The songs on Van Hunt (Capitol) don't necessarily explore street life, but desire as he writes about it is very complex. "Down Here in Hell (With You)" begins, "I really love it when we make mistakes / Because once again it gives me a reason to complain." The verse ends, "I love it when we fight / Standing on the verge of breaking up and making love." He has a sharp eye for the dark subtleties of relationships, though he can be a little sensational. In the Prince-ly "Highlights," he sings to a woman for whom he recognizes that he'd just be one of her many, "Years f--kin' your sister for your father's affection / Left you confused and your performance lacks direction."
"There are a limited amount of subjects to talk about," Hunt says by phone from Los Angeles. "The best subjects I can find to talk about are love and lust, and I try to come up with as many creative ways to do that. Fortunately, I was educated well, so I have good use of the English language. I throw drugs in every now and then, but that's love and lust, too."
Like the biography, there's a lot of honesty in the lyrics, but they aren't as unguarded as they seem. "For that record, I tried to hide a lot of it and keep it from seeming like it was coming from me -- and some of it didn't come from me," the 26-year-old Hunt says. "On that record, I imagined a lot of things and made up a lot of situations, listened to a lot of people talk."
He spent most of his time with his mother, he admits, but both parents shaped his musical sensibility during his pre-teen years in Dayton, Ohio. "My old man would listen to Thelonious Monk, from that all the way up to early Prince records," he says. "I remember him not being too crazy about later [Lovesexy-era] Prince, which was out when I was a teenager. My mother'd listen to a lot of Luther Vandross, Minnie Ripperton."
That combination -- a laidback, psychedelic take on Prince and late-60s soul -- defines Hunt's sound. "Anything (To Get Your Attention)" shares the stoned groove of Sly & the Family Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay," and "Hello, Goodbye" picks up that Sly vibe, bracketing the song with treated vocals associated with Prince circa Around the World in a Day.
"If I write something deep and dark, I usually write light music with it, or if the music's really heavy, there're no words or just a small amount," Hunt says. "It's just the way that I am. If I start off left, I end up right. There's always got to be a little quirk. Hold My Hand' was a straight little Prince new wave song, but I had to throw this little Sly Stone Fender Rhodes in there, which grounded the song for me."
"Hold My Hand" received a valuable assist from Wendy Melvoin, the guitarist in Prince's Revolution, who guest starred with Prince at the Essence Music Festival this year. "I wasn't really thinking Prince when I wrote the song -- I was really thinking David Bowie -- but when she played on it, you realize how much she contributed to Prince's sound because it really put it at early-80s Prince." For all the hints of Sly, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, Hunt is more than the sum of retro influences. As a teenager in Atlanta, he listened to hip-hop with his friends -- "Tribe Called Quest was big with us," he says -- and began producing hip-hop demos for his friends. "I learned to keep things raw and simple, and I learned how to record," recalls Hunt, who produced and played many of the instruments on the album. "Raw to me is finding a space for every instrument in the spectrum. It doesn't necessarily mean sparse. In Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, he has probably 20 instruments playing at the same time, but you can hear each very clearly. As opposed to a Phil Spector, where it's just a wall of sound."