Why does it always seem so radical to so many people when African-American musicians rock out? Seriously, it’s the oldest trick in the book: Roy Brown, “Rocket 88”, Fats and Chuck and Bo, etc., we’re all supposed to know this. But you see it over and over again: “Oh my gawd, you have to see this Sly Stone / Jimi Hendrix / Love / Curtis Mayfield / Stevie Wonder / Funkadelic / LaBelle / Thin Lizzy / Prince / Dr. Know / Michael Jackson / Fishbone / Run-DMC / LL Cool J / Janet Jackson / Vernon Reid / Terence Trent D’Arby / Chocolate Genius / Basehead / The Artist Formerly Known As Prince / D’Angelo / Erykah Badu / Macy Gray / etc.! It sounds like rock music… but black!” (Sorry if I left out your favorite, but you should have seen my original list, I had to cut it down somewhere. Also, if you never heard LaBelle’s stuff in the 1970s when it was basically a heavy metal/space boogie hybrid, then get out to a used record store and grab Nightbirds on vinyl right now!) For god’s sake, people are still freaked out by the Roots playing live or by Cody ChesnuTT’s record a few years ago where he didn’t seem to respect the boundaries between hip-hop and rawk and soul, almost as if there weren’t any.
So now here comes Van Hunt out the ATL, playing guitar and singing and casually shrugging off whatever sweaters you want him to wear. No, he is not Prince, because no one ever will be; heck, he’s not even TTD yet, because Hunt doesn’t have that level of craziness. But comparing folks is madness anyway — Van Hunt is who he is, and his second album makes it clear that that is quite good enough, at least for now.
As you might imagine, On the Jungle Floor is an eclectic work. We have light, Shalamar-style pop with early-Prince-like gender confusion and a chorus-jack from Lisa Lisa (“If I Take You Home”), we get some TTD-style dance-rock (“Ride, Ride, Ride”), there’s Mayfield-ish heavy-stringed soul workouts (“Character”), and D’Angelo-inspired swamp-pop with hip-hop beats (“Suspicion (She Knows Me Too Well)”), the whole nine yards. No matter what music you like, there’s something here you will dig, or at least recognize. If he’s still a little derivative, remember that a) he’s still very young, and b) WHO CARES, it’s fun sharp tight music.
Again, some reviewers like to malign this kind of smorgasbord approach, but no actual music consumers ever do, as long as it’s done with style and grace. (Note to my critical brethren: Most people actually LIKE it when an act is proficient at more than one style.) It hangs together nicely, due to Hunt’s pretty tenor voice and songwriting chops — there are enough hooks here to open a bait shop. It’s pretty tough to hate on “Hot Stage Lights”‘s outdated premise (trying and failing to elude the seductive man-eating woman) when the chorus incorporates a bit of Prince’s “Jam of the Year” and a bit of Parliament’s harmony vocals. And anyone doing a duet with Nikka Costa — the somewhat overheated but still indelible “Mean Sleep” — is getting intelligence points right and left from me.
I am still counting “ambition” as a positive for Van Hunt instead of a negative. He’s riding the edge sometimes, with the “Purple Rain” switcheroo on “Daredevil, Baby” and the fact that “At the End of a Slow Dance” ends up sounding more like a funked-up version of an old Bruce Springsteen album cut than it resembles anything else here. This could also end up being his fatal flaw if he lets things get out of hand. At this point, however, it sounds like a bit of genius, a whole lot of fun, and the album I’m gonna be blasting all summer long.