The first time I saw Miguel in concert, I thought the dude from Twin Shadow had turned into an R&B singer while I wasn't looking. It was pretty recently, at MoMA PS1's annual Warm Up outdoor concert series up in Queens. He was a sort-of-surprise guest — surprise only because the last time I'd looked at the bill, there'd been no hint of any performance beyond Jamie xx and his DJ compatriots' stationary, all-day jurisdiction. All of a sudden, (seemingly) without warning, there was this tiny, pompadoured crooner in an Urban Outfitters tank and shades was whipping up the thousands-deep mob of mostly white twenty-somethings with dreamy-sexy songs like this one, "Adorn," that half the crowd seemed to already know by heart. The other half seemed as caught off-guard as I did, but were almost immediately charmed by the sparkling, though vaguely crowd-tailored, efforts of the singer and his impeccably dressed (and similarly coiffed) band.
I began this review with that lil' number because (beware, incoming literary device) it's a metaphor of sorts, for the transformation Miguel himself has undergone over the past two years since his 2010 debut LP, All I Want is You, flopped rather miserably. That record debuted at No. 109 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and only peaked at No. 37, which, for a dude as clearly talented as Miguel, signed to Jive (now RCA), and with a high-charting single (the title track went to No. 7 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and to No. 1 on the Heatseekers chart) to boot, is pretty bad. He certainly isn't the first major-label artist to have put out a poor-performing debut, but it's worth talking about now because the dude onstage over the past few months since he's been pushing his white-hot sophomore effort, Kaleidoscope Dream, is almost unrecognizable (and it's not just because of the hairstyle). I never saw Miguel live in his All I Want Is You days, but I find it impossible to believe that any performer delivering a set like the one that went down at his Bowery Ballroom record release show last night, on the eve of Kaleidoscope Dream's full-length release, could ever have ended up at a mere No. 109. And before you try—you can't really blame marketing, either, unless it was a really botched job, because this show's brand of drum-tight, rehearsed professionalism practically sells itself.
Speaking of marketing, those folks are not messing around with their rebound. Originally, this NYC gig was booked at S.O.B.'s, the Latin club just south of the West Village that's often the home of hip-hop/R&B release shows like Miguel's. Soon after its announcement, however, the venue abruptly was moved to the Bowery — the same stage where the Weeknd and Frank Ocean sold out their own New York album debuts. Over the past few months, Miguel has been releasing chunks of Dream in free EP form in advance of the record's full release, which has done wonders in the blogosphere for songs like "Adorn" — the smooth-popping competition of Usher's "Climax" for arguably the best R&B song of the year — in terms of building anticipation and buzz around the newly reinvented singer. That's translated into a far different beast for Miguel's camp than what they had anticipated and failed with All I Want is You. Thus, it's clear they've gotten leaner and meaner since: last night's gig was strategically positioned, both in the scheme of the recent R&B wave (I beg of you, let's never use the term PBR&B in earnest again) and in the demographic that pays attention to Bowery Ballroom gigs (white college kids with allowances and a desperation for the next cool wave), as opposed to the more insular, Hot 97-listening crowd of regulars that frequent S.O.B.'s. Moving to Bowery didn't necessarily change the clientele, but it changed the visibility — bottom line, selling out Bowery Ballroom, which he did, is a more impressive publicity clipping to a larger national public than selling out S.O.B.'s.
Something within Miguel himself, too, must've revved its engine two years ago in the same way his PR team's did, because everything about this new record tastes like sweet redemption, and his electric live show has followed suit. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have: Miguel seems to have learned his lesson, and his ravenous appetite (and aptitude) for stardom is palpable the millisecond he steps onto the stage. It's hard to believe, when he does, that just minutes before, a weird club-banger DJ was spinning two-year-old LMFAO tracks and demanding cheers from highly specific, moderately interested groups (Single ladies! Dominicans! Puerto Ricans! People born in the '80s!) awaiting the main act. He swoops onto the mic with impressive ferocity, decked out in that same flurry of Twin Shadow-meets-Prince metallics and sunglasses, and backed by the same band and a monstrous, fluorescent display of stage lighting. And from the moment he opens his mouth, the charisma and scorching determination he's been boiling up over the past few years marches out over the crowd like a goddamn Beijing military exercise. It's the kind of rehearsed perfection that used to be standard in the live-concert sphere, but that has fallen off somewhat in the years since touring has become the majority of an artist's paycheck; since most artists have to perform, there's not as much pressure to act like you really earned your being there. As things are, what Miguel does with his melodies, with his pauses and audience banter, with dance moves, with his lighting designer —they're jaw-droppingly effective. It's like watching an early Beyoncé show, had she been forced to work her way to the top without Destiny's Child, or maybe, more simply, seeing a pre-Doo-Wops & Hooligans-era Bruno Mars (especially because they're both really attractive short men oozing with sex appeal): you know exactly the type of star Miguel is now determined to be.
And of course, the crowd is practically giving birth down here. As Miguel strips off his shades, then his shimmery midnight-blue jacket, men and women alike do that knee-bend roto-grind dance move, whether they've got a date attached to their hips or not. (I saw a couple dudes pelvic-thrusting all by their lonesome, texting with their plastic cocktail cups suspended in their teeth. Right on.) They can't contain themselves long enough to stage a proper crowd sing-along to All I Want cut "Girl with the Tattoo" — the second he starts crooning over them, they all abandon their parts and start cheering uncontrollably. When the singer digs into each naughty word of "Pussy is Mine," a friend reminds me that this song has been streaming, unedited, on NPR's website for the past week. There is something serious happening here, but hell if I can take my eyes away from the tiny, expertly backlit descendant of Mercury, Bowie and Prince to notice any larger themes: he's locked the crowd in a staring contest, daring them to avert their eyes with every dirt-nasty "pussy" invocation. (Sidenote: Ha, you people thought Frank Ocean was a Prince disciple?)
The only hint of overkill that seeps into the night is during the encore, by which time about half the audience has, oddly yet swiftly, drained from the room anyway. He monologues for a few minutes about how his record is coming out in mere minutes and thanks to all the people in the balcony, his family and friends and "the love of [his] life," for being here to support him. He starts tearing up, a move that's just a tinge over-dramatic others were less charitable, and rambles off a few more grateful remarks before launching into "Vixen," a downer of a number about role-play from All I Want that seems a bit of a strange choice to tie off such an dazzling evening. Here's the video of those six minutes, if you don't believe me:
But, who cares? As I said before, the rest of this show was steeped in traditional entertainer-style professionalism, so an off-the-cuff, honest-to-god encore actually fits perfectly in that reimagined, revitalized scheme. Well re-played, team Miguel. Here's to adaptation, determination, and hoping that, in a few years, a bleary-eyed teenager shows up at his first Twin Shadow concert and says, "Yo, this dude looks just like that R&B guy."