Ray. Otis. Sam. Al. Bill. Bobby. James. Curtis. Stevie. Donny. Marvin. Mere mention of this lineage of soul men instantly evokes the emotion, pain, joy, and raw authenticity of the many classic songs they’ve given us. Their songs provided the soundtracks for plenty of memorable moments – from cookouts to weddings to bedrooms and seemingly everything in between. The legacies of these singers impact us not only because of the quality of their artistry, but also because of the expressions of Black masculinity found in their soul music. Through song, Black men have been allowed to emote the fullness of their humanity in ways that are sometimes taken for granted outside of the liberating embrace of rhythm and blues. Thus, at a time where Black masculinity is still too often viewed through the narrow lens of machismo and bravado, the idea of a “soul man” remains important to celebrating artists unafraid to paint realistic and authentic pictures of Black male humanity in song.
In a time when many of our great soul men have gone away, Anthony Hamilton remains as an artist who best represents this idea in content and style. Since 2003, the crooner has made music most worthy of such lofty progenitors. He is one of the few male singers who has consistently exemplified soul unabashedly and naturally as defined by Sam Cooke, widely considered as the founder of the genre as we know it, from his 2003 breakout album Comin’ From Where I’m From to his latest offering What I’m Feelin,’, Hamilton has given listeners album after album of pure soul food throughout his discography. Above all of his peers, Hamilton has proven not only the most deserving of comparisons to his soul man predecessors, but has taken the art form and pushed it to new places.
The first domain where Hamilton excels is the purest part of soul: the voice. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that powerful voices are at a premium. Even T-Pain himself, often blamed as a culprit for the musical shift in the oughts toward the increased popularity of Auto-Tune, has expressed his frustration with audiences and collaborating artists preferring his synthesized voice rather than the stripped down, powerful vocals he is more than capable of performing. Perhaps as a result of this landscape, Anthony Hamilton’s voice stands out as inimitable and unmistakable. Warm, yet gritty & expressive, it follows a direct lineage of the most emotive soul music, with the kind of earnest delivery that was the domain of greats like Withers and Womack.
Anthony Hamilton is certainly a formidable vocalist by any measure, but it’s the sense of texture that makes his songs all the more expressive and relatable. Like silk over sandpaper. Sometimes it’s a crying falsetto adlib, nearly cracking with emotion. Or it’s an adventurous vocal run that transforms mid-note from singing to begging to preaching before ending in a whisper. The stank of it all is secret sauce that can transport you either to a lazy afternoon on a front porch, a steamy juke joint, or in the middle of a church with wooden pews somewhere deep in the southern countryside. You need that extra seasoning, that aural collard greens & hoecakes, that “Southern Stuff”.…it sticks to your ribs a little longer.
Two stellar examples of Hamilton’s vocal superiority come to mind in “The Point of it All” and “Please Stay.” These ballads would be serviceable if sung by another artist of reasonable competence, but Hamilton takes them to another level, flooding these songs with a passion that makes the vocals even more powerful. Some voices are pleasant; others are impressive and of those, there are precious few who can actually bring tears through vocals alone. Hamilton’s voice can make us cry.
No matter how powerful, voices are uninspired without great stories to tell. Great soul music does more than merely narrate the ups and downs of relationships. It crystalizes moments and provides catharsis. It can both inspire and emotionally eviscerate, summoning the resolve of the ancestors through gospel hymns and motivational anthems, capturing blissful joy or communicating turmoil from loss – of life, of innocence, of trust, of hope. Hamilton’s songs fit this mold, conveying a deep connection to the nuances of the full emotional spectrum. Take, for instance, the carefree, front-porch authenticity of a song like “Cool,” released on 2008’s The Point of It All, where he eschews the normal trappings of equating materialism with romance by focusing on the everyday joy of love. “Mama Knew Love” is a poignant letter of appreciation, not unlike that of Willie Hutch’s “Mama (Mother’s Theme)” from 1973’s The Mack Soundtrack. “Sista Big Bones” is no less sincere an ode while being much more lighthearted in tone. Here, Hamilton again goes against the grain, this time by spotlighting full-figured women.
