In the mid-2000s, Anthony Hamilton was positioned as something of a male counter to Erykah Badu’s feral femininity. With his southern affectations and distinctly masculine vocals, Hamilton played as a stark contrast to the majority of male R&B performers at the time, and his personalized subject matter only made that distinction more clear. He was a refreshing enough performer that the six years he spent floating in the ephemera that is the world of independent R&B between 1996 and 2002 culminated in multiple Grammy wins and a status as a must-hear artist for years to come.
Over the next five years we’d be bombarded with music by R&B standards, as Hamilton dumped two compilations of his independent work on us and a follow-up LP, and then his most commercially successful album to date, The Point of It All in 2008. Three years later, Back to Love arrives gunning for much of the same territory as that crucial release in Hamilton’s career: lurching, highly calculated ballads. Meticulously arranged, robotic slow jams. And, trying like hell to rescue all of it, Hamilton’s red oak voice. To the man’s credit, it’s no surprise that he succeeds once again.
Despite a healthy serving of tracks that would have fallen in on themselves under the weight of any other performer, Back to Love doesn’t contain too many outright mistakes other than “Never Let Go” and “Sucka for You”. The latter is a little surprising because it’s a collaboration with longtime partner Kelvin Wooten, but between the subject matter that’s already been covered elsewhere on the LP and Wooten’s dramatic, overstuffed, synthetic arrangement, “Sucka for You” feels like a trying-too-hard-moment more suited for a goofier guy like Cee-Lo or someone as desperate for songs to sing as Keri Hilson. Hilson is the guest on “Never Let Go”, but calling her a guest feels like a disservice to the acceptance that term invites. When paired with Hamilton she sounds embarrassingly out of place, both because of her numbing approach to lyricism that has always seemed without a home when segregated from Timbaland’s bombastic touch and her clearly autotuned vocal. She seems to be transmitting her words from another studio in another building in another town compared to the stoic work Hamilton does throughout Back to Love. It’s just goofy to witness.
The other missteps on Back to Love aren’t nearly as dramatic, and generally they’re more properly cushioned by a standout track or theme. ‘90s hitmaker Babyface had a hand in three of these tracks, and while all three of them represent Back to Love at its most sterile, “Woo” and “Pray for Me” are cushioned by the opening five tracks being cleverly sequenced as a medley of sorts detailing the collapse of a Hollywood relationship. Hamilton laments the state of his relationship at the start of the album with the title track and “Writing on the Wall”, and then he comes across a woman who’s too beautiful to look away from (or avoid sleeping with, as Hollywood mandates) on “Woo” before reaching out to God to help him settle up with the consequences on “Pray for Me”. It’s a shame the narrative gets headed off after the fifth track in favor of more standard R&B fare; one could map out a slightly recognizable path from “Never Let Go” through “Sucka for You”, but it’s really only “Who’s Loving You” and “Life Has a Way” at the finale that seem to be conscious of reaching back to the breakdown Hamilton was detailing before.
It’s my favorite stuff that’s been tucked away at the end of the LP, too. Where a track like lead single “Woo” teases an engaging arrangement through an artificial lens of multi-tracks, synthetic editing and generally neutered virility, “Baby Girl” and “Life Has a Way” deliver the sort of mid-tempo soul burn Hamilton’s long been plying better than any of his contemporaries. Whether the song is great or not, though, Hamilton gives his all to it, providing a varied performance throughout and always sounding completely at home no matter how far from his wheelhouse a given track might seem on the surface.
Back to Love might not be the sort of reward fans were hoping for after the longest period between albums Hamilton’s major label career has seen, but truthfully just having Hamilton’s vocals on a record makes a project enticing and this album is no different. There could be some discomfort initially, but it’s equally likely R&B fans who give Back to Love a shot will soon have it stuck in their rotation, learning to accept the quirks of its lesser tracks and falling more and more for its standouts.
// Notes from the Road
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