Van Hunt Narrows Focus Even As He Explodes Boundaries

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Van Hunt's fifth studio album, The Fun Rises, the Fun Sets, narrows the focus slightly, a plunge into layered and trippy funk and soul.

Van Hunt was a rising R&B star a decade ago, with a brace of writing credits for singers such as Dionne Farris and Rahsaan Patterson and Grammy-winning music of his own. But after losing his major-label deal — in part because he resisted genre pigeon-holing — the Ohio-born singer has only become more difficult to pin down musically, and an even more fascinating artist.

His 2011 indie release, “What Were You Hoping For?,” touched on everything from country to hard rock. Now, his fifth studio album, “The Fun Rises, the Fun Sets” (Godless Hotspot), narrows the focus slightly, a plunge into layered and trippy funk and soul. This is music that dances between the headphones: subtle, slinky, insinuating. It’s funky – but not aggressively funky. It suggests a movie soundtrack as much as a collection of songs. “The Fun Rises …” affirms that Hunt belongs in the conversation with master musical shape-shifters such as Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo — artists who respect African-American traditions and then find new ways of recontextualizing them.

Hunt plays most of the instruments. He builds “Vega (Stripes On)” around wiry guitar, sandpaper percussion and episodic bass rumble, his voice airy and dreamy in falsetto. “Old Hat” orchestrates handclaps and layered vocals over percolating rhythms. “Pedestal” whispers over undulating, finger-picked guitar until a kick drum enters. The music moves like street life, from a scene outside a diner through a back alley into a card game in a smoke-filled back room.

The songs marinate in sexual imagery, but it’s more sensual than explicit. The leering “…Puddin’” is about as overt as things get — “I don’t want nothin’ in my puddin’ but chocolate,” the singer declares over wah-wah guitar and squiggly new-wave keyboards. At the opposite end of the scale, there’s “Headroom,” oozing vulnerability over sparse piano and strings in a way that suggests an after-hours Prince ballad. The production gets more elaborate as the album winds down, with big set pieces in “Emotional Criminal” and the title track. But it’s never overbearing. Hunt knows exactly when to go for broke and, just as importantly, when to pull back and let the music breathe.

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