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Van Hunt's 'Popular' — one of R&B's great 'lost' albums — finally surfaces

Last month, nearly 10 years after its originally planned release date and long after leaked copies had prompted talk of a lost masterpiece, the genre-straddling musician and producer Van Hunt successfully lobbied his former label, Blue Note, to issue his third full-length, “Popular,” to streaming services.

The release, recorded with full creative control in late 2006 while Hunt was on an inventive streak after earning a surprise Grammy Award, is the bookend to an extended saga, one that in a roundabout way prompted Hunt to retire as a recording artist after making what he was convinced would be a career-defining work.

Although his first two records for Capitol, “Van Hunt” (2003) and “On the Jungle Floor” (2006), hadn’t been hits, they had done well enough that Hunt and his manager, former “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson, had successfully pushed the label for nearly complete control over the third, which would be issued via Capitol’s sister label, Blue Note.

Holed up at Jim Henson Studios on La Brea, Hunt made the record in a solitary spot away from the action.

“There was never anybody over there except for a couple little puppet makers,” Hunt says, describing him and his engineer as Batman and Robin. “We just sat in there and hammered it out. It was the most fun I’ve had.”

Little did they know the futility of their endeavor. Not long after Hunt turned in the record, then-Capitol CEO Andy Slater, who had signed him, was replaced in a restructuring.

Absent a powerful advocate, “Popular” never came out. Shelved by Blue Note after it had already pressed advance promotional copies, the forward-thinking funk-pop record languished unheard.

Hunt calls the label’s move “a seemingly very last-minute decision to shelve the record. I know they had received some very, very harsh reviews from the first round of journalists that they previewed the record with.”

With song titles including “Prelude (The Dimples on Your Bottom),” “There’s Never a G’time to Say G’bye” and “Finale (It All Ends in Tears),” the album certainly wasn’t going to be battling for chart supremacy against Daughtry, Fergie or Nickelback.

It didn’t help that the first lyrics on the record describe an agoraphobic narrator whose desire is to “stay home in my underwear” and watch porn because the people outside make him scared.

If that didn’t scare away Blue Note’s bean counters, Hunt’s angular chord progressions, complex structures and funky, James Brown-style riffs and bass lines didn’t help.

Which is to say, “Popular” didn’t stand much of a chance in the commercial marketplace, let alone right after its most powerful advocate at the label was let go.

Still, Hunt still felt like he had some juice.

“I had just won a Grammy and it was just before I was getting ready to perform at the Grammys, so I felt pretty confident that I had enough marketability that they wouldn't drop me.”

After hearing the record, the label dropped Hunt.

“It was probably so devastating that I haven’t really addressed the feeling,” Hunt told the LA Weekly in 2009. “I remember I was in San Francisco, and as soon as I found out, I went to my favorite pizza place, ate some pizza and just tried to forget about it.” He then predicted that at some point Blue Note would issue the album “to make a quick buck.”

Asked whether his prediction has come true, Hunt laughs. “I honestly can say I don't know that my theory holds up, in terms of their motivation to make a quick buck here.”

Hunt says he listened to “Popular” few times a year, and when he starting getting feedback from peers in the jazz community including Jason Moran and Nicolas Payton, he decided to pitch Blue Note, which is now headed by producer Don Was.

Labels, Hunt said, “are always putting out these rediscovered records — but the artists are always dead. So if you could put one out on a living, breathing artist, it can kind of shed a new light on what the relationship is between art and commerce in 2017 as opposed to what it has been in the past.”

Blue Note said yes and issued it last month on the major streaming services. The label’s Was declined an interview request but in a statement said, “’Popular’ was so far ahead of its time that it sounds fresh today and reaffirms Van Hunt as an important musical voice. The opportunity to right this wrong is both karmically and musically solid.”

Karmically solid as it may be, the delayed release can’t change the past. Asked what music he’s currently worked on, the artist pauses.

“Well, I consider myself retired, to be honest,” he said, adding that despite putting out two records independently, he’s been working for the past few years on what he describes as complex systems design.

Considering his experience with Capitol, Hunt has a head start navigating such systems.

For tips, records, snapshots and stories on Los Angeles music culture, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter and Instagram: @liledit. Email: randall.roberts@latimes.com.

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