Growing up in Los Angeles, the R&B star Miguel was never sure where he fit in. His mother was African-American and religious, his father was Mexican-American and atheist. As he muses in What’s Normal Anyway, the keynote track from his latest album Wildheart, he was "too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans, too square to be a hood… too out of touch to be in style, too broke for the rich kids."
It’s an ode to identity anxiety that hits home with anyone who’s ever struggled with the longing to belong. But Miguel Jontel Pimentel’s hyphenated self has turned out to be key to music that leaps past the usual pop formulas, combining sultry soul and electro funk, dissonant rock guitar and gritty hiphop, romantic poetry and sweaty sexuality, earning him comparisons to Prince and a spot amongst a new generation of hybrid R&B stars, including The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar.
"It’s become a part of my creative process," says Miguel of his hybrid identity. He performs Friday at the Faena Theater, part of a concert series at an intimate new venue in the luxurious Faena Hotel on Miami Beach. "It is a double-edged sword, but it makes my music interesting and my life interesting, because it’s a question that’s not easily answered. I think What’s Normal Anyway is about me accepting that it doesn’t need to be answered."
His comfort with personal duality and artistic independence comes through on Wildheart, last year’s follow up to his 2012 commercial breakthrough, Kaleidescope Dream. That album’s biggest hit, the sensual Adorn, with its echoes of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, won a Grammy for Best R&B song.
"I’m growing up as a person and as a musician in front of everyone," says Miguel, who is 30. "At the point of creating Wildheart I definitely reached a new level of confidence and conviction of who I am and what I want to stand for."
The album is thoroughly idiosyncratic. Miguel has said it’s inspired by twilight in L.A., and the city’s mix of fantasy and desperation. The Valley (a reference to the center of the L.A. porn industry) is a taut, throbbing electro-pop salute to sexual obsession, with Miguel proclaiming "I’m your pimp, I’m your poet… I wanna [have sex] like we’re filming in the valley." On the romantically yearning Coffee, one of its most popular tracks, he layers soulful vocals over dreamy psychedelica. Grinding rock guitar powers the temptation and cynicism of Hollywood Dreams. Guests include rapper Kurupt and guitar god Lenny Kravitz.
Miguel’s confidence to go his own way is the result of years of struggle to be accepted, personally and in the music industry. His parents divorced when he was 8, and he was raised by his mother in the port town of San Pedro in greater L.A., with a mix of whites, Latinos, blacks and Asians. He’s wanted to pursue music since he was in his early teens, when he would sometimes introduce himself to other kids by singing. But he bounced around industry offices for years, confounding executives who didn’t know whether to label him black or Latino (or even Asian), how to market him or his music, or to whom.
"I was coming to terms with those things and accepting who I am," he says. "Which can be really confusing. It’s constantly battling oneself and trying to figure out where is the true voice."
One area where he’s never lacked confidence is sexually; his persona, and many of his songs, ooze sensuality, sometimes smoothly seductive, sometimes bluntly lustful. His smooth, tattooed, six-pack torso shows up a lot.
"Sexuality is a comfortable place for me," Miguel says. "What I think now is being desired in that way was a part of greatness for me… I’m also a Scorpio, so it plays into my whole thing."
The artists that influence him these days are the singular, genre-breaking figures of an earlier generation. "They’re all resting in power now," says Miguel. "You look at [David] Bowie, you look at Prince, you look at Michael [Jackson], you look at James [Brown]. I consider them my musical and artistic mentors."
"I have a tremendous respect for people and art that at least give you something to think about, challenge the mind a little bit. I don’t want to be preached to, and I don’t want to preach. But at the same time I feel a responsibility to those mentors to push."
He promises to push his own limits in Friday’s concert, which will be his first solo show with a full band in Miami.
"I have a lot of energy to give," he says. "It’s fun, it’s wild, it’s sexy, it’s powerful, it’s spiritual, it’s funny, it’s human. I’m here to entertain you, I’m here to connect with you. All my creative decisions make sense after you see me live."
If you go
What: Miguel in concert
When: 11 p.m. Friday
Where: Faena Theater, 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Info: $57.09; ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000
Limited standing room tickets only