Happy 20th Anniversary to Maxwell’s debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, originally released April 2, 1996. [Stream album and watch videos below]
The term “neo-soul” was coined in the early 1990s by music executive Kedar Massenburg, maneuvering its way into the pantheon of contemporary black music and eventually over into mainstream culture. Artists and groups like Erykah Badu, The Brand New Heavies, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Mint Condition, Meshell Ndegeocello, and The Roots, among others, often revisited the essence of 1970s soul music to fill their productions with musical substance. Performers relied less upon electronic, minimalist accompaniments and overtly sexualized subject matter in favor of live instrumentation, lyrical content expressing either social consciousness or raw emotion, natural hairstyles, and in some cases, African-inspired aesthetics and style.
One seminal performer that emerged out of that neo-soul canon is Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter Maxwell. On April 2, 1996, the doe-faced, kinky Afro-wearing recording artist known to wear finely tailored vintage suits released his debut LP Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite via Columbia Records. The 11-track collection with a generous running time just shy of 65 minutes acts as a concept album that explores the development of an epic romantic relationship.
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite's suggestive cover art is an aerial photograph of a pair of gold open-toed high heel stilettos lying on a carpet adjacent to a descending wall with the track listing printed directly in the center. Maxwell’s headshot is only present on the back of the album sleeve, suggesting that despite his undeniably photogenic assets, his music remains the primary focus. The album’s sequence equally balances funky arrangements and the ambiance of a late night quiet storm playlist topped off with some R&B and jazz. The end result is the Haitian and Puerto Rican descendant’s best-selling effort to date, which has sold over two million copies domestically.
Interestingly enough, success almost didn’t happen for Maxwell, a self-taught musician who grew up singing in the Baptist church. A waiter by day who hit the open mic stages of the New York club circuit by night, Maxwell cut a demo in a 24-track studio that eventually led to him being signed by Columbia Records in 1994. Between 1994 and 1995, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was recorded in its entirety in New York’s Electric Lady Studios, RPM Studios, Sorcerer Sound Studios, Chung King Studios, and Chicago’s CRC Studios.
The final mix of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was shelved for close to a year. Record executives at Columbia felt the song suite wouldn’t appeal to record buyers or work well with radio programmers. The album ended up including contributions from an array of prolific and accomplished musical talent like songwriter Leon Ware (Marvin Gaye’s 1976 I Want You LP), producer and instrumentalist Stuart Matthewman (Sade), Grammy-winning mixer and engineer Peter Mokran, composer and musician Hod David, and legendary guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin. Maxwell also reincarnated himself as a producer under the pseudonym MUSZE.
Opening Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite is “The Urban Theme,” a slick two-minute and 41-second jazzy funk intro filled with saxophone blares and finger-licking guitar chops. The listening experience segues into “Welcome,” a blaxploitation theme song-inspired number that settles into a tender-voiced Maxwell serenading his love interest. “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” is an inviting track hinting at Maxwell trying to get someone’s attention, filling in the blanks with rhythmic handclaps and syrupy Larry Graham-styled bass slaps.
“Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” keeps the groove in motion, becoming Maxwell’s breakthrough hit single. The gold-selling single peaked at #36 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #8 on the R&B charts. “Dancewitme” builds its momentum from deep bass, subtle percussion breaths, rail-sounding horns and an echoing drum track. “…Til the Cops Come Knockin,’” his actual debut single, is a slow jam with cameo appearances from Maxwell’s impressive falsetto vocals, an occasional police siren and fogged up windows. The lush “Whenever Wherever Whatever” highlights possibly Maxwell’s most gutwrenching (and heartfelt) performance next to his cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.”
There to sweep up and repackage the emotional remnants of “Whenever Wherever Whatever” is the painstaking “Lonely’s the Only Company (I & II),” affording Maxwell in solitude the space to add more breath to his Prince-like falsetto over a soft ballad backed by a devastating saxophone melody. As the track progresses, the rhythm and drum acoustics could very well serve as an homage to Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit “Let’s Wait Awhile.” “Reunion” fades in with an organ loop before it’s conquered (in a good way) by a cello arrangement underneath a mellow mid-tempo beat perfect for make-up sex.
“Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)” is the continuation of “Reunion,” not at all deviating from subject matter or tempo. “The Suite Theme” closes the set, giving “The Urban Theme” this sort of cosmic, futuristic (and to some degree, more relaxed) vibe. There is roughly a six-minute moment of silence before an abbreviated second reprise of “…Til’ the Cops Come Knockin’” rounds out Maxwell’s first project.
Certified platinum, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite clenched the #37 slot of the Billboard 200 Album Chart, grabbing #8 on the R&B Album Chart. Maxwell earned his first Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Album, missing earning the gold gramophone to The Tony Rich Project’s Words LP. He also earned a trifecta of NAACP Image Award nominations but managed to triumph at the Soul Train Awards, snagging honors for Best Male R&B/Soul Album, Best Male/R&B Soul Single for “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” and Best New Artist, R&B/Soul/Rap. Not bad for an artist whom the record label didn’t think would become a marketable force.
Maxwell would go on to release a string of critically acclaimed albums for Columbia, including Embrya (1998) featuring Maxwell rocking cornrows, Now (2001), which became his first #1 album on the Billboard 200 with Maxwell returning to his kinky Afro, and the double Grammy winner BLACKsummers’night (2009). His discography remains true to merging R&B, jazz and funk, but Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite still stands as his crowning moment. Though it’s been two decades since its initial release, it remains a true testament to how it all began and the idea that love and romance can still shine in R&B and soul music.