At the end of last summer, Drake's "Hotline Bling" was inescapable. One singer after another acknowledged the tune's dominance with cover versions, but most of the new renditions stuck close to the hurt tone of the original without surpassing it. The most exciting cover came months later, from the R&B singer Anthony Hamilton. With the help of his backup group, the Hamiltones, he managed what few other acts even attempted, turning "Hotline Bling" on its head and transforming it into something entirely different — joyous, spiritual, celebratory.
Hamilton's latest album, What I'm Feelin', arrives Friday. Speaking at the New York offices of his label, RCA, earlier this month while sipping red wine from a plastic cup, he laughed about the cover. "It was spontaneous," he told Rolling Stone. "Those guys are really creative — when you have that much creativity and talent, something's bound to happen. Something great or something silly."
This silliness contrasts with Hamilton's usual mode on recording. His biggest hit, 2003's "Charlene," is a broken plea to a lover who left him because he devoted too much time to his pursuit of a career in music. Rappers use Hamilton to add gravitas to their tracks: see Jadakiss's "Why" or Nas' "World's an Addiction." In person, though, Hamilton is quick to crack jokes — about overstaying his welcome at the club, steaming up the White House during a recent Ray Charles tribute or the destructive power of his upcoming tour with Fantasia.
Hamilton debuted in 1996, but he didn't experience a commercial breakthrough until his second album, Comin' From Where I'm From, arrived in 2003. In between, he co-wrote a hit for Donell Jones ("U Know What's Up") and earned attention as a backup singer on D'Angelo's legendary Voodoo tour. Although Comin' From Where I'm From appeared at the tail end of the neo-soul movement, Hamilton was really a separate entity. Neo-soul was obsessed with certain signifiers — especially related to atmosphere and texture — and the muddy beats of J Dilla; Hamilton was more interested in a straightforward updating of Southern soul. And male neo-soul singers are notoriously fickle: D'Angelo took 14 years to release an album, Bilal nine and Maxwell eight. Since 2003, Hamilton has put out six full-lengths, one compilation and a Christmas record.
Those albums aren't afraid to flaunt the relationship between soul and the country blues. In the last decade, and especially since the rise of Drake, singers like Hamilton have been gradually weeded out of R&B's mainstream, which favors a sleek, polished approach. But his voice remains craggy and rich and invested in a Southern tradition that has always played a role in R&B's history.
This has earned him a core of devoted followers, which in turns allows a certain level of insulation from modern trends. "I have a real loyal fan base," he notes. "I have to feed them on time and be consistent and continue to tour." Some of these fans are musicians who make very different music — including Drake, who featured Hamilton's "Lucille" in a special playlist he made for Sotheby's, alongside much younger artists like Young Thug and iLoveMakonnen. (According to Hamilton, he went to Toronto to work with Drake before the release of Nothing Was the Same: "We wrote, created some sounds; we'll see what happens.") Another unexpected Hamilton supporter is the house music producer Ben Pearce, who used the singer's vocals in "What I Might Do," a hit in the U.K. in 2013.
For What I'm Feelin', Hamilton relied on longtime collaborators — mostly Mark Batson, who co-wrote "Charlene," with additional contributions from Salaam Remi (Amy Winhouse, Nas) and the Roots' James Poyser. Hamilton originally met Batson and Poyser through his work on D'Angelo's tour. "We knew we had something special," he recalls. "And when you have something special, you want to reintroduce that to the people and let them know why they fell in love with you and give them a chance to experience that again." He calls Batson "a beast" and applauded his versatility. "His music allows me to feel what I want to feel — whether it's hip-hop, whether it's soul, whether it's country. He knows how to bring it out and keep that urban sound that has the heartbeat of what's going on today."
The modern tinge is most evident on the album's lead single, "Amen," a mesh of gospel and trap concocted by Remi and Poyser. "I heard the music and wanted to take a different approach and write as if I was R. Kelly," Hamilton explains. "That's why the verses are choppy, almost like a sing-rap. As soon as I heard it, I knew I had to do something with church." He hopes to get 2 Chainz on the remix. After Hamilton and the Hamiltones gave 2 Chainz's "Watch Out" a gospel a capella treatment last year, the rapper sent them Christmas sweaters as a token of his appreciation.
"Ever Seen Heaven" is the most surprising song on What I'm Feelin': the beat has the booming drums and spacious vistas that characterize Eighties recordings — and recent pop hits from Adele or the 1975. The instrumental reminded Hamilton of Phil Collins' "One More Night." "I had the biggest crush on this redhead girl when I was about 12," he recalls. "[Phil Collins] came on; we were in the house having a little house party." In the song, the force of this memory pushes his voice into a molten register.
Options for singers like Hamilton have shrunk in recent years. "They're there," he says. "They just gotta have somewhere to go outside of church. The younger generation, they hear things a different way. That's why you can have a song that sounds like a video game. And they want to try different things with their voice. Evolution, but I like a lot of it."
Although "Amen" enjoyed some success on the Adult R&B chart earlier in March, Hamilton seems uninterested in commercial markers — partially as a way of protecting his sanity. "I don't want to spend all my time sitting there and waiting on the charts," he notes. "I did that for the first couple albums; it gets pretty old." In this new climate, could a song like "Charlene," a top 20 crossover hit more than a decade ago, still be a success? "Yes. 'Cause I'ma sing the hell out of it."