Despite the highly-talked about discussion about the state of real music and artists, R&B is alive and well. It may have shifted from Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama,” or even Jodeci’s “Feelin’,” but its heart is undoubtedly still beating and igniting those same feelings that come with a good melody or tight verse. And although there may be some lingering speculation, Anthony Hamilton is back to change all that.
Hamilton, the down-home artist with the powerful, soulful vocals that can take you to church any given day of the week, is back with his fifth studio album, What I’m Feelin’. It’s the Southern artist’s first album since his 2014 Christmas offering, Home for the Holidays. And just as its title so candidly puts it, he describes the 12-track record as an unravelling of feelings or an “emotional cleanse,” revealing a story that might be familiar to others but personal in its nature: his own.
“What you can take away from [the album] is the journey, my journey. I think it’s not only my journey, but I think it’s a journey of a lot of people,” he says from across the table at VIBE‘s New York headquarters. “We have a lot of similarities in our lives. I believe people will be able to identify with that and see that I’ve been through all these things. I’ve travelled, I’ve met people who I wanted to push to get outside of their comfort zone, I’ve lost, I’ve gained, [and] I’ve partied. All those things that people desire, think about, or experience, they’ll take away a real life on here.”
The album took form in the heart of Nashville, TN, in the iconic Blackbird and House of Blues studios. There, the RCA artist linked with his long time collaborator and producer, Mark Batson, who most familiarly worked with Hamilton on the 2003, irresistible classic, “Charlene.”
Although it’s been many years since their infectious collaboration, the new sound that comes on What I’m Feelin’ falls consistent with the soulfulness and relatable storytelling of love, triumph, and pain. From the reflective track, “Walk In My Shoes,” which sings as an open letter to his ex-wife (whom he announced his divorce from last year) to the album’s lead single, “Amen,” which celebrates the beauty and simplicity of a woman’s ability to make you feel good spiritually, physically, and mentally, Hamilton touches all of the bases.
But What I’m Feelin’ isn’t just a sonically, cohesive track list that paints a picture of this stage in his life; it’s an album that gets back to the true essence of R&B and soul. “Have you ever read an R&B obituary where R&B is pronounced dead?” he jokingly asks. The answer is of course no. He’s right; R&B has never died, and will not. What I’m Feelin’ is one of the many examples of its new chapter.
Just a couple days before the project officially dropped, Anthony Hamilton opened up about the recording of What I’m Feelin’, laying out his life on wax, trap covers and more.
VIBE: The album is called What I’m Feelin’. So what exactly are you feeling? What are some of the emotions you feel this album conveys to fans?
Anthony Hamilton: I think there’s a sense of freedom, even in the songs that feel like pain. There’s a sense of freedom of letting go of that and preparing to search for happiness. I think that’s an overall thing; it serves as freedom and the beauty of love. To have experienced that, in a marriage and now being single, I went through some emotional things and some big changes in my life, so freeing myself.
You mentioned that this album is somewhat of an emotional cleanse. Is it a cleanse in the sense of letting go of your divorce, or cleansing of something else?
A lot of times, when you’re an artist or celebrity, people want to be in your personal business. And I don’t really care to share it really, but if I do speak about it, it’s because I feel like it. I don’t feel like I owe the people that, but this is a way I could get it out, sing about it. My music is a place I can go and reveal myself, my past, my path, and it just so happens I put some of it on my record. It’s for me to hear it and deal with it, and if some one else is going through it, they could adopt that music and hopefully it’ll do the same thing.
Can you describe the writing and recording process while working in Nashville?
We went down to Nashville where we decided to go to this studio called Blackbird, where so many great hits and so many legendary artists have been. We decided to stay there and record and it became magical. Within four days, we had all these amazing songs that were really big and powerful. Actually the first time we went, we had a few really great songs, some that didn’t make the album, called “Shot Glass” and a few songs that will be used. But the second time around, we knew then that this was a special place. The second round of recording at Blackbird, we came up with some really magical songs. We had a co-writer come in, Harry Lilly who was able to get some really great songs out of this session. Then we went to the House of Blues and recording went up another notch. It was about getting in, writing, not focusing on what was going on outside, and bringing in some of the best musicians like Vince Gill and Gary Clark Jr., Al Stephenson. It was a simple, beautiful experience. Nashville gave it a sense of peace and sense of underlying country and down-homeness to the album. It was soulful because of the people. Twelve of the songs were done in Nashville.
What was it like jumping back in the studio with producers like Mark Batson and Salaam Remi?
At this point in my career, I wanted to do something that felt more cohesive and not work with so many different producers. I felt like me and Mark had had such great success in the past, and we hadn’t been able to work together on the prior album. So this time I wanted to get in an do as much as we could together. It turned out to be a whole album. We’d been talking about it for a while, so Mark Batson and I went to Nashville where we could both focus, no distractions other than music, and it came out a successful project.
