Checking in to Maxwell’s “Urban Hang Suite”: An Album Review

Twelve years ago, I was a tween when Maxwell’s voice accompanied my uncle and I through the car stereo in the north-Florida woods. BLACKsummers’night, his fourth studio album in 2009, introduced a world of vocal performances that I still associate with the neo-soul/R&B genre; Maxwell’s ability to transport the listener within their emotional self illuminates even the darkest of nights. This skill has always been subjected to his artistic whim, however. Urban Hang Suite introduced him to the music industry as fun-loving, vocally gifted, and artistically focused.

From 1995 to 1998, the world witnessed the birth of neo-soul in its fluid beauty. Maxwell’s 1996 debut album with Columbia records, Urban Hang Suite reimagines R&B as a container for every sensual emotion possible. Being released alongside albums like Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), Maxwell employs subtle funk bass-slaps and warm timbre to create a loose atmosphere of vulnerability that brings the audience into an intimate suite of soul. Earning an excellent set with MTV’s “Unplugged” series, Urban Hang Suite foreshadows the honest work of one of neo-soul/R&B’s most beloved artists. The album’s monogamous focus is characteristic of contemporary R&B, but Maxwell’s focus on Urban Hang Suite marvels at how sweet interpersonal connection can be.

Thematically, Maxwell displays an unyielding, unselfish devotion to someone special in all their forms. “Anytime you want some / Make yourself at home cause you’re welcome” he assures on his first vocal performance on the album, “Welcome”. Emotional submission doesn’t strike Maxwell as an inherently good or bad thing, but something to be appreciated for its influence on the present moment. As a vocalist, Maxwell’s beautification of long-vowel sound complements the writing to create a clear, intelligible sensation. Instead of leading the album with his ability, Maxwell’s excellent refrain and control appears in the latter-half of the album. “Whenever Wherever Whatever” is the most memorable on the project for this very reason. Equipped with a fingerstyle acoustic guitar and accompanying piano, Maxwell offers a love that is sacrificial and deliberate: “Lead me on, girl, if you must / Take my heart and my love / Take of me all that you want” His vocal performance on the track is mature and directs the focus to the artistic core of the album, aside from the playfulness. Placing himself at the mercy of another, in the name of love, is a motif that carries well into Maxwell’s following works Embrya (1998) and especially BLACKsummers’night (2009).

Urban Hang Suite is not filled with sole performances of Maxwell’s, but rather Maxwell and his band. Considering the project as a whole, his vocal prowess doesn’t exactly reach the audience as an electrifying, conventionally side-wandering device as Badu and D’Angelo, but Maxwell’s brilliance on the album stems from his mastery of the groove. His vocals react to what the groove is missing. Instead of belting out in a series of runs and vocal flips beside the track, Maxwell remains within the domain of the instrumentation as an additive force. The studio mix of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” is filled with buttery vocals, but Maxwell’s ‘Mellosmoothe’ edit of the track, notably appearing in the 1997 romance “Love Jones”, confirms his rightful place as a neo-soul heavy-hitter for his attention to the groove. The project defines soul as much more than a sultry voice but a performance of intimacy between the artist and everything surrounding them.

These sonic discussions between voice and instrument account for a few tracks on the 12-album-long project, including “The Urban Theme” and “Lonely’s the Only Company (I&II)”. Improvisations of brass-funk confirm the album’s tone without wasting time or musical ideas. Across these ideas, however, Maxwell’s light inclusion of the synthesizer with a funky bass and drums, audible in “Dancewitme”, transforms this project from a traditional feel-good soul project to an innovative statement on what emotional vulnerability can look like. Maxwell chooses to let the music lead the art, unafraid of what might appear. “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)” concludes with a wonderful harmony between voice, instrumentation, and technology that operates with a distance from the lyrics. However, this bold experimentation does not stray from the smooth-jazz and soul elements — tracks “The Suite Theme” and “…Til The Cops Come Knockin” also display productive discussions of instrumentation and vocals that feel like velour and contemplative rain.

Maxwell’s focus in Urban Hang Suite may appear traditional and nearly predictable considering the genre, but the project excels in this strong definition. It is tailored and honest. The project invites an acceptance of emotional connection and encourages a fun attitude akin to partying in a hotel that you’ll check out of the following day. As neo-soul reminds the modern listener of Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love! and Hiatus Kaiyote, seminal albums such as Maxwell’s 1996 debut demonstrate how smooth the genre of neo-soul/R&B can be with a clear focus on letting the music stand for itself and having fun; that’s when you can really do sumthin’.



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