As I stated in the Erykah Badu feature, Maxwell is one of the four Neo-Soul pillars. Maxwell’s languid liquid runs, and effortless expressive range is the actual living definition of ‘the cool side of the pillow’. His debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite is genre-defining and, along with Brown Sugar (also released in 1995), inextricably linked him and D’Angelo as the male vanguards of this smooth new sound. The patient pleadings of Whenever Wherever Whatever, rising falsetto of Sumthin’ Sumthin, and driving percussive kick drum of …Til the Cops Come Knockin are quintessential sheet shakers. While the aforementioned tracks channel Prince, the classic Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder) is a veritable ode to Frankie Beverly.
In 1996 Maxwell coupled with Sade minus the lead singer herself (yes the Band is called Sade as well) performing under the name Sweetback for the insta-classic Softly Softly. Fortunate from the Life soundtrack and Fire We Make from Alicia Keys Girl on Fire round out his non-album hits.
The experimental Embrya was his sophomore debut. Maxwell strains the conventions of R&B and further pushes the NeoSoul sound with round fat basslines, expressive runs, and feral growls that show off his Baptist upbringing and layered production. Now, his third album features two of his most iconic cuts, Lifetime is peak Maxwell, lyrical depth, vocals reflecting the texture of the meaning of the words, and a driving kick drum that supports the calm groove punctuating the song’s vocals. This Woman’s Work is a “cover”, but just like Luther’s House Is Not A Home, Whitney’s I Will Always Love You and Donnie’s A Song For You, this remake supplants the original. The falsetto displayed in the live recording of this seminal Maxwell work was the birth child of a generation of NeoSoul artist, from Bilal to Eric Benet. The surprise of the album is the foot-stomping, spirit-filled, hand-clapping gospel groove Gotta Get:Closer. This cheeky bit of shock sees Maxwell interpolate Nine Inch Nails iconic Closer; unpacking this song is dissertation-worthy stuff, so I’ll stick to my lane and move to the next album.
Maxwell’s fourth album, coming fourteen years after his debut, demonstrates an artist comfortable in his sound, in the genre he helped to define through his work, and ready to demonstrate that he was and is still the king of the castle of his creation. Fistful of Tears’ melancholic chords, remonstrative chorus and energetic groove would be the pinnacle for many artists, but BLACKsummers’night contains the classic funked-out track Badhabits and the baby boom-inducing Prettywings (as a former brass player, can we give it up one time for the horn section on this track please).
His brilliance continued on display in the second installment of the ostensible trilogy titled blackSUMMER’Snight. Lake by the Ocean became an instant classic and resulting in his third Grammy. More importantly, twenty years after winning his first, it was his sixth Soul Train Music Award—two decades of excellence.
So put the kids to sleep, turn the phone on silent and check out our NeoSoulCypher’s Maxwell Essential’s playlist.
If you prefer your playlist shaken not stirred, your sheet shaking mix from the playlist 2theMax can be found here.