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Good Van Hunting

Meet R&B's Great New Hope

Van Hunt singsintrospective R&B love songs and plays a myriad of instruments. Critics call him "a dedicated disciple of soul" and "The Artist Known As The New Prince." By industry standards, he's a "real" artist, one who can create a song from inside out. It's a talent the Ohio native, who now lives in Atlanta, has worked on since he was 8.

I'm waiting to meet him at Six Feet Under, a rustic fish shack and pub in Grant Park, around the corner from Hunt's house. Outside, a torrential rainstorm — a remnant of Hurricane Ivan — threatens to flood Memorial Drive. "Oh, hey," he smiles, as he introduces himself. I'm struck by his height, a towering 6 feet. Today, Hunt looks only slightly like the solemn soul brother pictured on his album cover. He's grown his mini mohawk out into small cornrows and, save for some plaid slacks, his attire is rather plain. We sit and talk idly about the menu. He says he eats beef, pork and all. I chuckle and tell him he seems like the type to carry around incense and a bottle of wheatgrass juice. He smiles again.

From the articles I've read, I expect Van Hunt to be a little standoffish. I tell him that and he raises his eyebrows curiously. "Really?" he replies. "I know what you're talking about. I have a friend like that. He's very much 'the artist.' It's not that serious for me."

Nevertheless, Hunt has a reputation for taking everything seriously. He's revealing about some of his life, like how he proudly remembers his father as a "part-time painter and pimp." But he's cagey about his age, which seems to change with every interview. Recently, he's 25 in I>VibeP> and I>BlenderP>; 26 in I>Rolling StoneP> and I>PeopleP>; and 28 in I>The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionP>. So what's the truth? "I've seen too many articles print the wrong age," he answers. "So I'm like, forget about it. I'm not saying anything."

Hunt is less secretive — but as serious — when discussing his art, something he also feels has been misrepresented. It has to do with him being frequently compared to other male singers who take cues more from '70s and '80s R&B than hip-hop, guys like D'Angelo, Musiq, and that sweet-singing, ethereal soul man Maxwell. Hunt especially hates the label that critics use to tie his sound to theirs: neo-soul.

"I just don't think we sound alike," he explains. "I don't even like their music, so it's a little discouraging to think that people think of me as that."

It's no surprise that Hunt borrows from older styles. Though he lived with his mother as a child, Hunt credits his father as the inspiration for his current career, because it was Van Hunt Sr. who introduced him to Prince. "My father came home one night with this old LP," remembers Hunt. "'You see this guy here,' he said, 'I want you to be like this guy.'"

At 8, Hunt took up the saxophone, later adding guitar, bass and keyboards to his repertoire. In 1996, he moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, but soon dropped out and started working with acts like Dionne Farris. (Hunt wrote her 1997 hit "Hopeless.") He landed a deal with Capitol Records in 2003, and, after a year of recording, came up with an album that was fresh and vital. His smooth vocals, which can rise to a Princely falsetto, crooned poignant, candidly twisted lyrics like, "What would I do if we were perfect/Where would I go for disappointment?"

As soon as our dinner is over, Hunt is scheduled to fly to New York City to record music for a Gap ad. His future seems bright. But as I leave the interview, heading back into the storm, I still don't know what he's all about.

Three days later, I get a call from my editor. Hunt desperately wants to talk. I ring him back and he tells me a story about his trip to New York. He was standing at an ATM machine when someone tapped him on his shoulder. It was Maxwell, one of those so-called neo-soul artists who Hunt was so uncomfortable about being linked with. According to Hunt, Maxwell said, "Man, I'm a big fan of your record." Hunt was impressed. "He was a really nice guy," Hunt remembers. "He was with a girl and he seemed happy. He almost had like a glow to him." As our conversation continued, Hunt didn't outright retract his previous indictment of "neo-soul singers." But if he wasn't a little bit embarrassed by his earlier statements, then why was did he call?

Like many new acts, Hunt seems to be in search of himself. He's still trying to figure out the music game and where he fits into it. His extraordinary talents may make him one of the most promising new acts around, but it doesn't make the process any less bumpy. He's an advanced student in soul, but he still has some things to learn about life.