Adam Theisen: Miguel beats the system and still becomes a superstar

By Adam Theisen, Daily Music Columnist
Published June 24, 2015

Nobody can really explain how Miguel became a star. Legal issues kept the alt-R&B singer’s debut album, All I Want Is You, from being released until two years after its recording. When it did come out, there was no marketing push, and the album only debuted at number 109 on the Billboard album charts before falling off.

However, thanks to the very slow-building momentum of its singles, All I Want Is You eventually reentered the charts and started climbing, becoming popular enough that when Miguel released his follow-up, Kaleidoscopic Dream, in 2012, it debuted at number three. And it’s no surprise why. Listen to a song like “Adorn,” with its groove that sounds like a modern remix of Marvin Gaye, and you’ll feel superstardom in all of your bones.

So when I say nobody can explain how Miguel became a star, it’s not because he’s bereft of talent in any way, but because his label, Jive, inexplicably had no faith in his abilities. He’s an almost mythical American success story — an artist whose top-notch talent and unique abilities actually rose to the top on the strength of their own merits and nothing else.

The against-the-odds success of Miguel is one of many stories that seem to confirm a long-held suspicion of mine — big record labels have no idea what to do with any sort of “urban” music that falls outside of traditional molds. As Miguel himself explained in an interview prior to the release of Kaleidoscopic Dream, “I left the marketing of my album and me as an artist up to the discretion of the label. They marketed me like the typical R&B artist, which I can't really blame them for, because that's what they know. But that's not what my lifestyle was.”

Jeremih, he of the “Don’t Tell ’Em” fame in addition to some older hits, seems to be the latest victim of this problem. The 27-year-old hasn’t released an album in five years, with his upcoming record Late Nights seeing delays for over a year despite Jeremih’s growing fame (now it’s supposed to be out next month). Jeremih has taken personal responsibility for this, and he has had some small-scale legal issues, but in an interview with Billboard he also noted, “My label is hesitating and not being on my side.”

We’re maybe getting into black-helicopter conspiracy territory here, but listen to the original version of Jeremih’s “Planes,” which he first performed live with Chance the Rapper in early 2014, and compare it with the official version (featuring J. Cole) that came out a year later. Not only do you switch out Chance’s playful bounciness for the blank slate that is J. Cole, but you lose the unique organic quality of The Social Experiment’s horn section. Instead, you get the bland production that seems to accompany every R&B song on the radio, and you get a song that sounds too much like everything else. It certainly doesn’t seem far-out that Jeremih’s record label was worried about the original version and responded by trying to reframe Jeremih into a more traditional mold.

These problems become a clear trend when you look at the past half-decade or so of major-label hip hop and R&B. Outkast’s Big Boi, also an artist at Jive around the same time as Miguel, saw his debut solo album, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, get rejected and shelved for years, with the label even laughably proposing that he include a cover of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” on the record. And this isn’t some unproven young rapper we’re talking about; this is one half of the best hip-hop duo of all time being told that his artistic vision doesn’t fit with the company’s goals. After eventually seeing release on a different label, Sir Lucious Left Foot was critically acclaimed and hit number three on the album charts.

My least favorite record company horror story, though, comes from Lupe Fiasco. Remember when B.O.B. first blasted onto the scene with singles like “Airplanes” and “Magic?” The ones that featured assists from alt-rock singers like Hayley Williams and Rivers Cuomo? Well, some smart producers and executives realized that mixing indie rock with rap could produce some hugely popular results. And they were right, but for some reason, instead of finding a young up-and-comer to adopt the style, they tried to graft it onto Lupe Fiasco, a socially conscious, already established Chicago rapper with plenty of artistic ambition and a tendency toward anxious overthinking on his songs.

The result, as you may know, was “The Show Goes On,” an ok-on-a-good-day song that repurposes the chorus to Modest Mouse’s “Float On” while basically throwing out the intelligence and soul that made Lupe Fiasco who he is. The story is that Lupe’s record label told him his album wouldn’t come out if he didn’t do the song, essentially making him a mercenary on his own hit single. You can practically hear the gun being held to Lupe’s head as he raps, “They treat you like a slave / With chains all on your soul / And put whips up on your back / They be lying through they teeth / Hope you slip up off your path.”

Company-imposed delays and artistic changes seem to happen in traditionally Black genres of music more than any other, with rappers and R&B singers suffering the most. Right now, for example, Cash Money appears to be refusing to release Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, even though a slightly past-his-prime Wayne is still one of the most bankable stars in the business. Can you imagine a label doing this to a huge rock artist like U2 or Coldplay?

There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of hip hop and contemporary R&B at these major record companies, many of which are run by older white men who have little-to-no knowledge of those genres. I’ve heard stories about labels in the ’90s blindly snatching up any rock band they could find in the hopes of making them into the next Nirvana or the next Green Day and I think the same thing is happening today, except it’s the next Jason Derulo they’re looking for. Big labels only seem to know how to copy successes that have come before, and they’re creating an increasingly homogenized R&B landscape while making it less attractive for young rappers and singers to join up with them if they want to maintain creative freedom. (Notice how Chance the Rapper has thrived and grown his fanbase while completely avoiding the actual business of recorded music.)

All of these stories are why I’m so excited for the release of Miguel’s new record, Wildheart, an album that combines the ambitious mind of Prince and the psychedelic muscle of Jimi Hendrix with the wandering California heart of Joni Mitchell and the beautiful sex of Al Green. Listening to Miguel’s smooth voice and his wonderful experimental soundscapes as they appeared on NPR earlier this week, I almost felt like this record slipped by the musical gatekeepers illicitly, that it was a bootleg version of a milder record that would be officially released later.

But Wildheart is the real thing, and it was released under the deep-pocketed Sony umbrella. It’s sexy without being crass or disrespectful. It’s calculating and intelligent while also being red hot with talent. It’s adventurous but coherent as one piece of work. It has lines like “I wanna fuck like we’re filming in the Valley” and “I wish I could paint our love / These moments and vibrant hues.” It has Lenny Kravitz on a track.

With his unexpected fame, Miguel has made a huge statement. Some artists use subversive and unique work to make a dent in the mainstream before dulling their edges for a larger audience, but Miguel has challenged himself and succeeded by creating a brilliant work of art within the major label system, establishing himself as an artist who can make the absolute best with the resources a major label deal provides without being artistically compromised. Maybe it’s a big surprise that Miguel ever became a star, but it’ll be no surprise at all if he keeps that status for a long time.

Theisen just signed an R&B recording contract with Jive. Direct outrage to ajtheis@umich.edu