The Point of It All
Original release: December 16, 2008
There’s a Jonathan Mannion inner-sleeve shot that perfectly captures Anthony Hamilton’s place in soul. He stands in a near-empty trainyard (two blurred figures stroll obliviously in the distance) at an undetermined time of day. The sun has yet to spill its palette; instead it winks divine in a slit between a boxcar and Hamilton’s stoic form, spearing both with heaven’s tines. The singer’s dressed like Curtis, but with Marvin’s soulful gaze, looking not at the camera but at a point far beyond. He at once evokes the past while scanning the future and his face doesn’t betray what he sees.
Brother’s all gone to glory
It’s too late for him to tell his story
The streets took over
Claimed another soldier
And his body lays colder
His fatherless kids grow colder and bolder
The Point of It All opens with a pained-Marvin wail. You know the one: that howl of weary outrage at a system drowning cities in avarice, murdering its kids at home and abroad, raping and destroying the Earth. “The News” is What’s Going On funneled through the verbiage-spill-raps of Curtis’ Superfly and hinged to chandelier piano pokes reminiscent of that soundtrack’s “Give Me Your Love.” (Another blaxploitation reference surfaces later in the song: Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” from 1973’s The Mack.)
Neighborhood characters — the progeny of Eddie, Freddy, and Priest — populate the narrative, but Hamilton observes them from a comfortable yet concerned distance, tracking their fates on television. He’s escaped all that, see, but he still feels a connection. His hometown’s gone to hell; that Marvin’s near-40-year-old pleas have gone unanswered so long and so ineffectively remains our greatest social failure. Anchormen continue to relay these tragedies as matter-of-fact bloviation, eulogizing casualties in cold stentorian tones. Hamilton gives them faces and names, restores their colorful humanity.
They used to call him Good ’n’ Plenty
Brother had hustle for hours
Sellin’ dope in hopes for power
These people set him up and took his stash
Neighborhoods clash for cash
It’s hard to read those words and not hear Curtis; after all, he too rhymed “hour” with “power,” “stash” with “cash.” But Hamilton’s grittier and less mellifluous, the second coming of Bill Withers. He’s that plain-talkin’ cat on a stoop, telling you what it is.
What’s amazing about that voice is how long it went unheard. Anthony had the misfortune of entering R&B about 15 years ago, when it was dominated by the likes of Boyz II Men, En Vogue, Mariah Carey, TLC, and Whitney Houston. He also had the bad luck of associating with labels that dissolved before an album could be released; the one that did escape lacked the support needed to survive. Eventually, he left so much material behind that when he became famous, naturally it all resurfaced, and until Point he had as many belated compilations as studio albums.
One can imagine how tough a sell Hamilton must’ve been. He possessed an excellent voice, but one then foreign to most R&B fans, who generally preferred sleek, honeyed timbres. It was an unfair advantage. Most of his peers were expressive to a fault, perhaps not fully grasping the importance of the relationship between emotion and the written word. Anthony was more understated. Words were not props to him, vowels to be slathered in miasma. He approached each syllable as if with roses. Songs were intimate conversations, not acrobatic feats. Other singers’ highs were smooth as silk; his were thorn-patch rough.
Seven years passed before the world was ready. He followed his forgotten 1996 debut, XTC, with 2003’s Comin’ From Where I’m From, which peaked at #33 Pop and eventually went platinum. He soared even higher two years later, to #19, with Ain’t Nobody Worryin’, striking gold in four months. Witnesses to the agony of the latter’s “Preacher’s Daughter,” with its despondent, repeated pleas (“She’s somebody’s baby!”) to a man of the cloth more concerned with his flock than the hellfires at home, can attest to his instrument’s emotional strength.
It’s a subtle power, one Hamilton uses sparingly. So when he does reach deep, goddamn. His mea culpa to “Please Stay’s” wronged lover is loaded with such moments, always reaching urgent pitch just as the doorknob turns (“I can make you stay, baby/I would try everything/I’d go down on my knees, baby”). When he barks, “I need somebody to pull me out this mess!” it’s enough of a naked declaration to stop any woman in her tracks.
A similar pain so devours him in “Hard to Breathe” that even the instrumentation breaks off momentarily so he can collect himself. (The phrase surfaces one song earlier, in another context, in the wistful exasperation of “I Did It for Sho.”) “She’s Gone” runs on false optimism, its unreliable narrator’s self-denials countered by the more level-headed observations of that ultimate beacon of wisdom and experience: “So I called Mama/And Mama said, ‘Son, let it go/move on.’ ” Naturally, he can’t. “And I know/And I know,” he tells himself, adding hopefully, “but what if mama was wrong?” Such a thing, of course, is not possible.
But all is not darkness. “Don’t be worryin’ about no problems, believe me,” Hamilton beseeches his beloved in the laid-back “Cool.” “Everything’s gonna be all right.” This give-and-take is rife with a lighthearted frivolity — his baby apparently likes cartoons and role-playing — amplified by the odd sweet talk of special guest David Banner. Among his seduction techniques: “scratch the dandruff out of your scalp/peek in your nose.” To keep his woman happy he suggests, “We can call our white friends up and drink a Miller/Genuine Draft/then kick them all out of the house/take us a bath.” (He’s obsessed with cleanliness.)
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The bug nibbles deeper in “The Day We Met,” where the word “love” flutters from the groovy heavens into a strolling, confident heart — one bursting with floweth-over ebullience by “Fallin’ in Love.” (Both are Mark Batson productions, hung on repeating piano hooks that sound like borrowed samples but aren’t.) “The Point of It All” is as straightforward as it gets: “I love you,” delivered over electronic finger-pops and a Hammond B-3 chugging happily in its own smitten language.
The most startling cut, however, is one that shouldn’t work. For whatever reason, Hamilton and songwriting partner Kelvin Wooten fused the disparate “Prayin’ for You” and “Superman” into a fascinating eight-minute coin-flip. As its title indicates, “Prayin’ ” is church-revival sanctified with a call-and-response (“on my knees”) so rollicking it’s gotta shudder to meet “Superman’s” melancholy. A quarter-to-three piano rises to sweep over the guitar’s smooth descent, and a most holy organ settles into a downcast mope. That invigorated house of worship crumbles into a lovelorn heap at bar’s end, babbling resentment into his cups as an accompanist paints his blues a lonesome ivory:
Who do you think you are
Comin’ by here
Got me all nervous and stressed all out inside
I don’t really understand
Where she came from
Or what she needs from me
I’m here to let her know
That she’s just a woman, yeah
And tell her that I’m just a man, yeah
If she gets emotional
I won’t give her any
Until she calls me her superman
As the hour grows late, his glass grows lighter, his mind heavier. With his head just inches from the countertop, he painfully dips into an upper register shredded by drink and need:
Tryin’ to find where she goes
I’m willing to be her superman
I’m willing to be
I’m willing and wanting her
To call me
It’s a mystery what Anthony Hamilton saw in the trainyard that day, if he saw anything at all. But I find it comforting that he was looking ahead, infusing past influences with present-day flair, with a curious eye on soul’s (and our) future. It’s a sunny prospect, indeed.