A lot of times when I write reviews, I like to explain how I first came into contact with the artist’s work. With Anthony Hamilton, it was at a 2003 convention headed by L.A. Reid and the folks at Arista Records. Amid songs, interviews and performances with the likes of Usher, Pink and Outkast, they also introduced a handful of their developing artists-including a soul singer by the name of Anthony Hamilton. With a voice that recalled Bill Withers and Bobby Womack and a band that rocked as hard as it grooved, it was obvious that this dude wasn’t going for the slick pop market that, say, Usher is tailor made for. This dude was the type of artist that the whole “neo-soul” label was made for-his music referenced R&B of the past, but it had a contemporary flavor to it. He was as capable of writing a gutbucket-type, funky tune like “Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens” as he was making a song like “Lucille,” which not only referenced the Kenny Rogers song of the same name, but was an acoustic guitar or two away from referencing the best work of troubadours like James Taylor.

For the next year, I talked about Anthony Hamilton to anyone who had a pair of ears and was willing to listen. I put songs from Comin’ From Where I’m From, his breakthrough album, on every mix CD I made for people. When the album verrryyyy slowly went gold and then platinum, I almost felt personally responsible, as if my love for the album had willed it into success. Obviously, that wasn’t the case, but I say that to give an example of how his music resonated with me at the time.

Since then, Hamilton’s become something of a dependable R&B hitmaker as well as a go-to guy for collaborations with the likes of Al Green and Jill Scott, whose “So In Love” single was one of the summer’s most effervescent backyard barbecue songs. Back To Love is his fourth official album, and it comes after 2008’s somewhat disappointing The Point Of It All. Not to say that the album was bad, but it didn’t have the same pull that his previous two had. It was simply good instead of great. I’ve mentioned before how artists I love sometimes end up with ridiculously inflated expectations, and I think that’s what happened with Point.

Back To Love doesn’t give me the same constant jolt in my soul that Comin’ From Where I’m From or the follow-up Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ gave me, but it is a step up from The Point Of It All. I think my biggest problem with that last album was that it felt a little too glossy. The folksy elements that permeated Anthony’s previous work seemed to have been scrubbed clean, much like his visual image. It sounded…sanitized. Hamilton corrects this problem slightly: most of Back To Love has a less synthesized feel, even though the production is still more commercial than his first two albums. He aligns himself with an all-star writing and production cast on this album; including Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse, Nas), Jerry Wonda (cousin and constant collaborator of Wyclef Jean), and a re-energized Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. The most successful writer/producer of the ‘90s has been on the ultra-DL lately, but he and Hamilton obviously have simpatico, and their teaming results in several solid songs, including the anthemic “Pray For Me,” a power ballad that’s reminiscent of Grammy-winning 1996 Babyface, but featuring a singer that can bring church to the lyrics and give them life. Not a dis to ‘Face at all, but obviously he and Hamilton are two very different types of singers. This track perfectly melds the individual styles of the two.

“I’ll Wait (To Fall In Love)” is another winner, with an organic, classic soul sound. Hamilton rocks out with the energetic, playful “Sucka For You,” and delivers spine-tingling ballads such as “Who’s Loving You” and the dramatic, hushed “Broken Man” (which, like many of the best tracks on the album, is relegated to “bonus content” status-meaning that you have to buy the deluxe version of Back To Love to get it…do it, it’s worth it.) Despite its 16 track running time, it’s almost entirely filler-free, although I probably could’ve done without the Keri Hilson duet, which seems to me like an obvious play for contemporary urban radio.

Hamilton’s got a jump on most of the folks in modern-day R&B simply by virtue of his voice, which is one of the best in the business. All he needs to make good music is to find material worthy of that voice, show up in the studio, and sing. After a bit of a dip in quality on his last album, Back To Love is a welcome return to form for this truly gifted songsmith.

Grade: B+

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