Club Cinema is located in strip mall heaven. It's hidden amidst streams of car dealerships and theme restaurants. Miguel was slated to go on at 2, so I showed up at 1, ready to unwind from a drive's worth of the normally spineless Piers Morgan going tough on guns. After probably getting swindled by a half-dead Sam Elliot type presenting himself as a parking attendant, I became the shady one at club entrance. In a gloriously topical bit that cut right to the heart of the current gun nut situation better than most news stations, the bouncer called me over for a pat down because he wasn't "fucking around with no white boys these days." (Thankfully, he missed my pen.)
Shortly after getting in, the DJ announced that "we're all family" and segued into Trina's "Pull Over." Indeed, despite Jim DeRogatis' worst nightmare, the only thing that happened when the "I Don't Like" remix came on the club speakers was a club-wide rap along.
At around 1:30, sandwiched between Gucci's "Freaky Gurl" and Jeezy's "I Do" verse (for the first of many "ticket giveawayyyyy!!!!!s), Miguel was announced as "being in the club" to Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)." After the "real hip-hop" kerfuffle at Summer Jam and talk of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City's uncompromised major label release, it was jarring to hear the song in a club otherwise playing (to some) compromised major label releases. And on top of that to see multiple people vibing to it like was "Starships."
Miguel's narrative generally starts out in in label hell. The artist went in and out of court to get his first album, All I Want is You, out of the hands of early signers Black Ice. Then his image and sound were boxed in for the urban market with a chameleonic identity spread thin by too many hands. "Drank" unwittingly reminded me of the narrative's conclusion, in which Miguel transcends the limbo, comes into his own, and offers the uncompromised coherence of this year's Kaleidoscope Dream. Still, that narrative ignores the wonderfully messy Art Dealer Chic EPs, whose grab bag of magic tricks were doled out like a throwaway mixtape on Dat Piff. There's also the irony that both Art Dealer Chic and Dreams require a chameleonic adaptability to make it work, something that became useful during the night's show as well.
Eventually, possibly after waiting for the half-filled club to get full (it didn't), and after his band bought some time by cheerfully going into full "we're part of the show, too, guys!" jam mode, Miguel took the mic to "Sure Thing." He was clad in faded jeans, black visors, a leather jacket and a Clash T-shirt. In almost no time, he bid for icon status, throwing the mic stand over his shoulders, turning around and flexing his buns and letting us know that he too was Born in the U.S.A.
While I wished that Miguel, who writes his own songs, would take hold of the guitar at some point, leaving it to the band freed up his body for some fairly intense footwork. As a man who posted "moralofthestory is S T U D Y Yourself" on Twitter and multiple photos of his intense workout regimen on Instagram, the self-knowledge shows. From toe taps and sprinting-in-place synced with drum patterns like someone gracefully not getting their foot blown off while "dancing" for a firing squad, to across-the-stage crawls, feigned faints after cutting the band off at random a la James Brown moment, Miguel had the crowd eating out of his palm.
A running bit in the show was a MacGuffin of sorts in which Miguel's Michaelangelo-carved abs had to be delivered from inside his shirt to club light. First, the suspenders came off, then, during "Use Me," the mere hint of his shirt being lifted released audible cries of ecstasy. Miguel asked the audience to "make some noise if you know my first album." After doing a self-deprecatingly hesitant over/under measurement of that knowledge (holding his thumb neither up nor down before jokingly just letting it go, despite the screams), he went into "All I Want is You." Live, there was a motorik push to the reggae vibes, giving it the post-Police swagger of Bruno Mars' "Locked out of Heaven," kind of letting Miguel lay claim to "first." He gave us a blessedly Wale-free rendition of "White Lotus Flower" and then finally, took off the damn shirt, asking "is it mine?"
On the album, "Pussy Is Mine" played like a hidden skit, with Miguel defiantly strumming while his producer told him to quit playing around. There's a sincerity to its off-the-cuffness. Live, Miguel made it discordantly anthemic, plaintively crooning the lyrics over his guitar player's detuned squall, which provided a backdrop not dissimilar to the Hendrix "Star Spangled Banner." Though possessive in title, it's a remarkably vulnerable song, unguarded and bracingly insecure. Miguel, possibly a side dude or unsure of one existing, pleads that his flame put blinders over even the idea she ever had or has any other lovers, and to lie, because he "doesn't want to believe there's anyone like" him. It's desperate, self-defeating, and hopelessly romantic. Which is probably why, shirtless, and for a moment, wielding his mic like a dick, Miguel beefed it up to massive masculine heights.
Finally, Miguel teased "Adorn," going into a short a capella rendition right after doing the song's signature back-of-the-throat water drop. He then cut it short to speak a bit of Spanish, letting us know that he's practicing, and that "maybe some of y'all can help me later tonight." Those who knew of his marriage as merely a TMZ rumor audibly yelped. He gave us a short bit of autobiographical information that hinted at the identities he's had to juggle, something, no doubt, useful when navigating his earlier period of major label identity/marketing crisis.
We heard of his mother, "a beautiful black woman from L.A." and his father, "from San Juan." The summers spent at the latter's Inglewood home would soon be relevant when he launched into a hip-hop karaoke of 2 Pac's "I Get Around." Keeping his shirt off, he put the leather jacket and glasses back on, and, looking like an extra from the "California Love" video, took us back to 2010 with "Quickie" before finally giving everyone an extended version of "Adorn." It was an apt and thrilling demonstration of his perpetual adaptability and tact for reinvention. Though he seems to be fully formed, there's no predicting what 2013 will bring.
By Adam Katzman