Ask Miguel about the prevailing emotion he felt in the weeks before the release of his second studio album, "Kaleidoscope Dream" (RCA), and he'll tell you straight up: "Nervous. I was nervous as hell, man. To tell you the truth, I still am a little bit."
His anxiety has likely been mollified slightly by the album's reception: nearly universal critical acclaim and a No. 3 debut on the Billboard album chart. It bucks the trend of most commercially successful R&B albums of recent years in that it is a largely self-contained effort. "Kaleidoscope Dream" isn't a songwriter-by-committee effort or a series of would-be singles marbled with cameos and sculpted by various A-list producers. Instead, Miguel has his fingerprints on every track as a writer and producer or executive producer.
That led to an album that doesn't connect all the usual dots — a techno-infused chorus here, a rap star turn there. Instead it's an idiosyncratic and personal work with layered songs that reference the Zombies' menthol-cool "Time of the Season" on "Don't Look Back," acid-funk on the trippy title song, and confessional folk on "(Expletive) Is Mine," which turns its R-rated explicitness into an unconventional expression of vulnerability. The music blends the raw and the refined; everything from 808 drum machines to orchestras figures into the mix. The lyrics are equally multifaceted. "Kaleidoscope Dream" is a seduction album, but in Miguel's telling, being seduced — and ultimately fulfilled — is a good deal more complex than a one-night stand.
"As I was writing these songs, I could tell I had a theme, but not necessarily the story," he says. "I trusted my instinct, let my creativity take me, but I didn't know if people would like it or understand it. I was really nervous if people would be willing to accept this album for what it was becoming, the chances I took. It's not that I was trying to do something so out of this world, or mind-blowing, but they're different songs (than the current norm). If you're ruled by your heart and gut, you're going to end up with something different than everything else out there. So I just tried to summarize my lifestyle as best I could."
Born Miguel Pimentel 26 years ago in Los Angeles, the singer was signed to a major-label deal at Jive (later absorbed by RCA) in 2007. But more than two years of litigation over a previous record deal put his debut album on hold. He bided his time by writing songs for artists like Usher, Asher Roth and Musiq Soulchild.
"I appreciated the opportunity, but was it something I wanted to do for the rest of my life? Absolutely not," he says. "I waited for my chance to get out there and prove that I could be an artist in my own right."
When that opportunity arrived in 2010 with Miguel's first album, "All I Want is You," Jive marketed it "like I was a typical R&B artist," he says, which meant jumping through the usual hoops at commercial radio. The album languished until the single "Sure Thing" clicked in 2011, which likely gave Miguel a shot at making "Kaleidoscope Dream" on his terms.
"As an artist I try not to pay too much attention to what's going on in music around me, what are the trends on radio or the charts," he says. "I want the art and the music to be completely unique, without influence, without any added expectation. I do want to be successful — just about all my favorite music has been popular — but that has to be creative too. It has to fit who I am as an artist. I'm a young guy, an even younger artist, and a less experienced businessman with a lot to learn. There are other forces out there that go into making any product successful. The first record was me trying to balance creativity and business, and I learned a lot from that — including what not to do. Experience lent itself to what this album became and gave me confidence to push harder for what I really wanted."
Mark Pitts, the talent scout who signed Miguel to Jive, was promoted last year to a new position at RCA, and he gave the singer more latitude both in creating the album and marketing it. Miguel persuaded the label to let him release the album digitally in three parts, allowing fans to hear it and pay for it in increments.
"I learned a lot from my first album, and how I wanted to connect with my fan base as well as engage a broader audience," Miguel says. "The purpose of releasing the album in smaller parts was to engage people who didn't have time to consume an entire album all at once. There is so much content being put out by so many artists, there's not enough time to absorb it all."
The strategy proved sound. The Marvin Gaye-like "Adorn" became a No. 1 hit on the R&B chart, and the album has already sold more than 150,000 copies.
For Miguel, perhaps the tougher task is explaining where the album fits into R&B tradition. In the last year, it's part of a mini-wave of deeply personal albums by artists like the Weeknd and Frank Ocean that defy genre pigeonholing. So does Miguel consider "Kaleidoscope Dream" an R&B album?
"I definitely think it's an R&B record, though other people may not," he says. "They are so conditioned to expect certain things out of current R&B, and it's about following a formula. But R&B was once live music, it was psychedelic, it was rock, it was funk, and all these genres stem from soul music. You never would have had Funkadelic or Hendrix or Hall and Oates or the Bee Gees or the Brothers Johnson had it not been for soul and R&B. There would be no hip-hop or rock without R&B. It was important for me to be true to what R&B is, and that is soulful."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5
with Trey Songz
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 1
Where: Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: $48 and $103 at ticketmaster.com