Had Anthony Hamilton made a few compromises with his music, he might have gotten that platinum disc a whole lot earlier in his career.
He could have ditched his gritty, gospel-tinged sound for hip-hop grooves; or he could have abandoned the rich, lyrical songs about everyday struggles in favor of superficial, sexually charged songs.
But the 34-year-old singer didn't want to trade his integrity for record sales. So despite a decade's worth of setbacks and letdowns that sometimes made him doubt whether he'd ever be a top-seller in the urban music arena, he decided to stick to what he knew best _ singing heartfelt songs about life's joys and heartaches _ instead of trying to adapt to what was being played on the radio.
"If did that I would be lying, I'd be a fraud, and it would show," says the Charlotte, N.C., resident in his Southern lilt.
"I always wanted to stay true to what it was I felt when I sung, because that's the true me," he adds. "You couldn't put me in no shiny suits, no pop music_ homey don't play that!"
And as it turns out, he didn't have to. Hamilton finally achieved mainstream success with his critically acclaimed debut, 2003's "Coming from Where I'm From." It contained the tear-jerker "Charlene," a top 20 pop hit, and netted him a Grammy nomination.
Poised for successNow, with the release of his sophomore album, "Ain't Nobody Worrying," Hamilton is poised to become one of R&B's established stars.
"People really want to embrace Anthony Hamilton again, and it feels good," he says as he sits in a midtown cafe to talk about his new CD.
But it took a long time for the public's embrace to come about _ perhaps because for much of his career, Hamilton was a background figure, singing backup for the likes of D'Angelo and penning tunes for other R&B acts while waiting for his time to shine.
Hamilton thought he had that opportunity years back, when he was signed by Uptown Records, then home to stars such as Mary J. Blige. But the album, "XTC," was shelved after the label became defunct, and came out almost as an afterthought with little fanfare in 1996.
He got another chance in 1999 with the small label Soulife, an imprint of Atlantic Records. But the tracks he recorded for that album soon started gathering dust in the vaults as that label also folded (though it was recently released as a "lost" album to capitalize on Hamilton's recent success).
"You get frustrated, you start to second-guess _ `Is it me? Is it the music? Is it the topics that I'm talking about?'" Hamilton recalls. "But I just stayed faithful to it and kept going. It turned around."
His first breakthrough came not with a record of his own, but that of the Southern rap band Nappy Roots. Hamilton was tapped to sing the hooks on their 2001 album, "Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz" and turned his cameo appearance into a starring role. His earthy, gritty refrains became more memorable than the raps, especially on the Grammy-nominated hit track "Po' Folks."
Once again, the industry saw the potential in Hamilton's voice, which grabbed the attention of top producer and perennial hitmaker Jermaine Dupri. A top exec at Arista Records at the time, Dupri got Hamilton signed to a deal and "Coming from Where I'm From" was released in 2003.
Still, it was a relatively slow build for Hamilton. Released at a time when the neo-soul movement was waning and most male R&B singers focused on the bump-and-grind, Hamilton's old-soul sound was an anomaly. But the singer remained patient as the album made small strides.
"I'm going to sing anyway, I'm gonna go play small places and just get it out there anyway," Hamilton recalls thinking.
From ‘Charlene’ to a happier placeIt wasn't until the following year when the track "Charlene," a heart-wrenching plea to revive a busted relationship, was released that the album made inroads on the charts.
"People could identify with that song, and the pain that I felt when I was singing the song, people could identify with that too," he says.
Hamilton's newest album, released on Tuesday, finds the singer in a happier place. The father of two sons recently married a fellow singer, and his devotion to his new wife is heard on songs throughout the album.
"Ain't Nobody Worrying" also reflects the singer's growing concern about social ills and personal responsibility. More spiritual than his first disc, Hamilton sometimes sounds like a storefront preacher on the some of the album's more poignant tunes.
"God has been working on me and working through me," explains Hamilton. "It's just my job and my duty as a man and a child of God to spread something that will make people think again and bring them back to faith and God and just reconnect _ that's what I do."
It's yet another example of how Hamilton differs from his more mainstream R&B counterparts. But Hamilton remains committed to his music _ if not contemporary soul music, music for the contemporary soul.
"Everybody else is selling booty shorts; Maybe I'll pass out a Bible or two, but I ain't judging nobody, I'm just trying to encourage," says Hamilton with a smile. "Even myself, even through my music, I'm trying to better Anthony. I think it's therapy for me, probably more for me than it is for the people."