The parameters of R&B have proven to be remarkably elastic. For every Usher lover for whom the term connotes machinelike urban pop, there’s a Who freak with a ”Maximum R&B” poster on his wall who thinks of it as the gritty stuff that inspired that band’s sound. Needless to say, spillover between Usher and Who fans is practically nonexistent.
One of the few places such disparate types might mingle is in the warm waters of ’60s and ’70s soul. And just as we believe both Pete Townshend and Usher would agree on the greatness of, say, Curtis Mayfield, we suspect they both might admire Anthony Hamilton, a neo-soul guy with deep roots in ”traditional R&B” (i.e., music played on real instruments with churchy vocals, strong melodies, and no hip-hop flavorings). Ain’t Nobody Worryin’, the follow-up to Hamilton’s Grammy-nominated 2003 breakthrough, Comin’ From Where I’m From, sounds old-school and thoroughly modern — a tricky maneuver precious few achieve, much less sustain for an entire CD.
Anyone who loved Comin’ will embrace the stylistically similar Worryin’. A North Carolina native, Hamilton is proudly steeped in ”Southern Stuff” (as one song is called) — from food (his last album paid homage to ”Cornbread, Fish & Collard Greens”) to the gospel organ that infuses most of his tunes. Refreshingly, he is also an unabashed proponent of down-home values. ”Go to church together… We can read the Bible,” he sings on ”The Truth,” a lovely, uplifting effort graced with subtle wah-wah guitar and transcendent keyboard splashes.
Like Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, Hamilton also has a social conscience. The title track takes aim at gang warfare and homelessness, conditions Hamilton frets ”ain’t nobody worryin”’ about, while ”Preacher’s Daughter” paints a grim portrait of a woman caught in a downward spiral of drugs and prostitution.
But, like most R&B artists, Hamilton’s major theme is love in all its infinite complexities. Don’t let generic titles like ”Never Love Again” and ”Can’t Let Go” mislead you; this guy has a knack for the sort of romantic ballad that will make you shiver. Sometimes you even wonder whether he’s talking about secular or sacred love (as on ”Pass Me Over,” on which he pleads, ”Just leave me be until the savior comes”).
If Worryin’ has a flaw, it might lie in Hamilton’s predilection for ballads über alles; it would be nice to hear him work out on some uptempo stompers for a change. But maybe he’s simply playing to his strengths. While he does veer into quasi-reggae party territory on ”Everybody,” he clearly excels at slow-burning, moody numbers. And even without a flashy rapper like Twista adding hip-hop world cred, Hamilton’s Southern-fried slow jams go down easier than a plate of grits and gravy. Maximum R&B, indeed.