MIGUEL Doing what he wants to do.
Daniel Sannwald

ALL THE TALK is of Miguel Pimentel as a 21st-century soul man—a modern savior of R&B. But the first musical sound on Wildheart is of a thick, buzzy electric guitar riff, the kind you'd hear in an alt-rock relic from the '90s, or even tumbling off the locals' stage at the county fair.

Guitars, in fact, play a central role on Wildheart, Miguel's highly anticipated third album and the follow-up to his near-perfect breakthrough, 2012's Kaleidoscope Dream. The lick that cascades through "Deal" has a funky dub feel. "Waves" is built on an uncomplicated rollercoaster of chords. Heck, the pulsing riff of "Leaves" is so reminiscent of the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979," Miguel reached out to Billy Corgan and gave him a writing credit.

In other words, Wildheart is as much a rock album as it is R&B or soul, though you wouldn't necessarily know it by reading some of the record's reviews.

"I think the fact that I'm of ethnic origin makes it really hard for [people] to just accept that it is very much rock 'n' roll. It's hard for them to just say, 'Yeah, it's rock 'n' roll,'" says Miguel, son of a Mexican American father and an African American mother. "They always kind of want to tiptoe around it and throw funk in there and other things in there. But I think that'll just come with time. With time and consistency, I think people will just let go of whatever's holding them back."

When they do, they'll be following the behavior of Miguel himself. Most of the 13 tracks on Wildheart ooze with confidence and sexuality, from the breathy "Flesh," to the hedonistic "The Valley," to lead single "Coffee," a clever ode to the complexity of human relations (and one of 2015's best songs). Philosophically, though, the album revolves around a single track: "What's Normal Anyway," which finds Miguel recounting his struggle to fit in. He's "too proper for the black kids/Too black for the Mexicans" and "Too immoral for the Christians/But too moral for the cutthroat." Later, he sings: "I never feel like I belong/I wanna feel like I belong."

Even after his quick rise and the success of Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel says he still has "a bit of an underdog mentality" that he'll likely carry for the rest of his life. But he's carrying a lot less than he used to. He calls "What's Normal Anyway" an "emancipation" from the feelings it expresses; just by writing them and singing them out loud, he has not only offloaded their power over him, but has turned them into forces for good.

"Letting go of all of these parameters that I felt kept me from connecting, I've almost repurposed them and made them the reason why I do connect," Miguel says. "Because in that vulnerability, there's commonality, and people can relate with feeling out of place."

But Miguel's appeal is not solely about vulnerability, or sexuality, or his seamless blend of heavy guitars and silky soul. It's about his command over all of the above, and it's about watching him grow into that position. Kaleidoscope Dream was a big, bold step forward from his electro/hip-hop-informed 2010 debut All I Want Is You, and similarly, Wildheart feels like a window into a talented artist with impeccable taste exploring true self-assuredness. It sounds like we're getting a fuller, clearer picture of Miguel.

He agrees.

"I suppose it's the most... " he says, followed by a long, thoughtful pause, "telling of my energy at this point in my life. I think I'm a lot more aggressive than I was and probably a lot more sturdy. And so I feel more sure in my approach to things.

"When you see how far doing your own thing can really take you, it makes you more confident to just keep pushing that," he continues. "Like, 'Oh, okay. You guys like that shit? All right, I'm gonna keep doing what I want to do.' Even if they don't like it, I think it's more about reassuring yourself of your own abilities and your own principles and all the things that really hold it all together. The more and more you prove to yourself that you've got something to offer, you value it more and you're less likely to water it down."

Which brings us back to those electric guitars that give Wildheart such a distinctive sound. Miguel says he didn't enter the album's creative process with a sound or a feel in mind. He certainly didn't go in with a plan of cranking up the amps. But that's what happened, and letting what happens happen is what it's all about.

"When you swim out and are just waiting for the wave, you just kinda take it however it comes, you know?" Miguel says. "And you don't really plan—you can't plan—how the wave is gonna come or at what height or what speed or how it's gonna break. You just gotta be out there and wait for it."