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Had Marvin Gaye a Miss Cleo-like ability to gaze forward 20 years and survey the degree to which black male artists in his wake would seek to vampirize his Here My Dear-era oeuvre, would he have proceeded differently? Even Bo don’t know—and yes, Marvin had Anna Gordy to pay off. Perhaps horn player Nolan Wright, a veteran of Gaye’s ’70s sessions who lends his imprimatur to the self-titled debut of Hotlanta soul phenom Van Hunt, could shed some light?
Since the mid-’80s death of black radio and emergence of retronuevo stylists (in)famous (Terence Trent D’Arby) and cult (Chocolate Genius), the majority of post-soulmen have cunningly chosen their shadowy mentor—Donny Hathaway’s bones have been picked clean—with varying degrees of originality and success. Whereas Seal and Maxwell more firmly adhered to the Gaye template, Van Hunt, like D’Angelo, seeks to channel Prince’s mastery and eclecticism, while venerating Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack live—Hunt covered the Womack-penned Sam Cooke rarity “That’s Where It’s At” at Joe’s Pub a few Thursdays ago. Lest you miss his eccentricity, he even dressed like Monk.
As neo-soul gets its fourth or fifth wind and the ATL’s rootsy sonic gold mine is further raided for talent, 26-year-old Hunt preens, confesses, and lyrically wallows in enough insecurities—flipping the grown-ass sangin’ of Teddy Pendergrass—to trace a sepia equivalent of the distinction between Jim Morrison and Rivers Cuomo. Neither sanctified nor camp, Hunt does “Anything (to Get Your Attention)” and cries, “I’m already insane, I’m already in pain” on the powerpop-ish “Dust.” Yet all his whining’s in vain, for the aloof cool displayed in performance—barring digressions into the Kinks’, Beatles’, and Sly’s songbooks—prevents the listener from being deeply moved. The masks Hunt uses to distance us from his wounds may be the spoils of adoring his pimp father, the lessons learned in pater’s dope house both fodder for his vice chronicles and restricting, since thugs cannot possess vulnerabilities and thrive.
Van Hunt is comely and talented, but no Second Coming. Management and the marketplace have forced him into a stylistic schizophrenia wherein he eschews his inner rocker to pander with complex slow jams. On his next run, his graduation from acolyte will reveal what the heart of his matter truly is.