NEW YORK – When record executive Mark Pitts heard “Sure Thing,” a song Miguel wrote for possible inclusion on an album by Usher, Pitts felt there was something special about the young songwriter. Then he heard “Quickie,” another song from Miguel, and Pitts knew he had to meet the man behind these infectious R&B jams.
“He came and performed and just had no fear. I loved him,” said Pitts, president of urban music at RCA Records. “He was like Elvis. He was all over the place at the time, but it was just different. With a little tweaking, this could be special.”
Instead of giving the songs to Usher, Pitts gave Miguel a recording contract. The 25-year-old kept the songs for his 2010 debut album, “All I Want Is You,” and the tracks became R&B hits. “Sure Thing” was 2011’s top R&B song.
Now the singer who almost fell behind the scenes is nominated for the coveted song of the year Grammy with “Adorn,” his third No. 1 hit on the R&B charts. The song is Miguel’s crossover single to pop territory and is from his sophomore album, “Kaleidoscope Dream.”
“Interestingly I’ve only more recently realized how big of a deal it is,” he said of the top category nomination, which pits him against No. 1 pop smashes from Carly Rae Jepsen, fun. and Kelly Clarkson. “I think it’s nothing short of a blessing. I’m like, `Wow. Of the year? Of the year? Really?”’
And that’s just one of his five nominations.
“Kaleidoscope Dream” is up for best urban contemporary album, a new category where Miguel will compete with Frank Ocean’s “channel ORANGE” and “Fortune” by Chris Brown. “Adorn” is also up for best R&B song and best R&B performance, while “Lotus Flower Bomb,” his collaboration with rapper Wale, is nominated for best rap song.
Like his debut, L.A.-based Miguel tackles various sounds on his latest album. He describes his music as “dangerous” and “quietly killing.” He combines R&B vocals with smooth beats at times and electro-flavored ones at others. “Adorn” is a mellow R&B outtake, as is his latest single, “Do You ...” But he also meshes funk, electric and rock sounds on his album, and he’s drawn comparisons to Prince, thanks to his futuristic vibe; shiny, fitted fashion ensembles; trendy hairstyle; and electrifying stage presence.
But Miguel’s debut didn’t splash like his latest album: He didn’t earn any Grammy nominations, though he had produced multiple R&B hits and toured with Mary J. Blige and Usher. Miguel says he was more confident when he recorded his recent album.
“I trusted myself so much more this time. I just felt a lot sturdier and kind of went with my gut on a lot of things,” he said of “Kaleidoscope Dream,” which made several critics’ best records of 2012 lists. “I had a good idea, but I don’t know if I knew how to convey the idea the best way and the most honest way, and it took that first album for me to learn the ropes.”
Miguel’s growth also comes from songwriting: He co-wrote three songs on Usher’s “Raymond v. Raymond,” co-wrote the Blige and Musiq Soulchild duet “Ifuleave” and Jaheim’s “Finding My Way Back.” He’s also expanding his audience: He recently wrapped up a tour with R&B crooner Trey Songz, and is the opening act for Alicia Keys’ “Set the World on Fire Tour,” which kicks off March 7 in Seattle. Keys also co-wrote a song on Miguel’s latest album.
Miguel, who is black and Mexican, said he’s been influenced by a number of acts, including James Brown, Freddie Mercury, Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. His sound is part of the progressive movement in R&B that includes acts like The Weeknd and Ocean, who earned six nominations at this year’s Grammys.
“I think they’re all helping each other at this point,” said Pitts, who’s worked with Notorious B.I.G., Diddy, TLC and Nas. “What Frank Ocean is doing – musically and what he stands for, him coming out, all of that – is bringing attention to the sound. ... So is Miguel ... and now the Grammys.”
Miguel said the progressive R&B movement is made up of soul-influenced “freethinkers” who are “hungry to be ourselves.”
“(We) acknowledge the fact that we’re influenced by soul music or were raised on soul music, but ... we’re hungry to transcend the expectations or the idea that soul music is one thing, (that) R&B is one thing,” he said. “R&B is an actual genre and I miss that the only expectation is to be soulful – the sound of it and the delivery is completely up to the artist.”
The 55th annual Grammy Awards will air live on CBS from the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 10.