3.5 stars (out of 4)
A skilled songwriter for countless R&B singers as well as a Grammy-winning artist in his own right, Van Hunt ran afoul of the music industry with the optimistically titled “Popular” in 2008. The wildly eclectic album was shelved and Hunt cut loose from his major-label deal. He returns with his most adventurous album yet, the independently released “What Were You Hoping For?” (Red Distribution).
From the fractured country feel of “Falls (Violet)” to the hard-rock guitar of “Eyes Like Pearls,” the Atlanta-based singer-songwriter stretches the parameters of R&B with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. Hunt’s refusal to be pigeonholed killed his major-label career, but without bean-counters looking over his shoulder, he sounds frisky and playful. His craftsmanship never devolves into shtick. He gives Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic musings a sinister makeover on “Designer Jeans” and turns darkly humorous amid the poverty-strewn punk of “Watching You Go Crazy is Driving Me Insane.”
The setting for much of the album is “North Hollywood” in decline, populated with hustlers, two-timers and at least one French-speaking “Cross Dresser.” Money is tight and girlfriends are fickle, but the music feels loose and liberated. In the tradition of musical mavericks unconstrained by limitations such as time, space and genre, Hunt titles one of his songs “A Time Machine is My New Girlfriend.” Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton could probably relate.