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Anthony Hamilton: Soul on ice

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Soul music has never been an art form that people considered "playful."

Just rewind through history to many of the genre's most popular songs and you'll find hundreds of serious -- and sometimes even somber -- tunes. Sam Cooke sang about death in "Change is Gonna Come." Marvin Gaye pondered environmental problems in "What's Going On." Curtis Mayfield examined drug use in "Superfly." Donny Hathaway shed light on poverty in "The Ghetto."

Not exactly shits and giggles, eh?

But chat with Charlotte-born/based soul vocalist Anthony Hamilton about his soon-to-be-released CD, The Point of It All, and it's easy to see this dude just wants to have fun.

"Ain't no need in being serious," says Hamilton in a phone interview conducted from the Minneapolis stop of his current "Playing It Cool" tour (which hits Amos' Southend on Nov. 23). "Any moment I can have to enjoy myself, best believe that's what I'm gonna do."

That's coming from a guy who has -- employing his distinctive gritty and gospel/blues-inspired voice -- recorded his share of melancholy ballads like "Can't Let Go," "Comin' From Where I'm From" and the seemingly tear-soaked "Charlene."

In the video for his new album's hip-hop-flavored first single, "I'm Cool," however, Hamilton can be seen playing with sock puppets and sporting a big, shit-eatin' grin on his face.

And the good times roll beyond "I'm Cool." Take an even deeper look at his new songs, and you'll hear/feel an upbeat, exuberant tone that sets these tracks apart from most his old stuff -- and from much of the material released by many of his moody, soul-tinged peers.

"I think [the CD is] 'Anthony Hamilton' with some added tempo. I just feel like I'm in a good place right now and I wanna dance. Why not dance?" he asks, sounding somewhat distracted. He quickly confesses with a loud laugh: "Right now I'm doing some shoe shopping!"

Times clearly have changed. But what's the origin of this rhythmic shit? Hamilton says it's the product of some soul-searching and self-examination.

"You get to know yourself. Each year, each day that goes by, you get to know yourself a lot better. And that allows you to be [more free] and creative," he says. "I think now, I know myself. And I know where to go and where not to go."

So, it's obvious that -- at this point in his career -- he's doing and feeling fine. Of course, he's the first to admit that his journey to now has been punctuated by personal and professional struggles. His official bio presents an abbreviated version of his musical climb so far:

" ... a 10-year-old Hamilton began singing in the local church before hitting the local nightclub and talent show circuits in his teens. Later training as a barber, however, didn't impede Hamilton's musical pursuit. A 1993 trek [from the Charlotte] to New York City resulted in his signing with Uptown Records, home at the time to Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. Thus began a six-label odyssey that tested Hamilton's patience and perseverance. Rather than dwell on the negative, the singer honed his chops contributing background vocals on D'Angelo's worldwide 'Voodoo' tour and making guest appearances on songs by Eve, Xzibit and 2Pac."

Luckily, the years of toil paid off. These days, it wouldn't be unrealistic to consider Hamilton soul music royalty -- putting him on the same level as soon-to-be legends like Jill Scott, India.Arie and Erykah Badu, among others. That said, he has yet to attain the pop/mainstream success garnered by the recent wave of by blue-eyed soul acts like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele and Robin Thicke; all kidding aside, it's a situation that leaves Hamilton a bit frustrated.

"It's like, I do soul music. But they'll get somebody who doesn't do it and try to make them sound like something that I do. They're all talented. But when you have somebody that does that for a living and it's naturally them, why try to look outside of that? So sometimes it gets aggravating," Hamilton says. "They blow up these people like, 'Oh my God. This person is the most soulful person I ever heard in my life.' No, Al Green was. Janis Joplin. Everybody deserves whatever success they are getting, I just don't want them to overlook the ones who are really putting it down."

Despite his frustrations with the nature of the music industry and cultural disparities that still persist in America, Hamilton continues to keep it positive. He's not afraid to gush about President-elect Barack Obama's recent win ("Man, I'm on fire right now!"). And he's especially excited when thinking about his performance in Charlotte this week. What can fans expect when he hits the Amos' Southend stage?

"They can expect for me to feel at home. I might come in there with my shoes off. You never know. Expect Anthony Hamilton to be at his most comfortable hour. Just a good old time," he says with a laugh. "I'm coming home. Best be prepared."

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