Most other contemporary R&B is so about braggadocio that it's the humility that makes Anthony Hamilton seem like a hero on his boldly modest new album, Back to Love.
Woo, the Babyface-coproduced first single, is as voraciously erotic as Hamilton gets -- which is to say, still pretty infused with a sense of morality even as he succumbs to temptation.
Forgive me if I want to do wrong, Hamilton growls, referring to himself as a goody two-shoes who breaks down in the face of a lust that was beautiful, even biblical, just like Delilah.
But the very next track, Pray for Me, is this soul Sampson's own repentant answer song to Woo. Not since the glory days when Boyz II Men specialized in bended-knee supplication has there been so much apologizing in one tune: I was stupid, really stupid, he says in the opening stanza. What a dummy, such a dummy... If he gets a second chance, he'll be such an angel, you'd think that me and Jesus was cool like that and even Oprah be jealous of you.
Harping on his sexual moderation risks making Hamilton sound like a simp. But there's not really much danger of that on Back to Love, where the married father of five manages to make fidelity sound so sexy on songs like Best of Me that you almost neglect to notice how comparatively chaste his boudoir-aimed balladry is.
Lyrically, he's an R&B traditionalist; musically, he's split about halfway between past and present. Babyface produced three of the songs on Back to Love, but the remaining nine are divided up between eight different producers or production teams, some of whom favor completely retro styling and some of whom aren't shy about throwing on contemporary beats.
The album is never more in throwback mode than it is with the terrific opening title track, produced and co-written by Salaam Remi, one of Amy Winehouse's two key collaborators. Remi ensures that back to... applies in more ways than one, throwing on the horns, strings, a wayward flute, jazzy piano, and rim shots, pushing Hamilton up into his reluctant falsetto as the singer laments how he and his love stopped spending quality time.
They're indulging in a particular sub-genre of urban contemporary: Neo-soul couples counseling.
It's too bad Remi only worked on one track here, but you've stopped lamenting him a few bars into the next track, Writing on the Wall, which has producer Mike City somehow pulling off a swift electronic gloss on what is unmistakably a classic Al Green beat. (It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that Hamilton was a simpatico guest singer on a Green album a few years back.)
If Hamilton has a classicist's attitude, there aren't a lot of instant classics on Back to Love, with material that sometimes settles for the serviceable over the truly inspired - a realization that sets in about two-thirds of the way through, when a rare up-tempo song, Sucka for You, is establishing that Hamilton can toss off throwaways as forgettable as anybody else's.
But he pulls out a victory again at the climax with the best number, the bluesy, extremely stripped down Life Has a Way, which could be a lost album track out of the Bobby Womack or Donny Hathaway era. Life humbles you down, he sings over an electric piano and barely-there drums, a little mournfully -- while also making ego diminishment sound strangely fulfilling.