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Maxwell Returns With A Hot ‘BLACKsummers’night’

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Let's just get the obvious and the default out of the way now: Maxwell
has been on hiatus for eight years. Within that time he disappeared
completely off the radar, cut his luxurious trademark afro, and lived,
as much as possible anyway, the life of an everyday person, gathering
real life experiences to build inspiration for his latest album,
BLACKsummers'night, which is the first part of a trilogy set to
conclude in 2011.

With those tangibles all other write-ups will be so eager to point out
behind us, let's get to the nitty gritty: BLACKsummers'night is a
gorgeous album. Maxwell has evolved as an artist, a musician, a man.
He's grown. Which really isn't all that surprising considering it's
been nearly a decade since his last album, Now, was released. "I've
learned that you live first, create after. That's the best order for
me," says Maxwell in his documentary, 5DAYSofBLACK, that accompanies
the iTunes purchase of the album. And live he has. This Brooklyn boy
has lived an entire life during his gutsy, self-imposed exodus from the
entertainment business, most importantly perhaps the denouement to what
seems to be a torrid, emotionally strenuous relationship. His aesthetic
style has evolved. The new Maxwell is sans the boho, neo-soul hipster
duds that defined his look in the '90s. His hair is cut low, his face
more serious, suits and a Frank Sinatra swagger are now the rule.

Whereas young Maxwell (he was only 23 when his seminal, soulful debut, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, was released) was tantric sex, incense and raw enthusiasm, older Maxwell is even more introspective, at times regretful and even pained. There are no sounds of bubbles in amniotic fluid per 1998s underrated and abstract Embrya. Even his song titles have become more understated. Gone are the days of indulgent the colons and backslashes seen in "Drowndeep:Hula" or "W/As My Girl." BLACKsummers'night boasts songs like "Love You" and "Cold."

What's remained the same is the Maxwell sound. Make no mistake, he's always had one. I could recognize an instrumental he crafted before his voice even touched it. Full, funky, complex, retro soul grooves. Sophisticated grown people music. Love songs for intellectuals. Our modern day Marvin or Al. And there's always been a decided masculinity about even his silkiest high notes. His falsetto may've made him a star but it's hardly noticeable when he slides into it anymore. Its familiarity is comfortable.

The opening 30 seconds of the first song, "Bad Habits," reintroduces that impossibly perfect and tender falsetto that quickly melts into a deeper, rich alto. It builds and builds and builds some more and even more, that voice, and the instrumentation. Layer upon layer each element struts its way to the forefront, building into a full on jam session with swollen horns, a funky bassline, and cocky proclamations like "I want you to prove it to me in the nude...addicted to the way you move." Most of the tracks are instrumentally braggadocios in that way. "Cold" is a bluesy house party; the basement parties that reverberate with stomps and hand claps. "You can't just leave this, you can't just think that you can quit this, she'll make you regret this, she's on top and she means business, as God as my witness," he proclaims.

A soul album would be incomplete without a love song. "Stop the World" is in the vein of any great love song. The drawn out notes tickle and tease their way up the spine. Maxwell makes you long for something--or someone, rather--who has the depth to feel the way he seems to be capable of. "I know that every man understands what that's about," Maxwell explains of the song in 5DAYSofBLACK, "where you have the baddest girl in front of you and it's all about to happen and you can't even believe it." He could've written this song waiting for a woman to change into her lingerie. It's anticipatory. "Sing me a song, sing it soft, sing it long, girl stop my world."

"Pretty Wings," the first released single, opens with haunting chimes and feels reminiscent and timeless. This may be the song where you realize Maxwell doesn't bother employing any vocal gymnastics. Not that it was ever his thing. But there's a controlled grit, a huskiness to his more mature voice, that sounds better the less he does with it. And there's an artistic construction to his music, almost as if it were created to be played live, a little different each time. The improvisation and experimentation of jazz heard in the defiant piano licks, swelling horns, and drum breaks of "Help Somebody." There's the organic stream of consciousness of "Love You," where there's not even an obvious chorus. "Honey, let me love you" he sings, but it's not begging. He's not even asking. He knows he's gonna get it, everything else is a technicality. That cool confidence is evident and signature. The understated longing of the acoustic "Playing Possum" puts a yearning melancholy to music. The horns cry, they moan, and his voice itself becomes another instrument. It only seems right the closing song, "Phoenix Rise" is entirely instrumental; I'd even describe it as being experimental.

The album as a whole is a nuanced listen, a story of love, confusion and heartache. And Maxwell sings with a longing that's never desperate but emphatic. The oft-mentioned falsetto is as impeccably smooth and buttery as it ever was, but he allows his equally strong lower register to get raspy and gravely with emotion. Once a self-described perfectionist, his new concept was "If the emotion is right, then it's right." It shows. I'd believe he recorded every song in one take and that's not a bad thing. It feels spontaneously born out of the emotional, palpable moment.

