Van Hunt: “What Were You Hoping For?”
Perhaps the highest praise I can pay Van Hunt’s new album is this—that at times it sounds for all the world like it could be the great lost Prince album (made back when the Purple One was still weird and still funky), or, at the very least, like a trippy continuation of the work D’Angelo began on Voodoo, and yet, even in its moments of greatest emulation, this record is album that could have been made by no one else but Hunt, the most out-there and inspired neo-soul cat this side of Ms. Badu. I ask you, who else would record a hardcore punk song, fueled by poverty and with religion in its crosshairs, and end it with a kind of ragtime-gospel coda? Who else would pen a throbbing, six-minute ode to a lady’s plumb-shaped backside and have it dovetail with—what else—a country song?
I submit to you that Van Hunt is the only one who could, and the only one who would. Take the title of this thing as a signifier of knowingly, brilliantly dashed expectations; or perhaps, as his shrugged-off response to the Blue Note label execs who unceremoniously dropped him after he recorded his sublimely sexy funk/soul platter Popular. It’s an ironic name for an album that was never even released, but has become something of an underground classic, at least among the leak-savvy. All of us get to benefit from his new one, which will also never be popular, but clearly relishes turning all our expectations inside out.
What Were You Hoping For? is an album made by a man who no longer cares about making music unless it’s on his terms—lucky us. It’s a record inspired by busy streets, the cling and clatter of modern life; it’s an album about money, sex, God, and love, though not always in that order. It turns plays fast and loose with classic soul and blues tropes, gets druggy here and existential there, dabbles in sweet bedroom talk one moment and uses designer jeans as a symbol of cultural narcissism the next, then ends with a nonchalant admission that life is nothing more than a “mysterious hustle,” a phrase that would also have made a nice alternative album title.
How bold, how utterly fearless is this record? So much so that it opens with a song, “North Hollywood,” that might as well be, well, a great lost Prince song—right up until the moment it twitching beats collides headline into a squealing rock and roll number that feels like a second great lost Prince song. It’s a full-on alterative-history Controversy mind-meld, made all the more outrageous and inspired when Van Hunt’s lyric—a dry paean to hollow exteriors and phony people—dips into a winking innuendo worthy of James Brown: “The fastest way to a man’s pocket is on his rocket.”
That line is all about money and sex, but the next song is about money, love, and religion. “Watching You Go Crazy is Driving Me Insane” is a hoarse punk thrasher—but then, how else would Hunt frame his tale of a couple whose sanity is sapped by poverty and a stack of unpaid bills? The narrator slips into a church and asks for Communion wine, not because of its spiritual fortification but just because he’s hungry and thirsty. The priest: “Go home, funnyman!” The song is a jolt of energy and rock and roll mayhem that, it should be said, has little to do with Prince or any of the other R&B and funk luminaries Van Hunt gets compared to, and it works brilliantly. He saves the best line for the end, and cuts the guitars out so we can hear it clearly: “They are much less attractive when their money is subtracted.”
Throughout the record, easy symbols of status are lampooned, as are pat answers concerning matters of meaning and identity. “Designer Jeans” is pure street funk, a trance-like beat that could be a D’Angelo song, only it’s way too trippy for that; it’s more like Sly at his druggiest. But the lyric asks a pointed question for the Facebook age: Why do our beliefs about religion and politics and sexuality have to be worn like emblems of class or social standing? For that matter, why do we insist on making them public? Then, later on, an uproariously strutting rock song called “Cross Dresser” puts the psycho/sexual implications of clothing and physical possessions through the blender, and comes out with an analysis too clear-eyed and kooky even for the Purple One.
But not everything is about subversion—well, not exactly. “Eyes Like Pearls” is a soulful and soaring rock song that seems to be fueled by real peace, love and understanding; that it’s followed by a demented song in which the singer wishes to go back in time, then ends up just making the time machine his new girlfriend, adds complexity but does nothing to undercut the sincerity. The album’s hinge seems to be “Plum,” a hypnotic ode to a finely-shaped ass that’s set amidst weird song effects, gurgles, and distortion but still seems intimate and heartfelt. It has the album’s MVP lyric: “Lord, why’d you put her in an aquarium/ Now she’s easy to see, hard to touch.” Its flipside is “Falls (Violet),” straight C&W soul that somehow fits perfectly.
Anyone doubting that Van Hunt could have played nice and made a more conventional soul record need only give a listen to “Moving Targets,” a sexy and tender ballad without any funny business, unless you could the slightly off-kilter vibe given by the drums. Thank God he decided to make this record, instead—one that’s soulful and song-oriented, outlandishly personal and profound, unpredictable and completely held in place by its own unerring momentum. The title song, coming toward the album’s end, starts with a channel-surfing sound collage then locks into a steady funk groove, eventually building quite a nice rock and roll lather. Because, how else would the banner song of an album like this sound? Whether it ends up being popular or not, Van Hunt’s made a stone-cold killer with this record, an album built on the sounds of the past that easily sidesteps easy comparisons and stands as a true original.