In The Spirit Of Improv, Miguel Shut It Down On SNL

I owe Miguel a truckload of apologies. A couple of years ago, I used to refer to him as a fembot. It was mostly because, in his video for “Sure Thing” (a song of which I was a great fan), he had a Janelle Monae bouffant, was rocking a jacket that Kerry Washington probably stole for Scandal, and seemed to be pulling from Janet Jackson’s “Pleasure Principal” school of…I don’t even know what to call them…uh, “leg-gestures.”

I chalked him up as another soft “R&B dude.” Little did I know that, artistically, he’s as mean as a hungry pit-bull with an attitude problem.

This was evident throughout his last album, Kaleidoscope Dreams, easily one of the best efforts of 2012.

Then I watched his Saturday Night Live performance and, well, YEESH. That boy good.

I grew up in a jazz music household. Jazz informs my taste in popular music a great deal. For instance, my favorite singers and rappers approach songs like jazz soloists. It’s what makes Georgia Anne Muldrow’s “Nothingness” or Buckshot’s rhymes on the “I Got Cha Opin” remix so dope – playing with cadence, pitch, space and all that. And I gravitate to artists that use live instruments in their production. It’s why Black Milk might be my favorite hip-hop producer and why, more than anything else, I consider Mama’s Gun and Voodoo the two greatest black-music albums of the past 20 years.

Perhaps chiefly, jazz has conditioned me to appreciate, above all else, improvisation. When I go see my favorite artists’ live shows, I don’t actually want to be able to sing or rap along. I want them throwing improvisational curveballs – reworking, revising and reinterpreting their joints into practically brand new gems.

The daring and defiant artists do this at their live shows, often to confusion of many in the audience. Jay-Z can flip “Empire State of Mind” over the track Primo laced Nas with for “N.Y. State of Mind”; but that probably won’t go over well with the 80,000 who come to see him at Soldier Field, this summer. Adele has only but so much improvisational leeway when performing “Someone Like You,” lest she want to start a riot. (For what it’s worth, the late Amy Winehouse would do whatever the fudge she wanted with her songs, whenever the fudge she felt like it…that’s what made her so cold.)

Case in point: I’ve seen two live shows in the past week or so. At one show, Chris Dave and his band reinterpreted the Coltrane classic “Giant Steps” through the modern lens of Q-Tip’s Dilla-produced “Let’s Ride.” I know, right? At another show, Alice Smith could only stretch out but so much, beholden to the throng of young women belting out the lyrics to her new album in lockstep. If she tried to perform “The One” like she did here, that all-too-familiar buzz of anxious crowd murmuring would have been her bed music.

This brings me back to Miguel and SNL. I always wondered why more artists didn’t use SNL as an opportunity to take some creative risks and branch out. Most of the studio audience is there to see the institution that is SNL; and, if not, they’re likely there to see the guest host. Freed from the prison of fan-expectations, why not just bug out and get freaky with it? Miguel did just that.

I have never seen Miguel live, so he might take a great amount of improvisational license at all his shows. If so, more power to him. All I know is that, other than the lyrics, very little about his renditions of “Adorn” and “How Many Drinks” were like his album cuts.

He turned “Adorn” – a simmer-to-boil love song – into four minutes of sneering punk-soul.

The album version of “How Many Drinks” sounds like the type of joint you’d hear at a happy hour for the “grown and sexy” buppie set. What he performed on SNL was on some slow-burn, psychedelic ish – nouveau Maggot Brain.

Toward the end of the performance, he grunts out a “Yeah!” and stares at the camera with an “And, what?” expression. I took it personal. It’s like he was saying, “I got your effin’ fembot right here, crab.” Touché. The man was not even remotely playing around. He closed with two aggressive air-kicks, threw the mic down and skulked off the stage with the swagger of a man that knew he’d just shut it down.

It reminded me of two similar stage-exits. 1) There’s footage of a James Brown show in 1983 at the Beverly Theater, when the Godfather got wind that Michael Jackson (fresh off of Thriller) and Prince (fresh off of 1999) were in the house, and invited each up to the stage for an impromptu performance. First MJ got up, did the moonwalk and some other MJ-things. But, then Prince (high or drunk or both) came up, grabbed someone’s axe for a solo, gyrated, screeched and generally threw everyone for a wonderful loop before he – very pleased with himself – walked off the stage and almost took down a prop light pole with him. 2) Sexual Chocolate, of course. I believe it’s frontman Randy Watson (famously played by Eddie Murphy) that invented the “mic drop.” You wanna talk about improvisation? No one has ever reinterpreted “Greatest Love of All” with such verve. In fact, with all due respect, the late and exceedingly great Whitney Houston probably watched that performance and thought to herself, “I wish I would have hit that note on ‘dignity,’ too!”

Miguel’s SNL performance combined the eccentricity of Prince’s shenanigans at JB’s show with the “take something great and make it better” approach of Randy Watson’s iconic 90-second snowstorm. What more could you ask for from an artist?

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