Anthony Hamilton wants to tell you something. "God is more important than I am in my life, more important than my wife, my kids, my family, and my friends. God centers me."
So there it is. Hamilton wants to spread the Word of God. The 35-year-old singer readily admits, "He created me for this purpose, and I just love him. I think it's very important to give him every chance I get to praise and thank him, and ask him to continue to guide my life. It's so easy to get off-key." Hamilton declines to comment about the evangelical Christian movement and the political conservatives who are using religion to transform American politics. "There's only the Word and Jesus Christ, and the right and wrong way to do it. I don't get into all of that."
If you go to see Hamilton sing at the James L. Knight Center on Thursday, June 15, then you will most likely hear him testify about his relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is something he does unapologetically. "You will always have people who are receptive, and then you'll have those who are like, öI came out to get my drink on.'... Then they gonna be like, öAnthony Hamilton done it again! Every time I get ready to mess up, he come through and remind me of myself,'" he says. "I always testify during my shows, because that's when people are listening.
You will also hear some damn fine music. Hamilton is one of the finest soul musicians of his generation, having recorded two great albums, 2003's Comin' Where I'm From and this past fall's Ain't Nobody Worryin'. The former disc was certified platinum with the help of a lovely slow jam, "Charlene," that made its way into the Billboard Top 20 singles chart. "It's kind of like a musical soap opera," he says.
Ain't Nobody Worryin' is expertly rough-hewn like a sculpture carved from wood. Hamilton expands beyond the romantic repertoire central to soul music, speaking about social issues such as the decline in positive black culture (the title track) and hypocrisy in the church ("Preacher's Daughter," which features his wife, Tarsha' McMillian). Even his love songs, like "Southern Stuff" and "Sista Big Bones," bounce, rock, and swing different from the norm. Hamilton's voice, which is raw and raspy yet textured enough to rise and drop several octaves, makes the songs accessible and intimate.
"I speak about things in a way that people can identify with," says Hamilton, who calls his music "a bridge" and "a conversational piece." He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his own family, which includes sons Anthony Jr. (age seventeen), Romero (age fifteen), and Tristen (age nine). "I'm not offensive. I think people can listen to it with their kids and get their family involved. And the grandmother loves it. And the nieces and the little nephews they can all listen to my music."
In spite of Ain't Nobody Worryin's masterful qualities, it isn't selling as well as Hamilton's prior breakthrough. "The sales of the album are moseying along a bit slow," he notes of the gold-certified disc. (It should be noted that Comin' Where I'm From took nearly a year to go platinum.)
He records for So So Def, which enjoys a joint venture with Sony BMG's Jive imprint. But superstar producer-rapper-CEO Jermaine Dupri is concentrating on So So Def's other joint venture with EMI's Virgin Records imprint, leaving Hamilton's project in the lurch. "So So Def and Jive Records aren't seeing eye to eye," he says, noting that conflicts between the two camps led Dupri to shift his priorities elsewhere. Hamilton doesn't have anything bad to say about Dupri or Jive Records, although he acknowledges, "Some days I kinda wish that So So Def was a little more closer, in terms of picking out the songs and not questioning the vision that Anthony Hamilton brought to Jermaine Dupri, and that we all agreed upon." He adds, colloquially: "I don't think [Jive] can get as dirty as Jermaine Dupri can, because he's from the South."
Hamilton is used to the ups and downs of the business. Signed in 1995 to Uptown Records, the label famous for launching Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, he sat on the shelf for two years, only to see parent company MCA liquidate Uptown Records before his debut could come out. MCA finally released that album, the critically acclaimed XTC, but didn't promote it. He then joined an indie label, Soulife, and recorded another album, only to again see the label go under before it came out.
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Hamilton compensated for these setbacks by transforming himself into an ace songwriter, side musician (he's also a proficient bassist), and back-up vocalist. He co-wrote hits like Donnell Jones's "U Know What's Up," traveled around the world with D'Angelo on his "Voodoo Tour," and lent choruses to popular singles like 2Pac's "Thugz Mansion" and Nappy Roots' "Po' Folks." It was the latter, Grammy-winning cut that got Hamilton signed to So So Def and led to his finally establishing himself as a solo artist. He still does session work, recently lending background vocals to rapper the Game's upcoming album. Jadakiss also enlisted him to appear on the controversial 2004 hit "Why?", the notorious track that accused President Bush of blowing up the World Trade Center.
Incidentally, in early 2005, in the interim between Hamilton's two So So Def albums, Rhino issued a compilation of Hamilton's unreleased Soulife recordings. Simply titled Soulife, it sold surprisingly well, proof that his hard work, no matter how arduous and seemingly futile, usually bears fruit. This may eventually ring true for Ain't Nobody Worryin' as well. The album certainly deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible.
"I work hard, man. I travel. I sing every night for six, seven weeks, however long it takes," says Hamilton. "I think it works for me."