Van Hunt has a younger brother who’s at that age when making love to a woman should come with a discerning soundtrack. But Hunt often finds himself shaking his head when he hears his brother turning up the volume behind his bedroom door. He can only hope the kid is doing the rest of it right.
“What the — what is that? Is that . . . ‘Bootylicious’?” Hunt remembers asking. “Man, do you ever listen to anything, like, slooow?”
He can’t blame his brother entirely: “It’s hard to be sexy when life is going at this pace.” That just means you have to learn to pace yourself — whether it’s turning off “Bootylicious,” for fuck’s sake, when you’re about to get it on, or holding off on your own artist album when you’ve been laboring for years in Atlanta as a respected musician and songwriter. (Hunt, though, considers himself from Dayton, Ohio, and a product of that region’s rich musical legacy: Faze-O, the Ohio Players, Roger Troutman and Zapp.)
Case in point: Nearly all the songs on Hunt’s new debut were written five or six years ago. He’ll be the first to tell you it was worth the wait — unless, after experiencing the album’s handsome R&B traditions and thrilling deviations, you end up saying it first.
“I was eventually talked into the artist thing,” says Hunt, who has written or played for the likes of Joi, Dionne Farris, Raphael Saadiq and Rahsaan Patterson, among others. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but when I got to see glimpses of the industry, I saw it as fighting your way uphill to the big pretty house, and when you ring the door bell, the whole house falls over.”
But his friends and his manager, Randy Jackson, pressed him. Before hooking up with Jackson, Hunt had been working with supa-slick producer Dallas Austin (TLC, Pink), and was expecting to get on Austin’s label, which has a partnership with Capitol Records. Now, there’s slooow, which is sexy, and then there’s slooooooow, which really isn’t. Seeing that things weren’t moving along with Austin, Hunt met up with veteran producer Lenny Waronker and then Andy Slater, head honcho at Capitol, which has just released the album.
“I consider my first break is sitting down with Lenny Waronker,” says Hunt. “To hear him say, ‘Wow, Prince is going to shit a brick when he hears your stuff,’ that was the turning point.”
Prince is no doubt an influence on Hunt’s sexy rhythm & rock insurgency; check out the superb “Hold My Hand,” Prince circa downtown ’82, which features Prince’s rhythm-guitar gal Wendy Melvoin. (The song is about a chance romance between David Bowie and Britney Spears.) Hunt says his pop gave him a Prince album when he was young, and all his life he’s been searching for his own imagination of the Prince sound.
He eventually arrived at that moment with “Dust,” the best cut on an album that bears the lineage of Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and early Isaac Hayes. With an impossibly exhilarating rock-inflected hook that echoes, “I am dust/ blown away/over the edge,” the song gracefully imparts men’s day-night duality, where, as Hunt describes in the press notes, “Under the cover of darkness, you run into the arms of your vices.”
“I generally live in that world,” says Hunt. “Like the first lines in ‘Dust’: ‘It’s just another day/Another episode/I’m hiding under the world.’ I do revel in what others call sadness and misfortune.” Prince, of course, would have no problem saying those lines, too, but for all of his arty innovations, I’ve never heard Prince leap into the depths of soul-music intuition the way Hunt has with “Dust.”
D’Angelo, in a way, could have pulled off more of these songs than Prince (especially the home-cooked funk platter “Anything”), and certainly D’Angelo is another contemporary artist with whom Hunt doesn’t discourage comparisons. “I came up listening to him, so I don’t mind at all.” But Hunt doesn’t understand why his man isn’t more prolific, having produced just two albums in the last decade. That’s pretty slooow.
“Hey, man, if D’Angelo wants to sleep, that’s cool,” laughs Hunt, sensing that he’s already having a hard time competing with “Bootylicious.” “I would rather y’all not wake him up.”
Van Hunt performs at the Knitting Factory Monday, March 22.