He'd barely stepped into the studio to record the follow-up when he opened his mouth . . . and heard nothing at all. The warm, earthy voice that had drawn comparisons to soul greats like Bill Withers and Al Green had suddenly, mysteriously vanished.
The doctors figured it out quickly enough: Hamilton was suffering from bruised vocal cords, the result of overwork. And for the first few weeks of silence, Hamilton tried to put a brave face on his dilemma, treating the enforced rest as a vacation.
"Then the reality came in," Hamilton admits. The album was to be titled Ain't Nobody Worryin', but Hamilton was suddenly doing lots and lots of that. "When something you love is stripped away from you, you can only envision the worst. What if I don't get this back? Then what?"
The anxiety brought Hamilton to the edge of an abyss he'd never dared peer over during his years in the R&B wilderness. Through all the disappointments, the North Carolina native had never allowed himself to consider giving up music. "The lowest point was having your emotions played with, and having great material go unheard . . . just bein' constantly pushed to the side," he recalls, from a tour bus bound for Atlanta. "But there was never anything else that I wanted to do."
As it turned out, he didn't have to. After a couple of months of rest, his voice returned, and work on Ain't Nobody Worryin' resumed in earnest. Hamilton knocked out four new tracks in a week, his faith in himself rewarded.
That faith had already dictated the direction of the follow-up to Comin' From Where I'm From, which had introduced Hamilton to the mainstream in 2003. It was an unlikely candidate for success, a collection of sweet southern soul that nodded unrepentantly to Stax funk instead of modern crunk, but Hamilton was determined to follow the same course. He says he encountered no resistance from his label, the Jermaine Dupri-run So So Def. "They allowed me, 'cause I've been doin' it for so long," he explains. "I've been doin' the same kind of music, and I've showed and proved for years."
A memento of those years of showing and proving surfaced last summer, when one of Hamilton's old labels, Atlantic, dredged up Soulife, a previously unreleased album from the turn of the millennium. Many fans undoubtedly thought it was the official successor to Comin' From Where I'm From and sent it into the Top 10. Hamilton was not amused by the timing.
"I felt it was disrespectful, because it seemed like it was a cheap attempt to pass it off as the follow-up album," he says, adding that the dispute has now been settled. "I wanted the music to come out, y'know . . . But I wanted it to come out under certain circumstances. Not that way at all."
Respect is a different matter to Hamilton than to many of his hotheaded urban peers, probably because he worked so long to earn it. When he came to New York City in 1993 after growing up poor but happy in Charlotte, it looked as if Hamilton's musical childhood -- "I sang in church, I sang in school, I sang on the bus on the way to school" -- would pay quick dividends. He was signed to Uptown Records, the home of Mary J. Blige, and the future looked bright.
Little did Hamilton know that fate had cast him in the role of urban music's Job. Uptown went down, and Hamilton was cast adrift. The album he'd been working on, XTC, was finally released by MCA in 1996 and disappeared on impact. The ideal neo-soul companion piece to D'Angelo's acclaimed Brown Sugar would go unheard, and after Soulife never even made it to the starting gate, Hamilton became a hook-singing sideman, hustling work on tracks by Eve and the late Tupac, and finally grabbing a background singing slot on D'Angelo's Voodoo tour.
Hamilton insists that it wasn't tough to play second fiddle. "I didn't have any regrets when I was with him. I chose to go there. That was actually one of the best times I had in the music business," he says. From D'Angelo, he learned "the importance of live instruments and the importance of great musicians. And how to recognize great musicians."
The question was whether anyone would recognize Hamilton's greatness. It happened in convoluted fashion, after "Po' Folks" -- a track from Kentucky hip-hop act Nappy Roots to which he'd added vocals -- got a Grammy nomination. A performance at a Grammy luncheon caught the attention of Michael Mauldin, Jermaine Dupri's father. "He said he loved my song," Hamilton remembers, "and he would introduce me to his son." Hamilton's long toil in musical purgatory was nearly over.
Ain't Nobody Worryin' seems likely to keep Hamilton free of a return trip for some time to come. Even more organic-sounding than its predecessor, the disc is peopled with vivid characters from Hamilton's Tarheel past. "Preacher's Daughter," the tale of a minister too busy "savin' souls/To realize he lost one of his own," is "a composite of people I've known," Hamilton says. But the lump-in-the-throat ballad "Pass Me Over" was written for a longtime friend who died last year of sickle-cell anemia. "It was born out of nowhere," Hamilton says of the song with a sigh. "And it gained life because of that situation."
Such mature and memorable moments suggest that Hamilton's trials were a blessing in disguise; he had to come from where he came from to get to where he's going, and the early stardom he wanted so badly 10 years ago might have been the worst thing that could have happened to him. On that, you won't get any argument from the man himself.
"Nah, I wouldn't have been ready then," he drawls with a knowing chuckle. "I wouldn't have been ready at all."
The longer you have to wait for your moment, the sweeter it tastes.