After a dry spell in the middle of the last decade, neo-soul has been enjoying a second renaissance. In recent years, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, Maxwell, and Bilal have all released albums that either stand as career bests or mark exciting reinventions. With his fifth album, Back To Love, Anthony Hamilton becomes the latest neo-soul veteran to outdo himself. If the record isn’t quite the radical makeover of some of Hamilton’s more adventurous peers, it’s nonetheless a sterling continuation of the singer’s ever-widening palette. Where Hamilton’s past albums have lured in listeners with their slow, sensual pull, Back To Love grabs them outright with the soul man’s punchiest, most immediate batch of songs yet.
The Curtis Mayfield-channeling title track opens the album on familiar terrain, but from there, Back To Love branches out eagerly. “Writing On The Wall” suits a bump-and-boogie hip-hop rhythm with crisp funk horns, while the Keri Hilson feature “Never Let Go” is a woozy, ecstatic update of the adult-contemporary duets of the ’80s.
The “Pretty Girl Rock” singer isn’t the album’s most unlikely collaborator—that title goes to ’90s R&B stalwart Babyface, who produced and co-wrote three tracks that put Hamilton’s velvet-and-granite croon to work, including the bluesy, Southern-soul stomp “Mad” and the gripping “Pray For Me,” a take-me-back plea disguised as a devotional. These collaborations would have been unthinkable in the classicist early years of neo-soul, when Babyface’s studio-glossed productions ran antithetical to the genre’s organic values. But Hamilton isn’t concerned with such divisions on Back To Love. With an open mind, he draws from any era and style of soul and R&B that might prove a good match for his agile voice and in-the-moment songwriting, and discovers that pretty much all of them do.