Blue Note’s decision to shelve Van Hunt’s 2008 album, Popular, was more than just a dick move on the part of the venerable label. It’s tantamount to cultural felony—or it would have been if the tracks weren’t so easy to procure elsewhere. If one upside came from the Popular debacle, though, it’s this: It put a fire in Hunt’s belly that eats a white-hot hole through What Were You Hoping For?, Hunt’s fourth full-length and the official follow-up to 2006’s On The Jungle Floor. Twice as raw and thrice as hungry as anything the neo-soul mastermind has previously released, Hoping—from the title on down—is a full-throated, full-throttle challenge.
“Eyes Like Pearls,” Hoping’s lead single, epitomizes the disc’s red-eyed ferocity. Imagining a stoned Prince fronting an electrocuted Led Zeppelin, Hunt manhandles meaty, distorted riffs while floating a gospel-sweet melody. But unlike Raphael Saadiq’s recent, similarly raw Stone Rollin,’ Hoping isn’t strictly retro. “Designer Jeans” is a visceral yet philosophical screed that foreshadows a harrowing future-funk while flaunting scars of punk and psychedelia; “A Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend” sweats and mumbles as it dangles over a chasm of insanity. There are sweet spots, too. Where Popular channels Curtis Mayfield, Hoping contains its worship of the late legend to two songs: the tender “Moving Targets” and the upbeat, Impressions-istic title track, a guitar-saturated mini-epic that dips into Mayfield’s paradoxical obsessions with joy and dystopia.
If any song on Hoping lingers on the bitter aftertaste of Popular, it’s the closer, “It’s A Mysterious Hustle,” in which Hunt plunks an eerie piano vamp and acidly croons, “Entertaining lies in small print / Where you find what was said and what was really meant.” After all he’s been through over the past few years, Hunt would have been justified in dousing Hoping with nothing but sour grapes; instead, he’s come out swinging, strutting, dreaming, screaming the big questions, and making a gloriously triumphant fucking racket.