Anthony Hamilton, who performs as part of the Essence Festival at the Louisiana Superdome on Friday, July 2, is leading a different kind of neo-soul movement. He knows that the bedroom door swings both ways; you can go in, but eventually you have to come back out to the arguments in the kitchen, the relatives in the living room, the liquor in the cabinet, the plastic bags on the corner, the choir in the church and the job down at the shop. He knows that no amount of melismatic over-singing can keep that outside world at bay. He knows that Gaye also recorded What's Going On and Here, My Dear.
Back on June 20, Hamilton performed at the African-American Heritage Festival in Baltimore. In the parking lot between the imposing facades of the stadiums for the Orioles and the Ravens, the short, stocky singer from Charlotte, N.C., paced the stage in a blue-mesh baseball cap, faded jeans, white sneakers and a blue T-shirt with the artwork for his new single, "Charlene." He never donned a pimp suit; he never peeled off his T-shirt; he could have been someone you ran into at the grocery store.
He similarly confounded the expectations of modern R&B when he sang "Charlene." This is a song that doesn't boast of all the gold chains and Benjamins that the singer is going to shower on his woman; this is a song that apologizes for them. For the singer realizes too late that his obsession with earning has kept him from home so often that his lonely wife has decided to leave. In Hamilton's gritty Southern soul voice, you can hear his bewilderment at reading her note and his scrambling efforts to make up for past mistakes.
On Hamilton's brilliant debut album, Comin' From Where I'm From (Arista), "Charlene" is framed by a spellbinding minimalism. His experience touring with D'Angelo and singing on hits by Nappy Roots, Eve and 2Pac has given Hamilton a firm grasp of hip-hop, and he uses those modern beats to create a leanness that old-school soul never enjoyed. Atop those rhythm tracks he has added pop-jazz keyboards and gospel-soul vocals, giving the arrangements muscle and atmosphere without clutter. But he rejects the adolescent fantasies of rap and the adult escapism of pop-jazz for a realism that's all the more bracing for that starkness.
Onstage, backed by a tight soul-blues quartet and two gospel singers, Hamilton discarded the minimalism and went to church. Each time he begged Charlene to return, the two singers echoed his plea like a congregation answering its preacher. He sang as if by confessing his sins with sufficient fervor ("Damn the money, diamonds and furs, what about the hard day she had with the baby?") he could be absolved. When he shouted out, "I pray that she'll come back one day," he had blurred the boundary between sacred and secular beyond recognition.
All these qualities -- the male vulnerability, the gospel flavor, the lyrics' emphasis on detailed realism over vague fantasy -- are hallmarks of classic soul music. Hamilton may be the best artist in the latest neo-soul movement, but he's hardly alone. Acts such as Van Hunt, Ricky Fante, the Soul of John Black, Tweet, Angie Stone, Joss Stone, Ellis Hooks, Bilal, Sunshine Anderson and Floetry have all released impressive neo-soul discs in recent years. None of them has scored a monster hit yet, but they are giving fans of R&B singing and songwriting reason for optimism again.
These artists hearken back to the early 1970s when songwriters such as Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Norman Whitfield, Smokey Robinson, Bill Withers and Bobby Womack were penning tracks that challenged assumptions rather than feeding fantasies. Today's best neo-soul artists aren't trying to replicate an old-fashioned sound, though; they're replacing the fuzzy bustle of those analog days with the clean focus of our digital era. What they're trying to recapture is the spirit of that older music, the ambition that R&B can be about more than bragging and shagging, the belief that soul music can actually address our troubles rather than merely allowing us to escape them.
If Hamilton echoes Withers and Womack, Van Hunt recalls Mayfield and Robinson. When Hunt performed at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin in March, the tall, handsome singer sported a tilted beret and a tan jacket over a Mardi Gras T-shirt. The Atlanta artist reflected his role models not only in a dizzying high tenor but also in an intense romanticism that acknowledged the difficulty of adult relationships even as it insisted on their value. Playing guitar, Hunt led a terrific NPG-like quintet through the songs from his debut album, Van Hunt (Capitol), which filters the examples of Mayfield and Robinson through a Beatlesque or Prince-like psychedelia.
