There was once a time when I regarded R&B as the progressive vanguard in pop music. George Clinton and Prince were often at the front of any advances that came out of R&B when I was growing up. Often, a sound or musical convention they introduced would find it’s way to the club first then to pop and the mainstream charts. R&B’s reputation as a source of innovation has taken a beating in recent years. While interesting developments like retro-soul have been nice diversions, it’s success seemed to be at the expense of forward looking music. To make matters worse, hip hop has all but hijacked good R&B to the point of loosing it’s identity.
There were of course a few who resisted the urge to “go street” or look back. The Weekend, Blia, Janelle Monae and Van Hunt are just a few of the names that come to mind. That last one is a surprise considering that he was one of the original forces behind the Retro-Soul movement.
After two popular retro-soul albums, Van Hunt’s career took an interesting turn that landed him at Blue Note records. In the progressive spirit of jazz, Hunt recorded an album that did fit with Blue Note’s traditional catalog. It was never promoted or released.
That orphaned album was the first step towards the experimental music Hunt makes today. Like Bial with his label and distribution issues, Hunt seems to have been penalized for making bold R&B music. His 2015 release The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets was easily one of the best overlooked R&B recordings of the year.
On The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets, Hunt mixes rock textures, soul, gospel and bits of psychedelia. Listening to songs like “If I Wanna Dance with You” recalls Prince at his most progressive. There is an element of funk, but it’s oddly subdued yet remains rhythmic with odd timing.
There are traces of the old Van Hunt as on the vaguely retro sound of “A Woman Never Change” and the conventionally styled ballad “Headroom”. These songs could have been written for D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Familiarity comes in short fleeting moments. On “She Stays with Me”, Hunt takes a bit of retro and adds a funky rhythm guitar with a sci-fi inspired keyboard rifs that sound like it could have been lifted from 1982.
There are unique song structures throughout. Like Blia’s exploration of funk and jazz on A Love Surreal, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets seems to focus on various forms of rock and pop in it’s juxtapositions. Songs like “French for Cloud” has a hook like a pop song, yet is deconstructed like something that Prince and Lenny Kravits might have written together. Speaking of Lenny Kravits, this is probably what he would sound like in a collaboration with Bial. (rock plus funk equals sophisticated melodies).
When it’s off the rails of convention, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets sounds like nothing else out there (save for some D’Angelo,Blia and Prince). To think that this excellent album went under the radar and had to be crowdsourced to be made is simply amazing. Especially in an age when mediocre TV talent show “stars” can get big label deals.
With Prince’s passing, the question of who will be the next R&B vanguard is a legitimate question. The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets shows that Van Hunt has as good a chance as anyone at wearing that crown.