In the relentless drive for what’s “next”, listeners rarely look backward. We want what’s new, not what’s been passed up! But hold up, check your rearview for a second. See that back there? That’s Anthony Hamilton’s Soulife, his long-shelved Atlantic debut.
Thanks to the good folks at Rhino, we finally get a chance to take a look at one of today’s hottest soul singers before the Grammy nomination, before Chappelle’s Show, before the Arista release that made his name.
amilton was introduced to the world on the Nappy Roots’ smash 2002 single “Po’ Folks” and parlayed his sudden pop status into an Arista project (Comin’ from Where I’m From) that received both critical acclaim and mainstream play. Hamilton’s rise to stardom doesn’t seem so improbable, however, in light of the natural flair, earthy images and infectious grooves that infuse Soulife: a project that Hamilton completed in 2001.
uch of the album’s listening pleasure comes from the unique texture of Hamilton’s voice, which, at its most classic, sounds like a cool wind blowing over dry leaves. Over the course of the album, Hamilton stretches his range—gradually ascending from gravelly lows to delicate highs. By the album’s closing cuts, “Icing on the Cake” and “Exclusively”, Hamilton spirals through a delicate falsetto that’s far removed from his trademark growl.
here’s a real harmony between Hamilton’s deep tones and his topic matter. When he’s not playing the steadfast lover (“I Cry”, “Day Dreamin'” and “Ol’ Keeper”), Hamilton celebrates family and life lived close to the land (“Georgie Parker,” “Ball and Chain”). This earthy, everyman image makes Hamilton stand out in a genre that’s long been defined by the twin poles of the bohemian and the pimp. Paired with his unique voice, Hamilton’s persona gives even the simplest lyrics undeniable intensity and authenticity.
If his voice and image are his strong suits, Hamilton’s weaknesses appear in the arrangements and songwriting. Soulife features layered instrumentals that draw on traditional soul and gospel accompaniments, as well as hip-hop beats and classic rock flourishes. In certain cases, like “Georgie Parker,” this blend works well; in others, like “Clearly,” “Love and War,” and “Love is So Complicated,” Hamilton goes overboard, letting the closing ad libs and canned symphonic drama get out of hand. In each case, the recording should have faded out 30 seconds earlier. In other spots, his songwriting is weak. Soulife‘s opening track, “I Used to Love Someone” pretty much says it all: a story without any specifics.
It’s hard to obsess over these flaws though: over the course of its 12 tracks, Soulife‘s best moments erase all memories of its worst. By the time the album reaches its peak on “Icing on the Cake,” Hamilton has drawn the listener into an infectious, inescapable groove. Before you know it, Hamilton’s doubled voice is sliding all over itself hitting the highs, the lows, and everything in between. At the end of this exercise, even Marvin Gaye’s much abused “What’s happenin’?” ad lib sounds new when Hamilton slips it in. Keep looking ahead, but like the appearance of this “new old” album in our rearview reminds us: music may be newer than it appears.