Talk to musicians who have worked with Anthony Hamilton — the singer who has been responsible for a slew of exquisitely torn-up, craggy-voiced Southern R&B tracks since 2003 — and they tend to return to a single theme. "Anthony is one of the last of the soul singers that had an impact on modern culture," says Kelvin Wooten, a versatile producer and multi-instrumentalist who has collaborated with Hamilton for around 15 years and contributed to his new album Love Is the New Black . "In modern times, you have D'Angelo, Raphael Saadiq , Anthony. I can't think of many around today doing it like he does it."
The Southern soul tradition was once an R&B cornerstone — whether love was going horribly wrong or wonderfully right, rugged-voiced singers would attack these songs like they were hoping to tunnel through a mountain, utilizing a full range of textures (from tortured gasps that whacked you in the chest to pleading sighs, soft as a feather pillow) and tones (from bottom-of-the-barrel low to silky falsetto). However, Southern soul no longer occupies a central place in R&B: The genre mostly favors more conversational modes of singing now, and in a digital world where most music is easily accessible, regional histories don't have as much influence over artists' musical approach.
Still, Hamilton follows the same lodestar he did on his platinum-certified 2003 album, Comin' From Where I'm From . "Don't worry about being perfect, singing it perfect, that don't matter," he says. "The perfect note doesn't move people. If your voice is gonna crack, make it a beautiful crack. That's why Comin' From Where I'm From is still so classic."
That album included the please-come-home hit "Charlene," a song as smooth as it is agonizing; "I'm a Mess," an organ-coated 6/8 ballad that could have come out of Memphis in 1971; and "Lucille," a gauzy, slippery song with a New Orleans parade beat about losing a partner to alcoholism. "My heart is broken, and I'm all alone," Hamilton sings. "I don't know what to feel since you've been gone, gone away."
Hamilton rules this nobly doomed zone. Even a song like 2011's "Writing on the Wall," which seems more peppy, even danceable, catches him right before a Charlene or Lucille walks out the door. "See the writing on the wall," he sings mournfully, but "I'm too afraid to call, I don't wanna listen." He's the cad in "Please Stay," a brassy, pleading track from 2008 that crackles and roars like a winter fire. "Now I drunk a few, I slept around on you," Hamilton confesses. "I've lost your trust, and I've embarrassed us/ I need somebody to pull me out this mess."
So the second track on Hamilton's new album, "Threw It All Away," is a welcome extension of a long-running theme: "I was a fool that I could not see/That you were running games, running games on me." The guitar riff drifts downward like it does in William Bell's tragic 1968 hit "I Forgot to Be Your Lover." "I wanted the grown-up vibe it had," Hamilton says of the track, produced by Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal. "It sounded like something really classic."
There's plenty more where this came from, including "You Made a Fool of Me," which follows the same heaving ballad form of "I'm a Mess," and "I Thought We Were in Love," which channels one of the greatest rugged singers of all time, Teddy Pendergrass. (The melody interpolates Pendergrass' first group, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and their towering ballad "I Miss You.") "I had to do that!" Hamilton says. "I was like, 'I ain't playing with y'all.' "
It's not easy to chase Teddy Pendergrass, but Wooten says Hamilton's voice has "gotten better like a wine." "He sings a lot, tours like crazy," the producer adds. "That voice is always being perfected."
And that's presumably part of why it remains in demand. Another similarly gifted singer, Leela James, recently asked Hamilton to record a remix of her hit single "Complicated," which has the feeling of a modern soul classic and has spent three straight weeks at Number One at Adult Radio. "I heard it like, this is a hit record — for years," Hamilton says admiringly. "That's the right song with that voice. I love to see good people win."
And another artist of some note, Drake , also included Hamilton on his new album Certified Lover Boy , which surpassed a billion cumulative streams in just two weeks. The two had met before — Drake professed his fandom to Hamilton via Instagram, and the pair later saw D'Angelo together in Toronto and recorded a little bit. This was a fun moment for Hamilton, who served as backing vocalist on D'Angelo's legendary Voodoo tour years ago and returned to watch the neo-soul luminary "in a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce, one of those big fancy cars, a white one." "I was like, 'What's up, Toronto!' "
Naturally Hamilton appears on a Drake track titled "The Remorse," which brings Certified Lover Boy to a close. "Maybe end of last year, early this year, he said, 'I need your voice,' " Hamilton recalls. "'I need the pain only you can bring.' "
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