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R&B singer Anthony Hamilton isn't worryin'

Staying true to his music has paid off

You could fill a fat paragraph with all the rules R&B singer Anthony Hamilton has broken.

He's not young by pop standards (34). He's not trendy, either, seldom using hip-hop elements in his music. And he doesn't present himself as a sex symbol, refusing to take either the R. Kelly-style bump-and-grind route or the Brian McKnight adult lover-man part.

Yet Hamilton managed to sell 1.2 million copies of his major-label debut, 2003's ''Comin' From Where I'm From," while scoring three Grammy nominations and a thick wad of worshipful reviews.

No wonder his new follow-up CD, ''Ain't Nobody Worryin,' " which came out Tuesday, rates as the most anticipated R&B album of the year.

''I've carved out a little niche for myself," the singer says. ''I knew that I wanted to touch people in the mainstream, but in a way that's not so obvious. I found that you don't have to compromise your music to sell."

Not if you're willing to spend more than a decade sticking to your guns, that is.

Hamilton's early career represents one of the great endurance tests in recent music history. He had three separate contracts with troubled record companies in the decade before his breakthrough. That resulted in two stillborn albums, the second of which, 1999's ''Soulife," only saw the light of day six years after it was recorded, thanks to the success of ''Comin' From Where I'm From."

Today, Hamilton can afford to be philosophical about his history. ''I had the chance to let everyone else's ideas about what my music should sound like fall apart," he says. ''Now I really know who I am."

The assurance shows in the force of Hamilton's singing, as well as in the rare balance he strikes in his music. Though he retains the pre-rap values of old soul, his records don't sound retro. They're wholly contemporary.

Some of that stems from their funky instrumentation. Hamilton also credits it to the urgency of his vocals, fueled by his hunger to make it after so long.

''My last album was my last chance," he says. ''There's an energy from that that makes you overlook age."

Hamilton also benefited from a youthful image, bolstered by his appearances as a guest vocalist on a host of rap songs before his first album arrived. He sang with everyone from the Nappy Roots and Nelly to Jadakiss.

His role on the Nappy song ''Po' Folks" led directly to Hamilton's being signed by Jermaine Dupri for his So So Def imprint.

Hamilton brings a distinctly Southern sound to all his records. Born in Charlotte, N.C., he sings -- or groans -- in a gritty voice that could come only from someone reared below the Mason-Dixon line. ''I got whooped with a big ol' country belt," Hamilton says with a laugh.

His new songs of the South come with references to preachers, collard greens, and the kind of large women who unapologetically indulge in soul food, as on ''Sista Big Bones."

While that song is sure to generate giggles, the singer means it seriously. ''It's to let women know that there are men out there who really appreciate a full-figured woman who takes care of herself," he explains. ''It's lovely to see a woman with a big smile and big ankles and booty!"

Not that Hamilton is on the prowl these days. Two months ago, he married his girlfriend of three years, Tarsha. On the new album's lead single, ''Can't Let Go," he sings about objections some have had to his relationship.

''Everybody wants to tell you who to be with," he explains. ''People say, 'Who is she? She's not an industry chick.' But she's a really lovable woman who's into family and church, and we present ourselves in a way that's pleasing to God."

Some of God's followers may not be so pleased with another song on the album: ''Preacher's Daughter" accuses certain pastors of hypocrisy.

''The pastor is somebody you're supposed to look up to," Hamilton explains. ''But I've been noticing lately more and more of these pastors have been in the tabloids, jumping out on their wives, or with their kids getting into trouble. They play like they're more high and mighty. But how can you call yourself a man when you're not taking care of your family?"

Hamilton sings a lot on the new album about what it means to be a man. To him, it's about admitting vulnerability. On the most moving track, ''Never Love Again," he sings in an openhearted falsetto about the raw risks of love.

He wants it to serve as a message to men. ''We put ourselves in a prison," he explains. ''Men have this thing where they feel that if you're vulnerable, you're weak. But it's not true. Men have been waiting to exhale for a long time. I'm here to tell them I've got the asthma pump."

Hamilton hopes to take that message to a broader audience in the next year. Instead of just touring with other R&B acts, he hopes to pair with the Dave Matthews Band and Santana.

If that broader audience doesn't respond to his message, however, Hamilton can take comfort in something else.

''Everybody likes to be paid for their work," he explains. ''But if you chase sales and popularity, you lose what's most important to you."

Namely, your soul.

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