Hunt was at his most Smokey-like on "Down Here in Hell (With You)," which opened with a lovely "My Girl"-ish guitar solo and then went swimming in watery synth chords. Hunt's breathy high voice confessed that he felt torn between "saving myself" for heaven and plunging into the hellfire of lust. Such a tug-of-war is a perennial theme in R&B, but one that has been neglected by modern singers who prefer to pretend that relationships can be pursued without doubts or second thoughts. Hunt put a new twist on the old theme by declaring that it's the imperfections that give love its flavor; instead of ignoring those disappointments, he sang, we should savor them.
Hunt was at his most Curtis-like on "Anything (To Get Your Attention)," which announced its retro inspiration with a wah-wah guitar intro and an outro that repeatedly quoted the Beatles' line, "Got to get you into my life." In between, Hunt defied the macho demands of modern R&B and humbled himself for the woman he desired. "My pride ain't worth saving," he warbled, "so on every occasion, I'll be a fool for you." On "Highlights," which suggested how Parliament's "Flashlight" might have been reinterpreted by Mayfield, Hunt realized that he was only an extra in the movie of his lover's life.
Ricky Fante is the most retro of the latest wave of neo-soul singers. The 26-year-old Washington, D.C., native recently portrayed Wilson Pickett on NBC-TV's American Dreams, and his debut album, Rewind (Virgin), lives up to its title. Not only does Fante sound like Pickett and Otis Redding, an assertion seconded by Isaac Hayes' liner notes, but he has also written a dozen songs that recall the late-60s Stax records. Some tracks are too close to their models -- "Drive," for example, is a transparent rewrite of Redding's "You Left the Water Running" -- but several others, especially those co-written with Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris, boast melodies, grooves and stories worthy of that golden age without stealing from it.
Fante's first single, "It Ain't Easy," reinforces the neo-soul theme of romance as a difficult challenge, and Fante's raspy, riveting tenor wails the bluesy refrain with a gospel fervor. But the arrangements bury themselves in the past, as if the hip-hop revolution had never happened, as if splashy ride cymbals and blaring horn sections were still the epitome of cool. And the lyrics are old-school, too, proclaiming a romantic faith that everything will work out in the end, without any of the skepticism that make the records by Hamilton and Hunt so fortifying. Retro acts such as Fante, Joss Stone and Ellis Hooks aren't the answer to the crisis in R&B; modern acts such as Hamilton and Hunt are.
Hamilton's Comin' From Where I'm From album is soaked in modernist irony. "Mama Knew Love," built atop samples from both Jay-Z and Al Green, not only praises a mother who "used to wipe pee just to make ends meet," but confesses that it took too long for the singer to appreciate her. "Lucille," built around the chorus from Kenny Rogers' country hit of the same name, captures the frustrations of trying to love an alcoholic; you can say "I love you" again and again, but you'll never win her back from that "bottle of gin."
The title track gets its ominous mood from producer Mark Batson's hip-hop tracks, a minimalist groove of drum machines and keyboards. The song's well-meaning, blue-collar protagonist sits in a jail cell and tries to make sense of how his life has gone so wrong. When he describes how that middle-class college girl made a fool of him and how his street hustles never quite worked out, his anger and hurt slowly stir together. When he cries out in a raspy tenor that he "tried to be good," the church-flavored soulfulness makes you believe him. When he confesses that he's "scared to have kids and do like Daddy did," it's the most chilling, heartbreaking R&B moment of this new century. On disc, the song remains stuck in that existential dilemma. But onstage, Hamilton segued from the song into a gospel coda, as if only faith could untie the song's knot. He has a church-soaked voice, and when he started shouting, "Are you walking with Jesus?" the short guy in the sneakers and baseball cap began leaping and twisting in the air as if he were a preacher in the throes of possession in the Jazz Fest Gospel Tent. It was the most remarkable R&B performance this listener has witnessed since the heyday of Al Green. And it suggested that for black pop to escape its current stalemate, it will have to step back before it can move forward.