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Anthony Hamilton Pays Tribute to Rick James on Gleaming Single 'Back Together'

tries to rekindle a failed romance — over a flip of and Teena Marie’s classic ballad “Fire and Desire” — in the misty-eyed “Back Together.”

Hamilton has long possessed one of R&B’s great voices; some days, it seems like he’s the last vestige of a vital southern soul tradition that persisted from Otis Redding through Jodeci but now seems nearly extinct. Hamilton’s power is on full display in “Back Together,” especially during the chorus, which is grainy and graceful and pleading in all the right ways.

Why the Rick James sample? “Growing up listening to ‘Super Freak’ and ‘Fire and Desire’ made it impossible not to want to sing,” Hamilton said in a statement. “9th Wonder flipped the sample right in front of me. I wrote the song in a way to make it feel like Rick was singing along with me.”

“Fire and Desire” comes from a glorious school of R&B balladry, now sadly defunct, in which songs would open with or make room for a long soliloquy. Other members of this club include Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “I Miss You,” Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap III / Help Me Love,” and George Jackson’s “Dear Abby.” The simple act of starting the track with a monologue heightens the listener’s anticipation for the actual singing, making the arrival of soaring vocals all the sweeter.

Rick James was at the peak of his popularity in 1981, when he released “Fire and Desire” as part of his Street Songs album. The LP included two of his most successful singles, “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak,” which were driving funk records.

“Fire and Desire” was a totally different thing, a full-throated, seven-minute-plus ballad in 6/8 time featuring a scorching vocal from Teena Marie, who hits some whistling notes that defy logic. But James holds his own, launching into his first verse with a sky-high cry. It’s such an impressive entrance that the band suddenly slows the tempo, as if they all need a minute to recover.

In an email, 9th Wonder said, “I just wanted to find a way to mesh the generations together by sampling.”

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