Van Hunt blends funk, rock and R&B into soul panopticon with pop appeal
The slick, monochromatic R&B dominating today’s charts bears little resemblance to the supple, sonically diverse music minted by the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Contemporary R&B, with its rigidly booming beats, is indistinguishable from rap until the vocals enter. This is partly a matter of pragmatism—after all, the perfunctory rap cameo is a staple of the genre. But the sensitive ladies’ man with a knack for tasteful innuendo is a dying breed; R&B slants ever more toward giddy materialism and belligerent sexuality. Terse, repetitive catchphrases engineered to lodge stubbornly in the brain get more play than languidly unfurling devotional narratives. The “rhythm” aspect is left intact, turbocharged even. But the “blues,” those ragged jolts of pure feeling, are largely suffocated by glossy digital production.
It’s not derogatory to call such music superficial because it’s deliberately superficial, presenting a frictionless surface for the ear to skim across. When done well, the formula can produce incredible pop music—Chris Brown’s “Run It!” swaggered with heartbeat urgency; Ciara’s woozily pulsing “Oh” was immeasurably enhanced by the chameleonic Ludacris’ “picture perfect” cameo; Amerie’s “1 Thing,” with its totally insane drums, sounded more alive than anything on mainstream radio last year. Nevertheless, given modern R&B’s cultivation of the plastic persona, it’s hard to regard it as “soulful” in the traditional sense. “Wanna go platinum? I’m who you should get-get-get-get-get,” Luda boasts on “Oh,” a baldly mercantile sentiment that moves the song even further from anything resembling soul and closer to rap’s sales-as-validation aesthetic. There’s scant leeway for insecurity, for humor, for mixed feelings—in ?ne, for human specificity.
So while I love a well-crafted, magnificently obvious banger, it’s good to know that a more nuanced take on R&B can still thrive. I posit Van Hunt’s sophomore LP, On the Jungle Floor, as an alternative, not a corrective. Hunt is a pop auteur whose variegated songwriting is reminiscent of visionaries like Prince; equally comfortable opening for Coldplay or Kanye, his music effortlessly spans rock, funk, soul and beyond. If the 12 seconds of studio goofiness that open On the Jungle Floor seem superfluous, they aren’t: they establish the playful spirit that’s writ large throughout the album. The intro rolls into the compressed funk stomp “If I Take You Home (Upon…),” an intricate braid of Rick James ad-libs, splashy handclaps, chuffing drums, fluid bass, silky falsettos, glassy synths and lilting guitars. Despite this teeming abundance, the track never seems crowded; it’s sleek and fleet and turns on dimes. “If I take you home, will you respect me in the morning?” Hunt inquires. “Will you write my name in a song?” But these aren’t rhetorical questions; they’re immediately answered by a raucous chorus of “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” The production is rich yet spare and immediate: when so much R&B sounds assembled by committee, this song conveys a real sense of individuality—of an actual artist in the studio, having a blast.
Hunt embellishes many of his funk and soul tracks with fillips of rock guitar. On the occasions when he turns his musical viewfinder more directly toward the rock idiom, it’s remarkable how seamlessly he’s able to integrate it into the album’s flow. The most brilliant transfiguration comes with his cover of The Stooges’s “No Sense of Crime,” although it’s given something more like full reconstructive surgery than a mere eyelid tuck. “One, two, three, four,” Hunt counts off in a nod to the song’s rock origins, a tribute that’ll be carried on by his clipped, emphatic vocals. But instead of churning guitars, we get a wash of silvery reverb and lusciously off-kilter woodwinds. “Good evening,” he says in a radio-DJ simper, that abiding playfulness rearing its head again, “you may call in and request any song that you want as long as it’s one of mine.”
If “No Sense of Crime” transmutes rock into soul, a reverse alchemy takes place on “At the End of a Slow Dance.” Tumbling drums, a keening synth lead, splintered rock guitars and Hunt’s commanding vocals roll toward a stately power-chord chorus. That such a convincing rock song can fit sensibly alongside staccato funk jams like “Hot Stage Lights” and “Being a Girl” is a testament to Hunt’s versatility and unique songwriting flair. It becomes clear that he’s less interested in genre limitations than in moving the listener emotionally and physically, using the entire vast range of musical idioms at his disposal. By pursuing a vision instead of a style, hopscotching with abandon through the various musics of his lifetime, Hunt delivers an album so rich, deep and all-encompassing that it successfully embodies not just the genre of “soul,” but the ineffable concept itself.