The 'Suite' Success of Maxwell's Debut

'Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite'
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Columbia Records

At the beginning of 1996, fans of a certain kind of bohemian R&B and hip-hop had a lot to be thankful for. D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, an immediate classic, dropped the previous year, and there was word A Tribe Called Quest would be releasing new music (Beats, Rhymes and Life soundtracked that summer). The Fugees were about to put out The Score, and you never knew what the hip-hop royalty that came out of the Soulquarians collective would do next.

Maxwell’s debut Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite fluttered into the fray that April, and just like that, R&B and hip-hop had not just a new voice to relish; they had a new lover man to steam things up. Comparisons to old-school icons like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were inevitable and, as subsequent years would provide, completely justified. But Maxwell wasn’t just a throwback; Urban Hang Suite introduced us to an artist who was completely contemporary, one who could channel classic sounds and sentiments into the here and now. Years removed from its debut, the record still holds up. Let’s remind ourselves why...

"...Til the Cops Come Knockin'": You don’t need Barry White’s basso profundo to get something sexy started; when you have Maxwell’s falsetto, you can talk about what you’ve done (“penetrate your dark world”) and what you intend to do (“lock you up and love for days”) and the magic just happens.

"Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)": She’s “the highest of the high,” and he’s just figured it out. And he’s wondering what took him so long to realize it.

"Sumthin' Sumthin'": The low-end goodness here (bass and electric piano) establishes an elastic environment for the ultimate come-on, even if it is for someone who “pays me no attention.” Of course, things get heated, but the bass/drum breakdown late in the song is there to cool things off. But just a little.

“Whenever, Wherever, Whatever”: The gut-string guitar definitely gives this declaration of eternal affection a mid-’70s feel, and makes the song seem simple. It’s not. She’s moving on, in spite of his entreaties - the “Bye-bye, baby” at the end of each chorus is the sad proof of that. How many tearful goodbyes had “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever” as their theme music?

"Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)": The lover man is ready to settle down. This is what to play when “Will you marry me?” just isn’t enough.

 

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