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Sometimes a single performance shows you everything you need to know about a musician. That happens in this brand new video for the song "The Thrill," by the R&B singer Miguel. This song and the others on his recent album, Kaleidoscope Dream, are magnetic, full of personality and vitality. They walk a high-wire between the way forward and the past, and they delivered the way R&B fans were hoping they would (a.k.a. well enough to earn him those critical mentions in the same breath as Prince and Sam Cooke that he's been courting for the past couple of years).
This isn't the first video for "The Thrill." Last month, Miguel put out a black-and-white number made up entirely of pool party and club shots. There are many images of women in bikinis. Miguel does no singing (or even lip syncing), but he wears a hat that says "Trouble" on it. From the activities on display, it's clear that the lyrics "Jamey, Johnny and Jack" refer to liquor, not crew. For me, it took some of the magic out of the song.
The live in-studio performance, on the other hand, distills the best parts of him as a singer and a performer into a single video. It was produced by Yours Truly, a group that makes videos of musicians performing, often in a more relaxed or homey setting than the official videos made for promotion. Comparing these two videos for "The Thrill" makes it clear that, in paring things down, the Yours Truly team has exposed the real appeal of Miguel and what makes him distinctive, even in this year of R&B originals.
I'd rather watch someone at work than at play. In the official video, Miguel's having a blast, hanging, sticking his tongue out for photos. The scene doesn't look different from any high-end club I've ever been in. In performance though, Miguel does something he can do that regular people can't.
I don't know if this is the real Miguel in this video, but it's the musician I've been lucky enough to see play twice recently: last year at an enormous old venue in the Bronx and last month at a mid-size, industry-heavy venue in Manhattan. Onstage, he brings it. He acts man enough to guide hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people through a communal experience. When he's up there you see his decision-making and restraint; you feel the tension. And his moves make it happen on the floor. At the Manhattan show my friend leaned over and said, "Any dude who brought a girl here and can't get laid tonight should just give up." As documented by Yours Truly, Miguel's performance of "The Thrill" sounds different from the recording on his album. It's warmer but more driven, and the mid-range isn't bodied out. Miguel is more insistent and present. It's not as cool, and it's much better.
In the live video, you can see the physicality he uses to phrase the melody in the song, to shade the key, control the dynamics and hit the notes. You hear him warm up. You get to see a furrowed brow, the unavoidable byproduct of trying hard, and little adjustments that have to happen live. Yes, he's putting on a show here, blinking on cue, licking his fingers, barely making it back to the mic after a particularly theatrical pullback. You can see his band, serious and tight with the exception of his guitarist Dru DeCaro, more visible here (and whenever I've seen Miguel play) than his other band members. That guy is always cheesing, loving his job and head-banging approvingly when his lead singer sticks the landing. I'd bet at this point all these guys have done this song more times than they can count, but performing is just as much a part of their job as writing and recording are. And the exclusion of them from the official video for "The Thrill" is one of the reasons it feels so disingenuous to me.
Because while "The Thrill" is a song about partying, dancing and drinking, it's also a song about how good a good time really feels. It's not trivial or mindless or a distraction. It's not a quick fix or a cheap date. Miguel points over his shoulder at funk musicians who knew that in their bones — James Brown, who put his band to work and perfected the microphone drop, spin, catch move. Marvin Gaye, for whom sexual healing really did mean making something whole. Indeep, who gave credit where it's due with "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life." I want the video for a song about joy and release to respect our need for those things, and one of these does that with way less pretense than the other.