When it comes to male neo-soul singers, '70s Marvin Gaye is the template and D'Angelo is the ideal: smooth lover men, a little bit bohemian, all incense and orgasms.
But at the Orpheum Sunday night, April 30th, two otherwise disparate performers -- headliner Anthony Hamilton and opener Van Hunt -- will embody paths to success that break the genre archetype.
Like most neo-soul singers, Hamilton looks back to the '70s, but he's a different kind of old school. He's occasionally reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield, a neo-soul progenitor, but otherwise evokes the modest, decidedly down-home virtues of less fashionable '70s soulsters such as Bill Withers and Bobby Womack.
A North Carolina native, Hamilton earned his stripes as a back-up singer and hip-hop hook man (on Nappy Roots' "Po' Folks" and Jadakiss' "Why") before breaking out in 2003 as one of those overnight success stories a decade in the making. Hamilton got his first record deal in the mid-'90s, but not much came of it. But then came Comin' From Where I'm From, one of the very best R&B albums of the decade and such a grower that it was still hanging around the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B album chart a year after its release despite never rising higher than #6.
With organic keyboards and horns brushing up against hip-hop beats and production, Comin' From Where I'm From looks backward and forward at the same time. Hamilton is especially affecting when reminiscing on his hardscrabble upbringing in Charlotte, as on the title track and especially "Mama Knew Love," which is sort of an unintentional answer record to the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." ("Mama knew love like the back roads/Used to fall asleep daily in her work clothes/Mama knew love like the back streets/Used to wipe pee just to make the ends meet.")
But despite a song called "Cornbread, Fish & Collard Greens," what signals something new is that Hamilton isn't just country in the black, Southern sense (a la Stax: "You're country, Otis. Straight from the Georgia woods") but that he's a little bit country in the Nashville sense. The standout "Lucille" references the Waylon Jennings/Kenny Rogers hit of the same title.
The new Ain't Nobody Worryin', released late last year, is a disappointment only by comparison: fewer irresistible choruses, fewer audacious formal gambits, fewer concrete lyrics. But compared to the rest of the contemporary soul competition, it's top-shelf. Hamilton is still working out his "Southern Stuff," but is better this time playing it straight, which means the mournful, Raphael Saadiq-produced, Mayfield-worthy social lament of the title track and the slow-burn balladry of the single "Can't Let Go."
If Hamilton evokes some unheralded pre-disco '70s singers, opening act Van Hunt seems to draw his inspiration from the post-disco late '70s and '80s. Though he's from Atlanta, there's nothing "down-home" about Hunt. His tone is more urbane, more sophisticated. And he differentiates himself from other contemporary soul singers with the one sonic signifier sure to do it: He wields a guitar.
In this, Hunt is like his hero Prince, another multi-instrumentalist whose vision was one of pop that blends funk, rock, blues, and soul but whose skin color and adept singing got him slotted R&B.
Hunt's 2004 debut, Van Hunt, was a grower in the vein of Comin' From Where I'm From, albeit more so musically than commercially, where its sales never quite equaled its press.
At the time, I thought it was a good record but a minor one. But when "Seconds of Pleasure" trickled from the speakers to score a pre-coital scene in the recent romantic comedy Something New, it sounded like a genre classic before I was able to register what it was. At first I thought it was D'Angelo.
Hunt's individuality came through on that record not just musically -- the bluesy guitar line he weaves through "Seconds of Pleasure" or the crisp, unadorned strumming that kicks off "Down Here in Hell (With You)" -- but lyrically and emotionally.
For most modern soul singers -- neo or otherwise -- words are just a means to an end: love-man patter to lure some pretty young thing to the bedroom. For Hunt, words are a centerpiece: "What would I do if we were perfect?/Where would I go for disappointment?/Words without hate/Would leave me nothing left to say," he admits on "Down Here in Hell (With You)." And the record's lead single, "Dust" ("It's just another ray of merciful hope/I don't expect many more"), is one of the most magnificently glum "hits" in recent memory.
Rather than follow the commercial R&B playbook in a bid for the radio and chart success that had eluded him, Hunt lets his freak-flag fly on his new On the Jungle Floor, and if that means a Prince-ian cover of an Iggy Pop song ("No Sense of Crime,"), so be it. Elsewhere, the electro-funk throb of "If I Take You Home" and post-disco groove of "Hot Stage Lights" evoke the likes of Rick James, the Gap Band, or Ready for the World, while the heavy riffage of "Ride, Ride, Ride" is pure classic-rock, like Lenny Kravitz without the shtick. If that keeps him from being embraced by a sizable segment of R&B fans, Hunt doesn't seem to care.