1996, Music

Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996)

So full disclosure: I barely remembered Maxwell’s existence when this anniversary came up. I knew the name but I couldn’t even tell you what kind of R&B he was associated with. I now understand that what he’s doing on this record was distinct from the dominant form of R&B at the time but, all these years later, it’s quite hard to understand what the big deal was.

Maxwell writes catchy songs. He’s got some reasonably melodies though, as is the case with like basically every ’90s R&B album ever made, he doesn’t have enough of them for the length of this album.

I can’t say I thought much about the concept. Does it hold up? I have literally no idea. For me it’s neither here nor there.

My issue, rather is with the production and the aesthetic in general. Though Maxwell is associated with Neo Soul and is clearly rebelling against the cliches of ’90s R&B he is also way slicker than his contemporaries in the movement. (Think Marvin Gaye rather than Al Green.) Though this record is less produced and weirder than mainstream R&B in 1996, that’s a really low bar. With the exception of the odd moment – such as that quirky piano fill on “Welcome” – this is not at all raw or quirky. It all feels very precise. And if I have a complaint about ’90s R&B – and I have tons of them – it’s that everything is arranged within an inch of its life. That’s not true here, but Maxwell isn’t that far off.

And he’s just so much less weird too. Another complaint about ’90s R&B is how unbelievably earnest, serious and obvious it is. And the nice thing about some of the neo soul people is that they don’t always do that. But Maxwell mostly does that here – you know what he’s on about and there is no sense of fun (unless you include vanilla sex in fun and then there is “fun” in some broad sense). And there’s none of sense of musical the chaos that sometimes accompanies the best neo soul stuff.

So I get that he’s technically neo soul in the sense that this is not a typical ’90s R&B record. But it’s not musically interesting enough, weird enough, or fun enough, to make me care.


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