Charles Hamilton is doing fine.
Before I talked to the much-talked about rapper, his publicist asked me to keep the interview focused solely on Hamilton's music, which was simultaneously a very simple and complicated request. On one hand, I had no interest in asking about Hamilton's more gossiped-about past, that path's already been walked down so many times it's been ground into dust. On the other hand, how do you talk about the music that comes from a man's mind without also talking about that mind, particularly a mind as obviously extraordinary as Hamilton's?
So let's get it out of the way now; you want to know, I asked, Charles Hamilton is happy and feeling blessed. On the phone he's polite, quiet but not shy, eloquent but not exceedingly talkative, calm but subtly energized and very much living in the present. When I asked how much of the Sonic the Hedgehog side of Charles Hamilton, the Star Chaser side of Charles Hamilton that landed on the XXL Freshman list five years ago, is still around, Hamilton makes it clear that he hasn't changed but he is moving forward.
"I haven't outgrown anything," he said. "But before I was sharing something very personal to me, and this time around I'm focusing on the music as opposed to personal aspects of my life...I was really just trying to fight depression the last time."
Like any artist, that level of personal connection with fans, that kind of unflinchingly honest art, can be a blessing and a curse. Hamilton let his heart and soul speak through his music and in the process earned the adoration and loyalty of people who felt like he was more than just a rapper, he was someone who could relate to their own struggles, a consummate outsider like them. But that openness also left him vulnerable. In a way, by being so nakedly human he often ended up being dehumanized, turned from an actual person into an easy target for jokes, a dumping ground for all the cruelties of the internet.
"It turned me off against how people reacted to me," he said. "People thought they knew me so well, but they didn't know me that well, they didn't have to be so abusive about it. I just needed a little bit more room, there's a bigger world out there than just me."
It's that bigger world that's the world Hamilton's new music is firmly living in. While his previous work was often an internal monologue, on Hamilton's more recent music he's engaging in conversations with America at large and the larger world. It's easy to forget that when he landed that XXL selection Hamilton was only 22-years-old and, at the risk of writing something so cliche as he's matured as an artist, it sounds like he's really matured as an artist.
"There's a way more serious tone with the music I'm making now," he explained. "I'm talking about love stories, social justice. I was sharing so much of my personal life before that I was cutting off the rest of the world. But this time around I'm paying attention to the world in general. I talk about police brutality on one song, defining what justice is."
While his subject matter is expanding, similarly we can also expect the music itself to be more complex. While his early work was built on sampling, which he did with remarkable skill, he insists that his new work is much more collaborative and live-instrument driven. His most recent single "NY Raining" is audio proof of that new direction, a track driven by live piano, horns and a bouncing bass line, the kind of orchestral track that could sound at home in large stadiums or hit TV shows.
"You can definitely expect some piano, guitar, a little bass, sometimes even the drums," said Hamilton. "It just depends on the record. Sampling has taken a backseat, maybe I'll put out a mixtape where I just go crazy with sampling, but I've decided to let it [sampling] take a backseat to musicianship."
That determination to both speak on more complicated world issues and do so with live instrumentation behind him, to make hip-hop that's more big band than one man and his computer, puts Hamilton in the same space as recent releases like J. Cole's 2014Forest Hills Drive and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. It certainly feels like hip-hop's sonic pendulum is swinging back towards a more authentic, organic, serious sound, and once again Hamilton finds himself a part of a historic moment in hip-hop.
"For someone who doesn't fit in very well, I always seem to fit into hip-hop," he said. "There's always a moment in time when we collectively as artists share what the people need to hear. All rappers don't sit down and say let's talk about this, but when rapper are in conjunction with each other it's creatively a good time for music."
It's easy to call this new moment, this time when Charles Hamilton is once again going on media interview runs, a comeback, but that's not really true, or at least it's only a part of the truth. We're all so eager for clear definitions, so ready to cram people's lives into pre-set storylines, but reality is always far more complicated. Charles Hamilton never really left, not as far as he's concerned. While the world was wondering if he'd retired he says he was making thousands of songs, content to only let a select circle of people hear what he wanted them to. But now that he finally feels comfortable with his label situation, saying Republic Records has been fully supportive of the music he wants to make and the way he wants to make it, after years of ups and downs a major label release finally appears to be on the horizon; Hamilton says he's aiming to drop his currently untitled project in September.
That's not so much a comeback as it is another step, another chapter in the life of a man and an artist that's already lived an incredible story. Charles Hamilton doesn't know what the future holds any more than we do, but right here, right now, he's doing fine and he wants you to hear his new music. All you have to do it listen.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]