Forget marching to the beat of your own drummer; Van Hunt’s got his own band, and he’s leading his feisty, wildly imaginative brand of r&b into the pop music stratosphere all by himself.
To rewind, there was totally a time that the singer/songwriter had an illustrious little major-label career brewing. His first record, Van Hunt, didn’t set the world on fire, but was reasonably well-received; his second, On the Jungle Floor, is rightfully acknowledged as a classic by anyone who’s heard it. There’s a dynamism present in Van Hunt’s music, see, that most artists who get filed in the r&b section can’t or won’t exhibit; just two albums into his career, the man was seamlessly integrating funk, psychedelia, new wave, and punk-rock into the mix, and third album Popular remains notoriously shelved by shortsighted label Blue Note for retreating even further into Hunt’s intriguing genre cross-breeding. Van Hunt isn’t a soul man in the classic Al Green model, or the Clinton-esque leader of a batshit funk collective, or a Kravitz-like flower-child revivalist, although his music is seasoned, to some degree, with all of it. Nope, Van Hunt’s an entity unto himself; in terms of comparison, it might be more apt to file him next to Rahsaan Patterson and Janelle Monae, and other like-minded folks who make soulful music on their own terms.
In fact, that’s exactly how Van’s newest record, the independently-produced What Were You Hoping For?, deserves to be described: it, thrillingly enough, sounds like a record made entirely on his own terms. While On the Jungle Floor‘s restless experimentation spooled out naturally from the (comparatively, at least) traditionalist sound of his self-titled, WWYHF? severs a number of key threads, forging new ground for both the artist and his genre. For example: Van Hunt has proven himself adept at simmering funk – “Suspicion” from Jungle Floor springs immediately to mind – but he’s expanded his instrumental palette this time around, and while album opener “North Hollywood” is a potent head-nodder, its nimble groove also prominently features fuzzed-out garage-rock guitar and a gloriously sloppy Led Zep breakdown. The gleeful black comedy of “Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane” features Hunt’s melting-butter tenor and robust falsetto, except it’s also an energetic, pogo-ing punk rocker that’s unafraid to plant both feet squarely in Ramones territory.
And there’s the inherent joy of What Were You Hoping For? – it’s not as accessible as On the Jungle Floor, and the productions are a little more ramshackle, but it’s consistently thrilling to see where Van Hunt’s restless artistic muse yanks him next. Gritty funk-rock in the Prince vein seems par for the course – slyly funny and lyrically dexterous ass-salute “Plum” seems a nice summation of what Van Hunt’s interested in accomplishing, what with its Funkadelic-in-spirit fusion of funk bounce with hard rock performance, but he’s got laid-back acoustic-rock in his arsenal, too, and the beachside lilt of “Falls (Violet)” could sandwich itself nicely between Band of Horses and Jason Mraz tracks on your next summery mixtape.
A diverse and thrilling performer, Van Hunt doesn’t make his music for those who prefer their r&b music to hit all the slavish beats of the genre; he’s something of an anachronism, really, an artist interested more in making good music than in fitting into a nice little genre box. What Were You Hoping For? simultaneously rejects and answers the question that its title asks: if you were hoping for Van Hunt to run through the motions, you may be disappointed, but if you’ve paid attention to his career, you know that he may be well be the current artist least capable of releasing the same album twice. In any event, it’s delightful to have him back, and with such a crackling, relentlessly creative piece of wax to boot; whatever we hope for next time around, Van Hunt’s sure to buck expectations, and, paradoxically, always be the restless artist he is. And I, for one, can’t wait.