Is BLACKsummers'night Maxwell's Here, My Dear? It remains to be seen. The good news is that two other albums are forthcoming in the next 18 months. Maxwell is indeed back. These new cats better step it up because at the moment, any comparisons to today's R&B puppies, i.e. Jeremih or Trey Songz, evoke a snort of epic proportions.  Maxwell's music transcends and his intangible magnetism will keep us interested in what comes next.

Maxwell BLACKsummers'night [Amazon]


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  • http://www.themixtress.com DJ Diva

    What a Glorious Review! I just copped the album and am now ready to listen.

  • Ashley

    I guess I will stay in the minority cause his album left me severely disappointed. I was never a huge fan but I admired his vocal ability. His songwriting has always left me void but he made up for that shortcoming with his voice. This album lacks great lyrics. The voice is still there but you would think after 7 yrs he would have grown as a writer. Hopefully this album will grow on me but right now, I can't see the hype. The reviews truly baffle me. Opinions differ and mine differ from just about everyone it seems.

  • stoneyisland

    The album is not that good. Im not saying it's a bad album because it's not. What I'm saying is I dont know if it's a good album based on the music or just the fact that the current music situation is so bad it just makes his album sounds better then it really is.

  • http://itsholly.com h2

    just watched 5DAYSofBLACK again. i could listen to that man read the yellow pages and i'd be happy. lovely review. gave me the goosepimples and made me want to listen to the album again. and again. and again.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thisbreeze Bree

    Great review!
    My favorite song off the album is "Fistful of Tears"; I had chills when I first heard it!BLACKsummers'night is such a beautiful album; short but sweet. Maxwell is officially back and I couldn't be happier!!

  • http://soulrific.theinfiniteink.com Soulrific

    It's a decent album. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's his best work, but I'm just happy that Maxwell is back on the scene. I'm actually looking forward to the next 2 cds in the trilogy.

  • http://soundcheck.walmart.com/maxwell Carrie

    He's also got a Walmart Soundcheck interview that's worth checking out - soundcheck.walmart.com/maxwell

  • http://hunyyoung.com huny

    I'm not surprise that some people aren't feeling the album. I don't think it's possible for him to live up to the hype his hiatus caused. but I maintain that this album will stand the test of time. I think it's going to grow on you all.
    and if not, thats cool too. I love it.

  • http://www.soulbounce.com/soul/novamatic/ nOvaMatic

    I haven't had a chance to sit down with this album yet and really listen, but I like what I heard so far. But Maxwell could do a cover of the entire Hurricane Chris catalogue and I'd like it.

  • oldskoolsista

    Somebody must like the album because it was sold out at the nearest Best Buy and Target.
    OT: Didn't comment in the MJ threads but R.I.P. K.O.P.

  • Diem

    I love Maxwell and I own all of his music including Blacksummers'night. I'm really not feeling this album as much as his other work. Maybe 2 or 3 songs tops. After the long wait, I'm really disappointed. Hopefully it will grow on me. I am glad he is back though and look forward to what the other 2 installments will sound like.

  • http://www.soulbounce.com Butta

    I'm cosigning what oldskoolsista said...I went to BUY my copy tonight & the joint was sold out at Best Buy after only being in stores a day. Somebody is buying it and I'm sure many are loving it.
    I must say surprised at the lukewarm comments, though. Is BSN UHS? No. But I wouldn't want it to be. Neither was Embyra. Neither was Now. But that's what I love about Maxwell, he brings something different to the table with every album. And BSN is the hotness. I suspect it just needs to grow on people because you can't tell me that this isn't a great album.

  • http://www.soulbounce.com/soul/novamatic/ nOvaMatic

    I don't know, Butta and oldskoolsista, traditionally "it's flying off the shelves" isn't a direct reflection of something being good if the sales you're referring to are within the first few days. That's why the second week and subsequent weeks are always more important than the debut week. A lot of times, artists are able to coast on name recognition or a hot single and that's what chiefly drives initial sales. It is word-of-mouth and the proper choice of singles that will give this album even more legs.
    And I'm referring strictly to people that are buying physical copies, the "traditional" music consumer, that was not tempted by the leak and didn't bother previewing the album on itunes or Amazon. Whether the album is good or bad doesn't really change the fact that they already purchased it.

  • kiki

    I went into Target today and it was sold out. Personally, I pre-ordered and I have not been disappointed.I'm loving this album. the music. his raspy voice. All of it. I love it..

  • http://hunyyoung.com huny

    real talk: no maxwell album has been fantastic to me upon first listen. all of his albums grew up me very gradually for whatever reason. it's hard to explain. but now I have difficulty finding a song of his I don't like. I just think maxwell's music is very nuanced and different and instrumentally complex. an acquired taste that infects you and works its way into your bloodstream. I really predict people will love it more a month after they get it.

