When Van Hunt came out with his debut album seven years ago, was celebrated as a young guy ready to become a part of what people wanted him: durable neo-soul. The demise of formerly popular outlets (radio, TV) for people to know about his music made him fall out of the general public spotlight, with very few people realizing that he was moved to Blue Note from Capitol (in theory, it was only a slight shift since Capitol distributes Blue Note, but it was slightly significant, if only as a way to associate him with everyone from Lou Donaldson to Norah Jones). In the last seven years, Van Hunt has done quite a bit of exploring in his life and music, and he’s about to come out with an album that will excite as many fans as it might confuse, but it’s for the better.
What Were You Hoping For? is a self-released album, which for some might be more of a reason to take a chance and listen, but is the music good? I think so. This album can be soulful but some of the material sounds like the Lenny Kravitz that Kravitz himself has forgotten, while mixed in with N*E*R*D and the harder edge of The Roots. Another comparison can be made: that unpredictable vibe of Los Angeles that moved the guys in Fishbone to become who they have become can be heard in this.
Don’t let the songs fool you either. “Designer Jeans” has a title that would normally make me want to avoid it, but the vibe of the songs that begin with the album sounds very street, very raw, very filthy compared to what Van Hunt is known for. He uses social media as a metaphor for what the world has become, nothing more than “mass production and consumption of opinions”, but it’s a matter of trying to decipher what it all means, or if it means more than a sales pitch. Or as the guys in Steely Dan says, we’re going to Los Wages, and we get to hear it all in songs like “North Hollywood” and “Cross Dresser”.
Let me put it more bluntly. In the past when it has come to the media offering music for “mass consumption”, there has been a big divide between what is “white music” and “black music”. Nothing else could go in between because it wasn’t so much not of value, but non-existent. Or if it was, it was “exotic” and an ocean away. What Van Hunt has done is opened his front door to the reality of his surroundings, and let’s people know that while California has often been a land of myths and dreams, there’s a lot of bullshit in those dreams too. When topics like this have been raised in funk and hip-hop, it’s almost done as if the person speaking has the gun and you dare not enter their world. What Van Hunt does here is somewhat different, or at least he says “you can come visit, but this is my world. It may be quite similar to your world or what you see outside your door, but check it out.” It’s almost punk in nature, especially the cover photo of a lady standing on a sidewalk with garbage bags next to her, but is What Were You Hoping For? a punk rock album? Of course not.
What it is is a new album of songs by Van Hunt that will most likely shut out a good portion of older fans. But for those who have put faith in him and his music, and all of the influences (both musical and personal) he holds true, this will be an album that might help him widen his audience. Some might say “oh, he’s doing more of a rock thing, this is a sell-out move because he wants a bigger audience”, but you probably would’ve said that seven years ago too. Who doesn’t want a bigger audience for anything that they create and share with the world? Plus, if you are to believe what other journalists say, rock is out. Hell, Warner Bros. Records announced they were going to cut their rock roster significantly, so if we are to touch on stereotypes, then a black man dabbling more into rock isn’t exactly a strong move. If you are someone who doesn’t care about the old tactics of the music industry, then you probably agree that this album could not have come at a better time. If you are someone who listens to music for the sake of music, then let this be something I will say is damn good music. If the title is his question to you, come up with a valid answer after hearing this.
(What Were You Hoping For? will be released on September 27th.)