Anthony Hamilton enlists hip-hop producers for old school soul sound on ‘Love is the New Black’

The Grammy-winning soul man had a talk with theGrio about his seventh studio album and how the pandemic and his own battle with COVID-19 influenced the music and his return to touring

No matter how much R&B music has evolved and how many trends have come and gone, fans always knew they could count on Anthony Hamilton to provide a voice that runs the full range of emotions.

Although listeners may affiliate the North Carolina-born singer/songwriter with vocalists like Al Green or James Ingram, Hamilton has fully immersed himself in hip-hop, running things with acts like Jadakiss, The Game, and Nas.

On that note, for his latest project, Love Is The New Black, released last week, the Grammy-winner fused both his hip-hop and traditional soul acumen to cultivate an album that sounds nostalgic, yet fresh. Hamilton spoke with theGrio about the album-making process and how much the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the sound and his songwriting.

Hamilton's last studio album, 2015's What I'm Feelin', found him reuniting with producer Mark Batson, the man behind his most beloved early hits like "Charlene," "Can't Let Go," and "Comin' From Where I'm From." The album was his sixth consecutive album to reach the Top 10 on the Billboard R&B album charts, peaking at number two.

This time around, Hamilton was on the lookout for  a more cinematic sound that embodied 1970s Blaxploitation era soul. However, to achieve this sound, he wanted some "fresh energy." Thus, he made the surprising decision to reach out to top hip-hop producers like 9th Wonder, Jermaine Dupri, and Lil Jon.

"9th Wonder has proven time and time again with Jay-Z or any producer he's worked with, Rapsody or whoever, Kendrick Lamar, and just he knows how to bring those sounds out," Hamilton said. "With JD, he knows my voice, he knows what it should sound like. So, he knows how to pair it with the right music. With Bink?  Bink is absolutely a monster with choosing old soul samples, as you can hear on 'I'm Sorry,' and a few of the other records."

Hamilton says that he notices that the younger generation is "pulling away from the original R&B and classic R&B a little bit." So, he wants to remind them that he's inspired by hip-hop just as much as he's influenced by legendary soul acts like Otis Redding and Bill Withers.

Such an amalgamation isn't more prevalent than on the Rick Ross-assisted "Real Love," beautifully built around an interpolation of Ahmad Jamal's "Swahililand," a nod to De La Soul's "Stakes Is High" which samples the same song.

Love Is The New Black is one of Hamilton's most dense lyrical dives into heartache, betrayal, and turmoil. Songs like the atmospheric "Threw It All Away" and sparse, guitar-driven "You Made A Fool of Me" were drawn from observations and conversations that Hamilton had with people whose relationships unraveled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"People were splitting up and getting divorced, and love was getting hit pretty hard upside the head," Hamilton said. "And hearing these stories, it's like, 'wow, I got to create some music for these people, some to give you hope and some to give you the OK to leave, to bounce because it's not healthy,' and just to have a well-rounded emotional release with this album."

The pandemic made Hamilton look within himself as well. As one of the first musicians to give an at-home performance for his fans via social media last year, Hamilton reflected on how the COVID shutdowns forced him to slow down and smell the roses himself before giving his fans something to look forward to in such bleak times.

"In one aspect, it gave me a much-needed rest and time to kind of sit back and see all I've done, you know, what I've given to this art and to my fans, to appreciate it," Hamilton said. "And then once it was time for me to, you know, to start performing again, I wanted to make them feel that, even through social media or the internet, I wanted, virtually, I wanted to make them feel something that I felt like was missing in their lives."

Hamilton has returned to touring, however, after being hospitalized for two weeks with COVID-19 himself in December. He feels ambivalent about being in front of crowds again. He urges fans to wear masks at his gigs, which he says is "the best way of not transmitting the virus."

But he's nevertheless focused on delivering for his fans as he brings these funky, lamenting new songs to the stage.

"It is time to go back out and give the people what they need," Hamilton said. "But then there's a part of me that's like, 'man, are we moving too fast? Should we wait a little longer until things really kind of taper off?' So I kind of have mixed emotions about it, but I'm going to do my best to be as safe as I can and [see] if I can make it safe for other people."