How would you describe the relationship you’ve cultivated with him?
It’s a natural understanding that we have, of Mark understanding me in terms of what it takes to bring out the best in me sonically. And I know how to approach his music and what makes it best for him as team. We want to make sure that both parties are extremely happy, but ultimately, it’s about the fans. And the same thing with Salaam Remi and James Poyser when working with them. They understand me as an artist. I don’t have to say to much; I just go down there, it gets done and the outcome is epic.
What song do you think speaks the most to you in your journey so far?
There’s different things. “Never Letting Go” is definitely one of my favorites because I feel like that; I found a heart that I believe in. I found a heart that I was needed, and I never want to let it go. That’s a beauty that I long to feel again. And sometimes you have to speak it before it happens. “Still” is one of the songs that [shows] I love the Lord. Those moments when I feel disconnected or I feel like I move away from Him because he’s always there; God still loves you, Jesus still loves you, the angels still watch over you. When I don’t make it to church, I put that song on after my prayer. And another song, “Save Me”, it’s an up-tempo song, like I want to dance, I want to boogie. Sometimes you meet a woman and feel like she’s got enough new life in her that you feel born again. It’s like a whole clean slate.
What song may have been the most challenging as far as putting on wax?
None of these songs were hard. I don’t mind being vulnerable on my music. It’s what I do, just being open and honest.
What about “Walk In My Shoes”?
It wasn’t hard. It might make me feel teary here and there, but it wasn’t hard. It pretty much came out because it was my truth. I think it may be harder for me to sing a lie because I don’t believe it. But all that stuff on the album, I believe it, so it’s not hard for me.
Looking at this track list, you don’t seem to have any features. Is that intentional in the sense that you wanted this album to be focused on your journey and you don’t feel like any feature was needed other than the musicians?
It was actually the scheduling. Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes, she was touring a lot, and then when it came closer and closer to the deadline, it was kind of hard. I was able to get songs that were supposed to be on the album, I did get Nas. That may pop up or may be on the soundtrack. The thing about features, is they sound good and it’s great and creative, but when you’re touring if you got seven songs on the album and they’re all features, it’s kind of hard to tour properly. And I want to sound like the record.
You’ve worked with a ton of people already, but who would you like to work with in the future?
I was just in the studio with Young Thug and doing some creative stuff with him. He’s incredible. I’m really excited about what he’s about to do to the music industry. I’m about to go and do a song with BJ the Chicago Kid, and there’s a song I’m about to do with Fabolous. I’m open to good music, no matter where it comes from—signed, unsigned. And I have a song with Shirley Caesar and Jess Glynne.
In regards to your trap covers, along with the HamilTones, whom you also worked with on the album, how do you guys pick the songs?
Most of the time it’s J.B. or TuWi. These guys are very creative and they’re always on social media. They listen to a lot of music and search the web, so they come up with these ideas and start to play around with [these songs]. And next thing you know, we all get together and put a harmony to it and sing it like a church record. And most of the time, it’s the songs that are the hottest. It’s an effortless thing that we do all day, goofing around, playing, and singing. It started out with P.O.P, “Mama Hold It Down.” That was the first one that really took off and we turned that one into a record.
What’s the next song for your trap covers?
I’m going to get back to the drawing boards and start rehearsing for the tour. That’s when a lot of stuff comes about, in rehearsal and on the tour. I’m excited about it.
You tweeted about Phife Dawg in the light of his death. Are there any favorite memories you have of him and/or A Tribe Called Quest?
When they first came out, my friend Aisha Mackey had gone away to school I think to Central or somewhere. She came back and we were like, “What is that?” By the end of the week, we were jamming to “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” and the whole album. From there, we were big fans of A Tribe Called Quest. Phife was just dope. He was a great lyricist. He had his own style, his own approach and delivery. He was clever. And I met him; he was a good guy, fun guy.
What do you think about the state of R&B and the discussion on whether it’s still alive?
It’s still living. It’s still going strong. It’s been around forever, whether it’s on a rap record or just an R&B song. There’s different cats with different approaches to R&B. There’s more of a pop sensibility to Chris Brown and those guys, which started with Usher. Now, it’s elevated to a more futuristic sound because of video games and sonically, things change. It’s 2016, things have to change, and sonically, things change. True music has been around for years. There’s Aretha Franklin, then there’s Beyonce. There’s August Alsina, Chris Brown, then there’s Anthony Hamilton and Maxwell. We’ve all been here. I’ve been here twenty years, and I don’t think it will ever die because too many people love it.