotify obliterated all competition. There’s an argument to be made that Miguel owes at least part of his early success to Myspace. Circa 2007, he was sitting on a recording of a song called "Sure Thing", which he had serious reservations about ever releasing because he felt at the time that it was too personal.
I was convinced to put it on my Myspace page and it kind of really blew up on its own on, on Myspace—and this when Myspace was kind of the place. I wasn’t reaching out to people, like ‘Hey check my song out’ or anything like that… People were just adding it to their pages and whatnot. And it went up like 11 million plays.
Miguel credits "Sure Thing" as the song that helped him get signed to Jive Records, and it turned out to be one of his early career milestones. When it was finally officially released as a single in early 2011, it hit the number one spot on Billboard's Hot R&B Hip-Hop Songs chart, an achievement Miguel owes in large part to a certain social networking site. “Myspace is a huge reason why I am where I’m at,” he has said. “It [was] a turning point.”
Motherly Love. If the international sex symbol’s mom had her way, Miguel would have found a long and fulfilling career as a preacher. As a youngster and teen, the star went to church every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday at the behest of his real estate agent matriarch. According to his interviews in The Guardian and on The Cruz Show, she cut a formidable figure. Not only did she prohibit him from going to parties, but she also used to “whoop him with a belt” if he got out of line. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t until the star was in college that he started drinking, smoking, or getting laid—and we can hardly blame him.
Pussy power. Because we’re filled with self-loathing and a general feeling of worthlessness, there’s nothing we gravitate to more than stars who are secretly tortured. Miguel seems to fit the bill. Over the years he’s disparaged himself as a C-List celebrity, and given every indication that, if he was truly successful, he’d be playing venues like BC Place instead of the Forum. That’s the kind of talk of someone who’s no stranger to punk rock—the one genre made for losers by losers. (And that, by the way, is meant as a compliment). Sure enough Miguel—who has a well-documented love for mainstream rock acts like Queen and the Beatles—also knows his way around the underground. Last year he went as far as to cover the Pussy Riot screed “Make America Great Again”. The singer approached the song like a man who secretly believe he’s not worthy, tweeting that he’d come up with a “shitty emo cover”, and then enouraging folks to check out the real thing. The Russian agitators, meanwhile, quickly gave Miguel’s rendition their stamp of love and approval. Because we’ve never received either (love, or approval), words can’t describe how wortheless that affirmation that made us feel.
True to his self. Born to an African-American mom and a Mexican dad, Miguel has never been shy about the fact he wonders where exactly he fits in in this world. Remember when, in “What’s Normal Anyway”, he sang “Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans, to square to be a hood nigga”? At least he’s not only at peace with that, but also proud of where he comes from. Miguel wears a skull-with-a-sombrero ring on his right hand to remind him of his Latino heritage. At the beginning of his career, he also made it clear that he has zero interest in adopting rap stereotypes that would pander to urban audiences. As he told the Guardian, he briefly gave up wearing skinny jeans he wore in homage to punk bands he adored for white Ts and saggy jeans: “I tried all that shit and it was disengenous. It’s not who I am.”
Embracing originality. In the unlikely chance that music doesn’t work out for Miguel in the long term, he can always take on a career as a spin doctor. A lonely teen who was bullied by his peers, the singer turned his outsider status into fodder for his professional image, working his five-foot-six frame into flamboyant outfits, wearing eyeliner to meet major-label A&R reps, and embracing his racially-ambiguous appearance—a prior target for cruel high-schoolers. Best of all, though, is his take on critics designating his music as “PBR&B”: a snide sub-categorisation of alternative R&B music that links the artist with Pabst Blue Ribbon, a tasteless beer preferred by those who often boast of their discerning palates. “I’m an acquired flavour”, he tells Spin in an interview when discussing the slight. “I had to realize that’s good for me. It does stuff like keep me on the charts a lot longer than the song people hear and immediately think is amazing. When you get it, it’s like, ‘Ohhhhh shiiiiit’, and then it lives.”