Ain’t Nobody Worryin’
he world of the commercial soul singer has long been an uneasy one; since the earliest days of this unstable combination of gospel and the blues, the vocalist has often been a man or woman on his/her own. Label heads and producers have historically been the ones to pick songwriters, select and arrange the tunes to be played, bring together the backing musicians, and oversee the production of the recordings.
Of course, there have always been exceptions to this system—Otis Redding and Joe Tex both brought their own writing contributions to the table; Al Green had a modest degree of creative control thanks to his close working relationship with producer Willie Mitchell; Bill Withers displayed an almost embarrassing degree of talent and self-sufficiency; and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder both managed to achieve considerable artistic freedom while under the aegis of the infamously tightfisted Motown operation. When the Philadelphia International sound rose to prominence in the ‘70s, however, the current mode of operation began. Soul singers are now expected to conform to a rigid set of musical templates which inevitably bow to the commercial dynamic of the day. Be it disco in the late ’70s, the quiet storm format of the ’80s, or the current (tired) format of hip-hop crossover and R. Kelly bump ‘n’ grind, there is very little room for a popular black vocalist to express his or her own take on soul music.
Following on the heels of the “neo-soul” artists of the ’90s such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, Anthony Hamilton is the strongest male voice to recently emerge with the talent and ability to stake his own claim on the future of soul music. Without sacrificing the commercial inroads of R&B radio, guest appearances, and the touring circuit, Hamilton creates music filled with startling originality and unadorned emotion. Organic and rootsy without being retro, contemporary without caving in to trends, he represents the greatest threat to the hegemony of radio-ready sound-alike R&B jams—he has genuine soul and he makes hits.
Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ is Hamilton’s follow up to his platinum-selling 2003 breakthrough, Comin’ From Where I’m From, so it might be expected that it would represent a compromise. Since 1993, Hamilton had been following his muse without making a dent in the marketplace: Two labels (Uptown and Soulife) have gone bust, taking with them a completed album each; his 1996 album XTC was praised by critics and ignored by everyone else; and until a guest appearance on Nappy Roots’ hit “Po’ Folks,” he was relegated to singing backup for terminal underachiever D’Angelo. With his newfound currency in the crowded R&B marketplace, he could be forgiven had he sacrificed his own unique sound to consolidate an audience that had never heard his name three years ago. To his credit, Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ is an even stronger, more diverse and more challenging record than its predecessor.
Multi-hued in both sound and subject matter, yet relatively concise (about 54 minutes running time), Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ is not the kind of album that you bump in your car nonchalantly or play in the bedroom when you’re makin’ a move; it’s a dense combination of moods and styles that demands personal immersion. Luckily, it also rewards such immersion—heavy social criticism (“Preacher’s Daughter,” “Ain’t Nobody Worryin’”) is leavened with lighthearted romanticism (“Southern Stuff,” “Sista Big Bones”), and hopeful positivism (“Everybody,” “The Truth”) is kept in balance by an awareness of love’s difficulty and pain (“Where Did It Go Wrong?”). Darker timbres, taut strings, and minor-keyed piano give way to warm swathes of uptempo Southern bounce and Caribbean-influenced rhythms, and Hamilton’s singing ranges from gruff and bracing to warmly melodic to dancehall falsetto. As could be expected in an album that moves from gospel to lovers’ rock at a moment’s notice, the progression is not always a smooth one, and therein lies the biggest problem with Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ as a complete work. Rather than moving from mood to mood gradually, the transitions here seem to be based on mixing up styles and subject matters primarily to keep the audience from getting bored.
The album’s centerpiece is the pairing of “Preacher’s Daughter” and “Pass Me Over.” The former shows Hamilton at his most desperate and accusatory—the titular character is the victim of a father who seems more concerned with his spiritual flock than his physical one, and the gospel element (which is never far from the surface of Hamilton’s music) rises to the foreground in cathartic rather than uplifting fashion. By the end of the song, Hamilton seems about to self-destruct, torn apart in the conflict of faith with family, his voice betraying the weight of carrying on through so many contradictory impulses. Then the song and struggle end, leading us into “Pass Me Over,” a full-on gospel number. This is precisely where Anthony Hamilton shows us how he differs from the vast majority of R&B singers out there—he’s at his most vulnerable, his most embraceable and yet he’s also further away from being an object of romantic love than he is at any other point during the album. Far from the placating nonsense of a song like “Jesus Walks,” this is the sound of a man pledging his devotion to a higher power with a passion so tangible it raises the hairs on the back of your neck. The placement of these two songs at the heart of Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ creates an undeniable excitement in what is usually the slowest part of an album, but they also sacrifice the listener’s enjoyment of the remainder of the music here. “Everybody” is one of the stronger songs on the album taken on its own, but after “Pass Me Over,” nearly anything would sound superficial and weak. Though admittedly a minor hiccup in an outstanding collection of songs, it is one so apparent that it might prevent a number of people from truly appreciating the talent on display here.
Anthony Hamilton is, in many ways, a perfect soul artist. Like Ray, Otis, Marvin, Al, and the lot, he is commercial enough to be popular and profound enough to change people’s lives. In consequence, he walks on a tightrope—how much to express, how much to hold back? One gets the feeling from Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ that he really ain’t holdin’ back at all. Anthony Hamilton: a man in his prime, with his first taste of commercial and critical success, ready to take on the world. Only one problem: Is the world ready for him?