Back in the black.” “Black Power!” “Give me five on the black-hand side.” “Always bet on Black.” In a literal sense, the color black is created by the complete absence of light or the total absorption of all shades. It represents solemnity, sophistication or literal all-encompassing darkness. But for the people residing within its varying hues, blackness signifies all that is meaningful, fly and pertinent to their culture and way of life. The rich contrasts of black life, and the layers of emotion in-between, are what Anthony Hamilton is exploring throughout his seventh studio album, Love Is the New Black.
In the post-pandemic era that we now live in, some artists have used its abnormal reality as an abstract muse or a reason to expand their repertoire into unseen territory or styles. Fortunately, the Charlotte, NC native with the gritty, gospel-flecked croon does neither. Instead, Hamilton returns with familiar collaborators (9th Wonder, Jermaine Dupri, James Poyser) and his signature Southern grit and lyrics, planting those winning elements, ten toes down, into contemporarily-rendered, yet unabashedly-influenced,1970s-era soul. Sometimes those aspects are shimmering and glossy, such as the awe-struck, surrendering ode, “White Hennessy,” the buoyant Curtis Mayfield-channeling title track and “Real Love,” a boom-bap-heavy groove with a mellow, half-spoken and half-sung tribute to the emotion (with FL’s Rick Ross anchoring the bridge). His Generation X roots are also in display on the bass-dropping and ice-flossing “I’m Ready,” with ATL’s own Lil Jon.
While black can be super-fly and sensual for a night on the town, it can also translate to moments of sorrow, also explored with just as much earnest and angst: his first single, the forcefully-conveyed, yet fragile “You Made a Fool of Me,” recalls Lenny Williams’ “Cause I Love You” in its tortured refrain, and the JD-produced “I Thought We Were In Love,” throbs like a sore limb while interpolating The Blue Notes’ “I Miss You” as Anthony laments what used to be: “And now, things started to change, started acting real strange…..what more can I do, I gave you everything!” “Threw It All Away” is also rueful, yet resolved in leaving what once was behind and anticipating what will be once they’re finally apart: “Feeling high, what’s come over me/I won’t come down, to fuel your insecurities. I let you take my joy before, now I’m moving on/and not looking back no more.”
The mark of a true artist means to expound on what listeners are accustomed to while also mixing it up and stretching beyond those limits. “Pillows” is brimmed with self-contempt at the gem he tossed away, and “I’m Sorry” recalls another love he took for granted and pushed to the edge of no return: “My friends tried to tell me to stop foolin’ around, that they saw you cryin’ on the other side of town/But never once did I take out the time to see, what you needed from me.” Hamilton has even minted a new standard, duetting with an elegantly-understated Jennifer Hudson on the melodic and melancholy cover of the Carpenters-turned-Luther Vandross classic, “Superstar” (“Come back to me baby, I left the door open for you Baby”).
Whether he’s bemoaning a hometown’s decline (“Safe”), pleading for grace (“Mercy”) or just promising to make it right again (“Coming Home”), Anthony Hamilton’s latest is as cool, captivating and charismatic as the hue he’s paying tribute to. Love isn’t always easy undertaking, but exploring its depths and elevations with his tender, throaty drawl makes it worth the raucous ride. Enthusiastically Recommended.
By Melody Charles