In the florescent light of the modern R&B showroom, Anthony Hamilton stands out like a road tested pick-up truck among an assortment of shiny new smart cars. While not clean, aerodynamic or fuel efficient, Hamilton’s muscular, gas guzzling vocals are built to drive off road, grinding through the rugged terrain of the most primal of emotions – pain, regret, heartache, and at those rare moments when a clearing is in sight, ecstasy. Yet, over the course of a decade long career as a major label artist, Hamilton has shifted gears with the subtlety of a sports coupe, gradually easing out of the lane of gut bucket soul man and into the more clearly paved lane of Quiet Storm crooner. The difference between 2003’s jail house lament, “Comin’ From Where I’m From” and silk sheets and champaign stylings of 2008’s “The Point of It All” is as telling as the tailored suits that replaced Hamilton’s trucker hats and wife beaters.
On Back to Love, Hamilton splits the difference and delivers a carefully calculated amalgam of soulful rawness, after hours sophistication and pop sheen that feels far more organic than it has any right to. The unifying force here is the vocals of Hamilton, which connect the disparate soundscapes with a raw emotiveness too often eschewed for manufactured swagger in contemporary R&B. Whether in airy falsetto on the wistful title track, or guttural baritone on the bluesy burner “Mad,” Hamilton’s voice delivers an emotional urgency that adds resonance to what is often fairly standard lyrical terrain. On the face of it, the Babyface produced “Pray For Me” resembles any number of the impeccably structured, hook heavy ballads that the legendary hit maker landed on the charts in the ‘90s. But, by the time Hamilton has seamlessly segued from the world weary understatement of the verses to the unbridled eruption of the bridge, the tune has officially become a show stopper.
Taken individually, “Who’s Loving You” and the Keri Hilson featured single “Never Let Go” may feel like cynical attempts at urban contemporary pop balladry. But, in the context of the album, they simply feel like two of the many textures in Hamilton’s larger tapestry of emotional exploration. It’s also that same willingness to expand beyond the singer’s vintage soul wheelhouse that sets up Back to Love’s most spirited moment, the electro funk meets ‘80s rock mashup “Sucka For You.”
Despite having yet to deliver a truly great album, Anthony Hamilton has clearly established himself as one of the most soulful vocalists of his generation. And, with Back to Love, he takes another step towards positioning himself as one of its most assured artists.
- Jeff Harvey