Power of Soul

Van Hunt's new album Popular never got a chance to be.

By Craig D. Lindsey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 20, 2008

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Van Hunt's third album was supposed to be out by now.

Titled Popular, it was the Dayton, Ohio, native's latest attempt to hook audiences with his cocoa-covered funk and soul. Although his first two albums--his 2004 self-titled debut and 2006's On the Jungle Floor--were critically acclaimed cult faves, both failed to ignite the wildfire they should have.

Unfortunately, Popular hasn't even had a chance to catch a spark. Early in December Hunt's new label Blue Note (Hunt's previous albums were released on Capitol; both labels are a part of EMI) dropped him, pulling Popular from its Jan. 15 release date.

EMI issued an official statement saying, "Van Hunt would like to sincerely thank EMI for their support over the years" and "Plans are currently being made for the release of Van Hunt's third CD, Popular; the label yet to be announced."

But Hunt was more blunt (and a bit more dramatic) about the parting. "Blue Note and I are not seeing each other anymore," Hunt wrote on his MySpace blog. He also wrote that the album "is sitting in a box in my flat in L.A., on half-inch reels down in the Blue Note basement in New York and on about 30 laptops across this country and England--fans who spent anywhere from $30 to $70 to hear what I was thinking 15 months ago."

Yes, Popular has already made its way onto the Web, where it will soon reach Extraordinary Machine-sized (or at least Love for Sale) notoriety. Kimberly Hines, an editor of D.C.-based blog SoulBounce.com, has listened to the album, and has kept close tabs on the Hunt drama.

She recently wrote that the whole debacle could stem from EMI unveiling a restructuring plan that included the layoffs of 1,500 to 2,000 employees worldwide. And yet the plan was also designed to develop "a new partnership with artists, based on transparency and trust." So where the hell was the transparency and trust for Hunt?

"Well, EMI fired a large chunk of its staff in January," says Hines. "Blue Note is under EMI's umbrella. So for an artist like Van Hunt--who they probably didn't know what to do with in the first place--he was one of the first casualties."

Ah, the curse of the unclassifiable, the bane of any artist who's signed to a major and dares not stay put in one genre. You could say it was inevitable that Hunt--whose music can go from R-rated funk to pomo-hippie rock faster than you can say Shuggie Otis--was seen as a sitting duck whose unpredictable talent made his days at EMI numbered.

"His sound is all over the map--soul, blues, funk, rock--and these lazy A&Rs and tired radio programmers want easy and instant hits," says Hines. "They don't want to nurture and build artists or rock the boat by playing something out of the ordinary on their stations. His music doesn't fit nicely into a box."

And that's a damn shame. After Van Hunt has spent years composing and producing tunes for offbeat soul artists who've also had drama with majors (Rahsaan Patterson, Dionne Farris, Cree Summer), can't this guy get the break he deserves?

The ironic part? The potent, charismatic Popular could've been it for him, the third-time's-a-charm breakout I believe could've really taken him places. (With Maryland soulster Raheem DeVaughn, who's currently making the charts with his sophomore release Love Behind the Melody, and Erykah Badu's new album right around the corner, we could've had a nice boho-soul movement to start off the new year.)

It's not like he didn't sense this could happen to him. Popular's title track sees him riffing on the sort of vacuous fame-seekers record labels traffic in, pushing real artists like him to the curb. It's enough to make you wonder if this is all a conspiracy to keep a truth-teller like Hunt quiet.

"I don't think there was some grand conspiracy to keep a brotha down," Hines laughs. "I just think Van Hunt is a different kind of artist, and people don't want different. They want the same."

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