Just as easily as the more joyous fare, Hamilton has consistently displayed the ability to sing stories about pain. “Life Has A Way” is delivered from the vantage point of someone who’s experienced extreme lows and been humbled by the suffering. In arguably Hamilton’s most well-known song, Charlene left 13 years ago and I’m still wondering if she came home. Here it’s evident that very few other male singers have adopted and communicated the downtrodden loverman ethos quite as well as Anthony Hamilton, in the tradition of perhaps the quintessential #BabyComeBackPlease record, Lenny Williams’s “Cause I Love You.” His cries and pleas are as earnest as any you’ll find in music. On the ballad “Her Heart,” he spells out his transgressions and the experience of receiving a love so powerful that it won’t let him destroy the relationship, no matter how he tries. It’s the kind of song that’s easy to skip over until you truly listen to the lyrics describing a love that has been pushed to its limits:
I was convicted cuz your love never wavered
I know you love me more than me
And you vowed to love through anything
I never had a kind of love that was forever
That’s real. Bravado has no place in such truth-telling. Often, Black masculinity is framed in such a way that focuses upon exaggerated performance of humanity. Such performance often hides any suggestions of emotional vulnerability in favor of a more two-dimensional construction to avoid the appearance of weakness. Of course, to feel weak from pain in certain moments—in relationships, for instance—is just as human as feeling invincible during the good times. Thus, the best soul singers are able to not only sing about the bliss of love, but also effectively communicate the pain and conviction it can bring. Anthony Hamilton has mastered it.
Part of that conviction is drenched in spirituality. This is not to say that soul music is overtly tied to religion of any kind, but it would be impossible to ignore its gospel influences. We know the Black church historically has been a major incubator for both male and female soul singers, as countless artists first cut their teeth and gained confidence performing in front of church congregations. Sam Cooke’s career began with the Soul Stirrers. Aretha Franklin recorded a live gospel album as a nod to her church roots. Otis Redding sang in a church choir in my hometown of Macon, Georgia long before recording songs that would become seminal moments in the genre. However, Black gospel’s influence is mostly muted in the current landscape. Some of Hamilton’s contemporaries, most notably John Legend, have similar gospel origins but have since branched out more sonically (compare Legend’s 2005 debut Get Lifted with his 2013 album Love in the Future, for instance). In contrast, Hamilton continues to display his gospel roots prominently in song, both through style and subject matter. He crosses the line often between the sanctified & secular in his storytelling, particularly on songs like “Preacher’s Daughter,” “Pass Me Over,” and the Babyface written/produced “Pray for Me”. There’s a direct message in some of his songs underlining a real sense of spiritual conviction. “I Know What Love’s All About” is essentially a gospel testimony about the redeeming power of love. This was on my wedding playlist and for good reason, as it’s about finding true salvation in a relationship that upgrades your life in every possible way. Check the ad-libs at the end, delivered with the fervor of a Southern Pentecostal reverend bringing the sermon to a flourishing close:
Love is about realizing….
And love is about redirecting your decisions.
Whether to go out all night long
Or go home to the one you love
Just as apparent as the messages themselves are the ways in which Hamilton chooses to convey them, dripping with style that could only be incubated in the Black church. Perhaps this is no more visible than on his newest album, with songs like “Amen” or the midtempo jam “Take You Home,” which cleverly interpolates an old school gospel classic complete with handclaps and church organs. Earlier songs from his discography exemplify this as well, such as “I Tried” and “I’m A Mess,” with its repeated gospel choir pitch modulations of “call me, write me, love me, come home.” Additionally, Hamilton and his background singers, the Hamiltones, have gotten attention over their viral videos of popular songs where they turn even the most ratchet of popular carols into Canton Spirituals-esque gospel quartet greatness. Hamilton has even collaborated with gospel icon Shirley Caesar recently. How many secular singers have the necessary cultural cachet with the Black church to be able to pull this off successfully without backlash?
In an era where decidedly more synthesized music has long since replaced the timeless brand of “dirt road soul” that provided the foundation for all forms of Black music, I appreciate the vocal talent, unfiltered emotion and grittiness that Anthony Hamilton continues to offer in this space. His presentation of various facets of life through the lens of soul music over the last 13 years has made him a stalwart torchbearer of the genre and worthy scion of the soul men who made their impact generations before. For my money, he’s our generation’s Soul Brother #1. It’s time to put some respeck on his name.
Clap for him on the 2 and 4 and let the church say Amen.