TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Anthony Hamilton's album "Back to Love" was released late last year, and rock critic Ken Tucker thinks it's one of those albums that may have gotten lost in the holiday shuffle. Ken says the North Carolina native is adding to the neo-soul tradition with a collection of passionate ballads.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S LOVING YOU")
ANTHONY HAMILTON: (Singing) You say you want to walk out. You say you want to leave. I can tell by the way we make love, you say things you don't believe.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Anthony Hamilton makes music from declarations. He tells a woman, I'm missing you crazy on that song "Who's Loving You," and it's typical of his strategy. He states his thesis, his opinion, his desire in a voice that speaks as much as it sings for the sake of emphasis.
After he's sure he's gotten his lover's attention, he begins doing his rhythm-and-blues work, mixing soul and blues and hip-hop phrasing to heighten the emotion in a song. You can hear the way Hamilton works on the construction of his beautiful effects in "Life Has a Way."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "LIFE HAS A WAY")
HAMILTON: (Singing) Take a look over your shoulder. Wise words get much older. Life has a way of humbling you down. Thought you already knew it. Took a turn, then you blew it. Life has a way of humbling you down. So I think I already know everything. So I think there ain't room to grow everything. Oh, life humbles you down.
TUCKER: Life humbles you down, Hamilton sings in a repeating phrase on that song. And as all first-rate soul-men know, few things are sexier than a man singing about humility in a strong, confident manner. Because it's the strong guys, the potent artists who have life in perspective, and who know that humility is a powerful virtue.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "WRITING ON THE WALL")
HAMILTON: (Singing) People talking about how you running around wild and how you been living life, said you stepping out. I tell you, I just can't complain. Girl, got me feeling good. Girl, you feed me good. Baby, that's you misunderstood. I wish you never would try and mess up everything. It's the writing on the wall. I'm too afraid to call. I don't want to listen. I don't want to listen, no, no.
(Singing) People talking everywhere. When the smoke begins to clear, I don't want to listen. But I hear. They call you Hollywood...
TUCKER: Of course, another virtue in a hard-working soul man is stubbornness. You can hear it on that song, "Writing on the Wall," with its little Al Green-y organ fills and the way Hamilton sings against the snap of the drums, as though the music all around him was a voice telling him what he doesn't want to hear: that the writing is on the wall, that the love affair is over.
Hamilton does this throughout this album "Back to Love." He sings against the music, as though he's fighting for each syllable, making every one count. Listen to the way he battles back against the handclaps in a song called "Mad."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MAD")
HAMILTON: (Singing) I'm mad at the way she loves me. And I'm mad at the way she cares. I'm mad at the way she touch me, at the way that she comb her hair. I'd be lying if I said it didn't mean a thing. I'd be lying if I say I didn't care. I'd be lying if I said I didn't love her. I'm still here. I'm still here. I'm mad at the way she loves me.
TUCKER: What Anthony Hamilton has done on this album is to evoke predecessors ranging from Bill Withers to Teddy Pendergrass to Peabo Bryson, while bringing a contemporary feeling of ambivalence and vehemence to his singing. He deploys his deep knowledge of the soul man tradition to make his declarations both very firm and very timely.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Anthony Hamilton's album "Back to Love." You can download podcasts of show on our website, freshair.npr.org. You can also find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.