Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
“The Urban Theme,” the opening track to Maxwell's debut album, has no words. It's a nearly three-minute-long jazz jam featuring crisp drums, funky guitars, and sensuous saxophone lines that immediately sets the tone: This record is not just about the singer's voice or vivid lyrics but musicality as a whole, the sublime sum total of its individual parts. It remains a triumph of craft and patience.
Maxwell was only 23 when Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was released in 1996, and it’s hard to overstate the courage and maturity it took to create such an album at that time. The subgenre that would come to be known as neo-soul (much to the chagrin of some of its proponents) was still nascent, and this sounded unlike anything else from its era—due, in no small part, to collaborators like producer-arranger Leon Ware, who had worked with Marvin Gaye on I Want You; guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin, a member of Motown house band The Funk Brothers; and Stuart Matthewman, a key player in Sade.
“What I feel most proud of is that the record dictated to the masses, and the masses then responded to the record, and it had nothing to do with me,” the singer tells Apple Music. He gives additional credit to his diverse supporting cast as well as his A&R at Sony, who he says allowed him the space to make the record he wanted to make, free of expectations for commercial or radio viability: “That was completely unique and rare, because most artists don't get a chance to have a voice and their vision.”
With its spellbinding aura and lush, all-encompassing soundscapes, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite bears the markings of each person who touched it, a collage of time and texture that renders the elements of love and romance as both ordinary and transcendent. It traces the evolution of a relationship from butterfly-filled courting all the way to the altar. Vulnerability and reverence underscore his approach as he moves to honor the object of his affection in an act of emotional submission. Singles like “Sumthin' Sumthin',” “Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder),” and the ultra-lusty “...Til The Cops Come Knockin'” brim with desire that never spills over into entitlement; sex functions as consummation, not destination. Upon its release, the album took a bit to catch on—a slow-burner much like the tracks that make it up—but it has since come to be a bona fide classic, inhabiting its own niche space, enmeshed in several strands of soul music history. “It's like an automatic writing thing in my mind, but I do keep journals. I do write long, lengthy conceptual things. Movies play a major role, and also the music of our ancestors—people like Marvin Gaye, of course, who was the theme-album king; Al Green, theme-album king. Curtis Mayfield,” Maxwell says. “I just wanted to make a record that had that sense of a 'put it on, leave it, and you good.'”