When Anthony Hamilton and Fantasia announced they were going on tour together, a certain portion of the Internet took it as a warning. “We will be doing,” Hamilton said, “Sangin'. Real sangin',” Fantasia finished. We braced ourselves. Sanging is a mighty verb — the activity derives from plain “singing,” but it arrives to your ear, to your soul, to your bones, on a higher plane. Sanging is infiltrating. It originated with the Southern way of ecstatic praise worship and then diffused into soul, rock, and R&B. When you hear real sanging, the sound causes your face to contort in ugly shapes, forced by the sheer brawn of it. The singer also contorts, does not care about how their face changes, because the intent isn’t containment. You want to think that if any gifted singer were provoked enough by either great pain or great joy, they could reach that place. Not so. You have to know the South, and you have to be black, to sang.
However fickle R&B's sub-trends become, those who can sang remain impervious. Fantasia’s upcoming fifth album, The Definition Of…, promises the standard love ballads that have won her plenty of Grammys, influenced by the “rock soul” sensibility she’s been testing for years. Anthony Hamilton’s March release, What I’m Feelin, shows reliable mastery of the blues-tinted R&B he’s been custodian of since he sang the hook on Nappy Roots' “Po Folks” in 2002. Independently, their safeguarding of the supremacy of vocals and the people who adore pure vocalists has set them in their own lanes outside the mainstream. Together, the potential is deafening.
8:19 p.m.: Everyone at the Mann Center in Philadelphia is dressed impeccably. Gorgeous black couples, coordinating in pastel blues and greens and very pressed whites, file into the outdoor space. This is the most grown crowd I’ve seen at a concert in a while. That makes sense, because Fantasia and Anthony Hamilton each individually draw a particular kind of fan. The two have been alternating opening each concert. Tonight, Fantasia starts. Her backup singers are wearing faux-‘20s glamour — synthetic feather headbands and black glittery rompers. Fantasia enters in a matching gown, with a high slit.
8:34: “Your mama is good-looking.” We should have known based off of her attire that “Summertime” was the song Fantasia had dressed for. Twelve years ago, Fantasia delivered a plaintive rendition of the Porgy and Bess standard on American Idol that stands as one of the most powerful live television performances of all time. Back then, the naive, baby-voiced teenager told Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson that her own performance made her break down in tears because “she felt it so much.” Now, she’s seasoned. The old vulnerability is missing, or no longer relevant. Fantasia does a pared-down “Summertime” with the coolness of a Broadway performer (which she’s been, in one arm of her wide career since winning Idol's third season).
8:42: The slit has served its purpose. Fantasia has torn the dress away and is doing Tina now. Fantasia’s performance of “Proud Mary” is the total inverse of her audition 12 years ago. Back then she had to sing, and now she’s got the band and the space to just dance.
8:58: Fantasia entreats the crowd to do the wobble; somehow, women in the center of my row bound to the outer aisle to do the wobble alongside her. It’s endearing watching her showmanship, and yet I’m still waiting for her to sang.
9:12: She has abandoned performing the standards and is doing her own songs. By all accounts, Fantasia rescued herself from the post-reality-TV desert. A show like American Idol doesn’t cultivate originality so much as obedience — for most of the torrid competition, you’re asked repeatedly to churn out sterile versions of the pop canon. Early on in her career, Fantasia enlisted writers like Missy Elliott and Diane Warren to give her the lyrical heft to justify her voice.
9:20: Fantasia is sweating, kneeling at the foot of the stage. She was saving the sanging for her catalogue. Her Grammy-award winning signature, “When I See U,” is 10 years wiser, but she sings it with the unhinged urgency that inspired Patti LaBelle to call her her “mini-me” two years back.
9:30: “Lose to Win” is anthemic, which means it’s a bit shopworn. But when Fantasia goes off on little ad-libs about prayer and independence, you can’t begrudge her sentimentality. The statistical miracle of her success is confirmation of the message.
9:52: Anthony Hamilton exudes black paternal confidence. Tonight he’s wearing a distinctive wide-brimmed hat. The man has been wearing variations of a Southern gentleman’s hat since he was a backup singer for D’Angelo, but he’s never looked uncool — probably because Hamilton’s longevity has sourced itself from a trendless black cool, a pose that’s rooted in observing the little glories of the Southern every day. Who else could possibly get away with a song called “Cornbread, Fish & Collard Greens” without sounding like the oracle in a Tyler Perry film?
10:10: The Hamiltones, Hamilton’s backup singers, are alchemists. They can turn ridiculous viral video, ”Hotline Bling,” and a Birdman temper tantrum into golden neo-Negro spirituals. Online, everyone thinks they’re hilarious, because the discordance of beautifying found memes with excellent harmonies is inherently funny. (Hamilton has always been adjacent to black comedy: See his performance of “Comin’ From Where I’m From” on the Lil Jon episode of Chappelle’s Show.) At this concert, everyone is thrilled by 2E, J.Vito, and Tony Lelo’s spontaneity. During “Tell Me,” both the band and Hamilton receded to make way for Lelo’s aggressive falsetto. Having himself provided vocal support in the past for the likes of D'Angelo, Hamilton knows the indispensability of a consolidated squad of backup singers. The Hamiltones are stars in their own right.
10:18: Anthony Hamilton’s in the crowd now, offering a quick and wholesome interpolation of “Sexual Healing.” I wish he were doing Al Greeninstead.
10:22: The origin of all love songs is the Christian devotional. Hamilton, like many of the cadre of soul-influenced R&B singers he belongs to, started off his career in his hometown choir. “Amen,” off his recent album What I’m Feelin', is about a man loving a woman down with the docility of a choir boy. “Got me saying Amen / From the bed to the stove.” Hamilton is surprisingly sexy, cooing deferentially to a woman he’s picked out of the crowd. Arguably, Anthony Hamilton is a sex symbol.
10:28: Hamilton begs, eyes closed, four times: “Please stop shooting my babies. Please stop shooting my babies. Please stop shooting my babies. Please stop shooting my babies.”
10:35: Hamilton reminds us of how long he’s been writing and singing. “I used to hang out in Philly with Questlove and Andre Harris in the ‘90s,” he remembers, while shaking out his jacket.
10:41: “Charlene.” Of all ‘90s R&B, neo-soul endured the new millennium the least intact. A kind of hotep kitsch grew over it like mold. Maybe that’s because it didn’t have a super-producer, like Teddy Riley was to new jack swing, or a seer to plot its growth, like Rodney Jerkins did with Darkchild. Anthony Hamilton, though, didn’t just survive; the man flourished. When the iconic “Charlene” dropped in 2003, Hamilton established a firm hold on timeless R&B that had been elusive to many of his contemporaries. His brand of sanging is its purest on this song. He exchanges loudness for leisure, for deliberate slowness. He's bent over, and his eyes are squinted. He rests, especially, in the second verse. “She knows I really love this old music thing / Since I was a child it’s been my dream.” The crowd rests, too, knowing not to rush him.