  • Bella

    I think what most people are expecting from this album is either "back in the day" Maxwell, or "brand spanking new" Maxwell, neither of which, or both I should say, are presented in this album. I must say I was disappointed by the numerically challenged tracks (I mean come on Maxwell, we wait 7 years and all we get is nine tracks?!), but other than that I feel that the songs are a sensous mixture of the Maxwell we know and this new, more experienced voice. Oh Max was a grown ass man before, let's not get that wrong, its just that now, he's got this whole new feel to his grown man ish that he didn't have before. It MUST be the suits. And yes, he KILLS it with the falsetto! Maybe the small number of tracks is to keep us wanting more, making us salivate until that meal is on our plates. Either way, I think it was well worth the wait.....now we continue our wait for album number 2!

  • oldskoolsista

    Ok. nOvaMatic.
    I don't know why I never could dig "Now." I am guessing it's because of the year it came out, 2001. That was a tough year all around.

  • anon

    @oldskool. I never dug Now because it felt pretty generic, more "fortunate" style, which I never cared for either. I much prefer Embrya, Urban, and now Black...

  • http://www.vibeconductor.com/blog DJStylus

    Haven't listened to the record yet, but this is a great piece of writing. If I end up not liking it, I can't say it's because you didn't make a compelling argument.
    In general though, I love albums more when they grow on me, when they require an investment to reveal the details that make them shine.

  • miss concrete jungle

    @ DJ Stylus: In general though, I love albums more when they grow on me, when they require an investment to reveal the details that make them shine.
    ITA..I haven't bought it yet and have only listened to 3 tracks, but it will be my birthday gift to myself in the next few days..Of all the albums I've ever fallen in love with, I can't remember one that I loved immediately. It's so much more gratifying when they grow on you.

  • miss concrete jungle

    And huny this was great review =)

  • Aida

    @ Ashley [ His songwriting has always left me void but he made up for that shortcoming with his voice. This album lacks great lyrics] - Really? It's the lyrics that does it for me..I am so puzzled by this comment I cant even think right LOL..no but seriously..the whole embrya album-lyrical masterpiece! Just to name a few..actually,a whole album..lol. And the lyrics on this one I find very good as well..Cold,Bad Habits,Pretty Wings,Fistful of tears.. Funny how some opinions can be the total opposite.
    At first listen it wasn't what I expected..good sign! Cause his albums are never what I expect it to be.It has grown on me and will continue to do so from this day till forever..With his music it just seems that the more you listen to it,the more you fall in love with it.At least that goes for me..

  • Rae

    I agree with Aida, I think Maxwell's songwriting has always been top notch...
    As for this album, I really like it as a whole, I love the ambiance it provides. I also know that each and every song is going to to slowly put a spell on me, one by one, as all maxwell songs do... I just love it.
    For me, this album resembles more "Now" than his previous efforts, I reaaally don't mind cause "Now" is my favorite album. Anon says it's generic, I would say it's more accessible, as I have found that for the others (especially "Embrya") you have to be "in the mood" and in the right setting to listen.

  • hidaya

    the melody and the music are excellent. he needed to have added more songs! after 7 years of absence, he could have added a few more songs or have made a double disk.

  • http://www.soulafrodisiac.com Tha Connoisseur

    Huny, well said. Amazing job on the review.
    I think everyone was ready to embrace the Maxwell that was ours "back in the day." We are perhaps stuck on that notion and not willing to embrace the growth and direction that he has now taken. I can clearly hear Maxwell's sound (as Huny stated, he has his own). But I also see and feel the shift in his work. It really can't be compared to his other albums, it is different. In comparing we are setting ourselves up.
    I know it's hard to differentiate between the here and now and the past, but listen to the album with open ears. I like it because of the quality artist that Maxwell continues to be. Different strokes, for different folks. Hell, I didn't like Embrya when it first came out either. If you don't like it, then so be it. Maybe put it on repeat and see if it sinks in. Perhaps it will take time for some or perhaps not. Either way, I think the instrumentation is incredible, the songwriting on point and he nails it. I, like you Butta, can't wait for part 2!
    And I know, I was like 9 songs?! What da?? But I guess it is a proper intro for what's to come! Give it in small doses and keep them wanting more...

  • jj

    I pre ordered the cd /dvd set after the free listen on the web. I like this older, smoother version of Maxwell as much as I liked the Maxwell 1.
    The dvd is nice as it makes you feel as if you are one of the band laying down the tracks.
    I find Black to be much more mature and sexy than his earlier work. His direction has changed. I love the horns, the organ, the acoustic guitars, real writing and real music.
    Black presents Maxwell as a down to earth man, with real
    emotions. After listening to the music and watching the dvd I almost feel as though I can smell his cologne.
    This is a wonderful return. Listen and it will grow on you.

  • IllianaJoe

    I Love The new album.
    The Track "Bad Habit" sounds way too sexy for any words to explain. The album adds to his long standing coolness factor i've been waiting for this since i was 7 when embrya came out i'm 17 now and i'm ecstatic for his grand return.



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