Rhythm and Blues has always been evolutionary. Deeply rooted in gospel, jazz, and the blues, R&B has become one of the main expressions of the African-American experience throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Whether the subject matter ranges from civil disobedience, to love, family, or to sex, what is certain is that R&B has always been unmistakably and unapologetically black. By the mid 1990’s, R&B was in a unique situation. Directly following the New Jack Swing era, the genre found itself caught up in the hip-hop soul era, being dominated by artists such as Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Brandy, Aaliyah, Monica, and countless others. As hip-hop soul ruled the radio airwaves, a different, more nostalgic type of R&B was beginning to form. Helping lead the charge towards change one particular artist with the perfect blend of sophistication, sensuality, sensitivity, and musicality. It was this artist, known simply as Maxwell, that became one of the catalysts for a major shift in R&B throughout the latter part of the 90’s and into the new millennium.
By 1994, 20-year-old Gerald Rivera had spent the better part of three years building a reputation as a consummate singer-songwriter in New York. Hailing originally from Brooklyn, Rivera’s musical development stemmed from a deeply religious upbringing, which lent itself toward his extraordinary vocal ability, consisting of both a deeply rich tenor and a highly emotive falsetto. Upon his signage to Columbia Records that same year, Rivera, now professionally known as Maxwell, requested to work with legendary songwriter Leon Ware, the main songwriter of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album. With Ware, musical partner Hod David, and music producer Stuart Matthewson, Rivera completed work on his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite by the middle of 1995. Upon completion, Columbia was weary of releasing Urban Hang Suite, out of much concern that the album lacked the mainstream appeal needed to generate a hit record. However, after a year of being shelved by the label, the album quietly dropped on April 2, 1996.
Urban Hang Suite is a concept album that details the various stages of a relationship between lovers, including first encounters (“Welcome”, “Dancewitme”) sex, (“Til The Cops Come Knockin’) breakups, makeups, and marriage. The first single, “Til The Cops Come Knockin”, was released on May 14, 1996, and serves as a sublime standout on the album. “Knockin” details a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, in which the man’s top priority is achieving sexual ecstasy by pleasing the woman’s needs. The jazz organ, which is a recurrent instrument used throughout the record, gives the song a smokey, seductive edge, while Maxwell coos over the instrumentation in his signature falsetto. An exceptionally well written song, “Knockin'” served as a phenomenal first single for an amazing album, and remains a staple in Maxwell’s live performances. (Sidenote: To be blunt, that part in the music video where Maxwell rolls all over his apartment floor makes me so twitterpaited. Every. Single. Time. If only I could have been that floor. Yes, I’m thirsty and I own it.)
Moving right along, if “Knockin” was the single to start the album’s success off on a good note, then it was the second single, aptly named “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” that propelled Maxwell into stardom. The mid-tempo, bass heavy track, penned by Maxwell and songwriter Itaal Shur, dropped on July 30, 1996, and details Maxwell assuring his lover that she’s “the highest of the high”, and never needs to worry about his love for her, crooning, “If you don’t know then I’ll say it, so don’t ever wonder…” (Remind me again why this man and I aren’t married yet?) Anyway, the song peaked at #36 on Billboard’s Hot 100, creating the Rivera’s first appearance on the chart, and remains one of his best known songs. What I love most about this track is the very mellow bass line, in contrast with Max’s wavering falsetto in the song’s opening bars. Classic.
The next single released in December of 1996, is among my favorite of Maxwell’s catalog. “Sumthin’ Sumthin'”, written by himself and Ware, sees Maxwell pursuing his love interest, all while praising her blackness and cool “mellow smooth” nature. 15 years after the release of Urban Hang Suite, Maxwell had this to say during his VH1 Storytellers performance in regard to Leon Ware:
“He used to hip me to so much soul music… like Grand Central Station, and Sly Stone, and all these things that kinda represent good music and discipline. Not just hits, not just celebrity, not just some annoying song that you really wanna just not hear anymore on the radio. That stuff that lasts, that stuff that you put on at Christmas, and Thanksgiving, on Sundays, when everyone comes back to the anniversary of whatever. THAT kind of music. ” – Maxwell, 2011
The song (also included in the 1997 film Love Jones) is just a funky, feel good masterpiece, and his slow jam version, “Mello: Sumthin (The Hush),” which is included in the 1997 live album Maxwell: Unplugged is even better.
An inescapable fact about Urban Hang Suite, is that it serves as a beautiful metaphor for life and love. There isn’t one filler song on the album. Quite the contrary, each track builds off of the previous song, seamlessly weaving together a cohesive body of work from start to finish. Towards the middle of the album, we really get to the crux of things, with songs that were not commercially released as singles. With these cuts, we see Maxwell use his narrative to toil through the breakups (“Lonely’s The Only Company”) and makeups (“Reunion”) of relationships. While these two tracks aren’t songs that are well known from his catalog, one thing that can be definitively said, is whether known or not, they fulfill their duty as a support system of the album.
One of Maxwell’s most purposeful tracks, and arguably one of the best, is the 1997 single, “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever”. “Wherever, Wherever, Whatever” is a beautiful ballad with downright gorgeous string instrumentation, which lyrically depicts Maxwell pledging his eternal and undying love to his soulmate.
In more recent years the song serves, to some capacity, as an ode of devotion from an artist who selectively releases new material, to his fanbase, and best represents the notion that though he may not be here when we want him, he’s definitely here when we need him most. What I personally love most about this song in this particular, is that it showcases Maxwell’s willingness to be sensitive in spite of his masculinity, while lyrically, still asserting that he will be strong enough to protect his woman from the perils of the world. The album’s conclusion ends on a high note, with the final single and track of the album, “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam”). It’s here in which the relationship culminates in a very erotic marriage proposal from Maxwell. If you haven’t heard the song before, please prepare your edges and heartstrings for snatching.
The success of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, marked a huge triumph for the singer, and in turn helped spark a creative renaissance in R&B, now known as the Neo Soul movement. The album, along with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu’s Baduism, and D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar are the seminal four albums that opened the flood gates for other artists such as Alicia Keys, Angie Stone, Eric Benét, Lalah Hathaway, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, among many others, and made those artists accessible to mainstream chart success; a trend that still continues today.
The Neo Soul movement also helped more established stars such as Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Common, Raphael Saadiq, and hip hop group OutKast embrace their more afrocentric, soulful sides, which in turn gave vaster audiences a glimpse into late 90’s urban life. Whether or not it was Maxwell that was the main artist that precipitated this change is up to personal opinion. However what is non-debatable is the fact that Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite is a showcase of a very dynamic individual, who’s legacy is long lasting.
PS: Make sure you pick up Maxwell’s new single, “Lake By The Ocean“, on iTunes now! Check out our review on the single, and make sure you catch Maxwell in a city near you this summer, on the SUMMERS’ Tour! His new album blackSUMMERS’night drops on July 1st.