Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was one of the biggest R&B records of the ’90s, and his success and popular acclaim continued through the release of his last album, BLACKsummers’night, which came out in the summer of 2009. That was half a decade ago, and there hasn’t been a new Maxwell record … until now! Well, sort of: Maxwell’s new album is due out this summer. He promised that BLACKsummer’snight would be part of a trilogy, and now he’s delivering on that tease — seven years after Part 1 was released to the masses, the second installment will arrive on the 20th anniversary of the debut album that made him famous. Up from the archive, here are five Maxwellian gems to get you pumped for what’s to come.
“This Woman’s Work”
“This Woman’s Work” is like what would happen if Eddie Kendricks and Prince fused their voices and took on Kate Bush’s ethereal thoughtfulness — it’s pants-on-fire vivacity meets tender gospel berceuse, every minute of the song an escalation of a deeply held sense of yearning. “I know you’ve got a little life in you yet,” Maxwell coos in his uniquely incendiary falsetto — and it’s here, on the brink of the stratosphere and the cloud-filled space of what some might imagine to be a heaven-type situation, that we reach peak Maxwell. His voice sizzles through lines like “I should be crying but I just can’t let it show” without sounding histrionic or overexposed, and the instrumental builds to one big emotional, earnest, and otherworldly cascade. To this day, “This Woman’s Work” articulates one of the clearest visions of heartache in the R&B canon, and in that regard the song is instructive: In the song’s final moments, Maxwell cries, “Oh, darling, make it go, make it go away,” and every word feels like an arrow through the heart. This is what regret sounds like.
“Bad Habits (Uncut)”
Don’t be fooled by the surface-level simplicity of “Bad Habits”: There’s some serious melody happening here. Only Maxwell can make Spanish guitar flourishes sound cool instead of like part of a bad fireside sing-along. The jazzy-Caribbean breakdown at the song’s end is pleasingly moody and soulful, without the kitschy overtones that typically characterize love ballads that begin with the sound of a wind chime. It’s tasteful, with a supremely executed instrumental and a chorus that couldn’t get any smoother.
“Drowndeep: Hula” is probably the most Sade- and Stevie Wonder–indebted single from 1998’s Embrya, and it presages the kind of ecstatic eclecticism that Erykah Badu would later invoke in her two New Amerykah albums. The lineage of R&B can be traced through this song: There’s a celestial motif to this track, and a distant and layered gentleness that Maxwell later resumes amid the drum kick on BLACKsummer’snight’s lone instrumental track, “Phoenix Rise” — but here the veracity of Maxwell’s effortless cool wins out, and a song that could’ve otherwise sounded overwrought (“let’s drown deep in us”) is rendered instead playful and sexy, blissed out. There’s also something to be said for this song’s incredible lyrics, including but not limited to the sequence: “Confusing as this is / I hope my kiss can rectify / The lack of part time bliss / A weightlessness inside / Your life, your life, your life.”
You knew this was coming. No Maxwell hit list is complete without a mention of “Pretty Wings” — that confidence, that cadence, that countertenor! “Pretty Wings” might be a perfect song. From the creaky lullaby notes that open the song to the off-key bell chimes that embellish it, “Pretty Wings” is structured perfectly. The chorus moves at a healthy clip and there are lots of poetic layers: Do we know, exactly, what “pretty wings” are? No, but it somehow registers as the perfect metaphor for his muse’s more compelling attributes.
Between the charming acoustic guitar flourishes and that signature holy-shit falsetto, “Playing Possum” is one of Maxwell’s slower reveals — there are some somber horns that sound like they’re wafting out of a window onto a rainy street, but there’s also this sense of distance that imbues this song right from the get-go — where is Maxwell in all of this? Glancing pensively into the middle distance through a rain-speckled window? Stroking the cheek of a past lover as they finally part ways at the train station? His voice here is sleepy and slow as molasses, delicately embellished by his band’s strategic use of cymbal flourish, which gives the song a misty texture to underscore its drifting vocals. “Playing Possum” is a mournful ballad about lovesickness — a concept that Maxwell manages to make sound tender, generous, and hopeful all at the same time.