Part of the problem was that he was trying to become a star in the wrong era.
Throughout the '90s, when blustery hip-hop and anodyne neo-soul dominated pop and urban charts, Anthony Hamilton was an unabashed throwback to the vulnerable, lacerated sound of early '70s R&B.; Think Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor. His music was redolent of raw Southern blues. Yet the lyrical swagger was unmistakably that of a man who came of age during the '80s.
But Hamilton, 36, couldn't catch a break as several record deals fizzled. (He can't remember exactly how many fell through.) It wasn't until 2003, after a solid decade of being broke and frustrated, that he finally made a breakthrough. Comin' From Where I'm From, his debut on the So So Def/Arista label, spawned the aching hit ballad "Charlene." Mostly through word of mouth spurred by Hamilton's revival-like stage shows, the spare, sympathetically produced album went platinum. An equally superlative follow-up, 2005's Ain't Nobody Worryin', went gold. Before that release, Atlantic Records issued Soulife, a previously shelved album, that also reached gold.
Next month, the North Carolina native will release his long-awaited new album, The Point of It All.
"This time, I'm going to have more up-tempo songs on there. Ain't a whole lot of heartbreak and pain," says Hamilton, who headlines Washington's Lincoln Theatre tonight and Rams Head Live on Saturday. "It's a good time. I have fun songs this time."
Although his past two albums featured several downhearted tunes, they were counterbalanced by honeyed love songs and humorous funk ditties. "Sista Big Bones," Hamilton's randy ode to fleshy women, was an urban hit single from Ain't Nobody Worryin'. In the slightly goofy video for the song, Baltimore actress-comedian Mo'Nique plays the singer's hard-to-get love interest.
Hamilton's new single, "Cool," is similarly lighthearted. Over a slinky funk track, he sings about, among other the things, the joys of a cheap date: "We ain't got enough for a movie/We can just chill at home. ... If you're cool, then I'm cool and we're cool/Quit your worrying, baby." Delivered in his gospel-bred voice, the song sounds almost reverent. In the video, which is in regular rotation on VH1 and BET, the singer once again plays the corny guy who stumbles and fumbles for the attention of his lady love.
"That first record, Comin' From Where I'm From, was a lot of pain," says Hamilton during a call last week from a tour stop in Minneapolis. "On Ain't Nobody Worryin', I found love but was frustrated by the world. Now I'm still bothered by the stress of the world. But I can't let that take my family down. I'm learning to shift gears. If I shift gears and sing more upbeat songs, then [my audience] will shift gears, you know."
Hamilton credits this sense of fun and happiness to his three-year-old marriage to Tarsha McMillan, who sings background for the artist.
"It takes being open and honest and being selfless," the singer says of his marriage. "You compromise, you know, but that love, real love is attainable."
Hamilton often sings touchingly of romantic love on the new album. But unlike the R&B; veterans he evokes (namely Womack and Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band), the artist isn't packaged as a virile sex symbol. His sound certainly suggests a rugged and sweaty masculinity uncommon in today's mainstream R&B.; And his image, especially at the beginning of his chart ascent, was anything but polished. He was known to perform unshaven, sporting a T-shirt, jeans and a net-and-foam cap, the kind Southern men wear when they go hunting or fishing. Only recently, the former barber has made attempts to spruce himself up. He's now pictured in sharp suits and fedoras.
But the gritty Southernness of Hamilton's music remains, buttressed by rubbery bass lines and witty, realistic lyrics on love and life.
"I have been through far worse things than a failed record deal," the singer says. "But the Holy Spirit won't let me lay down in the face of adversity. I gotta stay prayed up. I figure if I keep love in the music, somebody will say, 'Hey, he's trying to do something right.' I know people need to hear what I'm saying. I need to hear it."
if you go
See Anthony Hamilton tonight at 8 at Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. N.W. in Washington. Tickets are $65 and available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328. Hamilton also plays Saturday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $35 in advance and $39.50 the day of the show. For more information, go to ramsheadlive.com or call 410-244-1131.