To massage a cliché, when it comes to Maxwell, a little goes all the way. His music is ambrosia, but best served in petite saucers, lest any go to waste. That guideline may apply to most music, but especially to Maxwell’s, which ranges in tempo from slow jam to medium jam, and in mood from cosmically aroused to philosophically bummed. And the signs are that Maxwell agrees with me, unfortunately for the R&B loverman’s most ravenous fans.
Up until last weekend, we had waited seven years for a new record, perpetually touted as imminent. After dispatching three albums and an MTV Unplugged session between the late Clinton and early Bush eras, the 21st-century Maxwell has taken to nesting and nomading indefinitely while incubating what must by now be nearly the slowest-motion “trilogy” in pop history. It’s an R&B Song of Ice and Fire. In interviews, the anxious-yet-affable sex symbol explains that he prefers to minimize the celebrity side of his existence. He needs to accumulate life experience to provide his music with substance. But he’s also aware his absences make admirers’ hearts fonder, their shrieks hoarser, and their underthings, er, silkier. (Like the man himself, I sidestep vulgarities.)
But now it’s arrived, the middle hump of his planned album trio, blackSUMMERS’night, its (mispunctuated) title distinct only in capitalization from its 2009 predecessor BLACKsummers’night, which was itself eight years in the making. No points for guessing the name of the final installment. But bookies are standing by on its gestation period. Conceptually the set is supposedly about how a black woman named Summer passes a particular night. This is undetectable in practice. Mainly the two chapters so far are about a particular failed relationship, plus a few flings and random other thoughts (not thots). This album is a notch more upbeat, more summery, albeit seldom flagrantly danceable, though the Bee Gees-ish opener “All the Ways Love Can Feel” gets close. Yet it is grittier, too, thanks in part to Maxwell’s seven-years-itchier vocal cords: He was forced to cancel a tour a few years ago for throat surgery.
The added rasp in his 43-year-old voice lends immediacy to the funky “III,” in which he invites a lady on a New York dance floor to join him to “walk the High Line” and “go to Paris, maybe France” (in case she thought he meant Texas) and unforgettably expresses his longing for a “Michelle Obama lady to hold me down when the world is crazy.” As he sings on the psychedelically sexed-up “1990x,” “We’re grown and we own it”—the “it” in this case being to “climax with reason,” which sounds like sex with René Descartes but is at least preferable to climaxing entirely at random.
Forgive me, it’s hard not to kid about Maxwell, with his SNAG persona and lyrics that could be described kindly as loose and less charitably as slapdash. But actually each of those tracks is captivating, and so is most of the rest of blackSUMMERS’night, which turns out to be among his most consistently satisfying records. “Lake by the Ocean” is one of the strongest singles of his career, an engulfing melody from an artist who’s often seemed agnostic to hooks. While nothing else attains such transports (though the weirdo-Broadway-musical mode of “Gods” comes close), the whole seldom drags, unlike the back end of his 2009 release.
Maxwell once struck me as a more conservative member of the mid-1990s “neo-soul” cohort compared with figures such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, Macy Gray, the Roots, and Lauryn Hill. But that suited his brief as a renewer of the 1970s boudoir-decorator legacy of Teddy Pendergrass, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, and later Luther Vandross—Maxwell’s come-ons were more self-consciously enlightened, more openly in contact with a feminine alter ego. He leaned to metaphors cosmological and aquatic and to pronoun salads that lightly tossed around gender positions, though never as radically or raunchily as his prime post-soul influence, Prince. His mandate was to make consensuality itself hot.
(Side note: So many of his 1990s boho-soul peers have mirrored his productivity gaps that the pattern is undeniable, but also difficult to parse without either too much speculative gossip or an overly cynical reading of modern pop’s development. Surely someone has a plausible thesis.)
Peak Maxwell for me will always be his exquisite cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” first in his MTV session and then on his 2001 album, Now—a young black dude immersing himself faithfully and sensually in an older white woman’s song about the pain of childbirth. (It memorably scores the sex scene in the classic black romance Love and Basketball and overcomes me as much as Prince’s take on “A Case of You.”) Maxwell’s style was a gently countercultural pushback to a phase in which mainstream R&B, under pressure from rap culture, became much more explicit and aggressive, especially on the masculine end. Regrettably, that could also make Maxwell seem a bit quaint.
In 2016, Maxwell re-emerges in a world in which pop has long traversed most conceivable taboos, verging on exhausting them. The list of male celebrities who’ve been exposed for violating women’s consent has grown so long that it almost seems simpler to take transgression as a given until shown otherwise. And gender fluidity is at the fore of a new generation’s agenda. In this atmosphere, Maxwell arguably seems fresher than he did in 1996, with his determination never to neglect women’s subjectivity—note the conceit that the trilogy comes from Summer’s point of view, for instance. And when he indulges in light-S&M fantasia on this album’s “Hostage,” Maxwell makes sure to place himself on the happily submissive end.
He’s also boosted by the fact that what once seemed like his 1970s nostalgia has become, via the inevitable cycles, today’s 1990s nostalgia—our collective corniness rather than his own. His jazzy jams and gospel gestures connect with Kendrick Lamar’s and Chance the Rapper’s, not to mention the retro turns of Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, and Zayn Malik, and the new avant-garde of soft R&B (artists such as Tinashe, Jeremih, and FKA Twigs). Like the latter contingent, Maxwell’s key strengths as both a producer and a singer are in sonic architecture and spacing, as songs such as “The Fall” and “Of All Kind” on the new album prove. Rather than seeming backward-looking, Maxwell’s manner now simply celebrates the continuity of great black music, which renders it fully of the moment.
It’s fitting that blackSUMMERS’night has come between the death of Prince (Maxwell’s performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” at the BET Awards rates among the finest tributes to the Purple One in this sad season) and the anticipated comeback of Frank Ocean, one of the most promising male candidates to carry on both of their legacies.
All that said, Maxwell’s music previously has been political only by implication—created “in solidarity with others,” as he recently put it, but with its protestations confined to the erotic variety. Staring down the threat of a Trump administration, and perhaps under the influence of his permanent overshadower D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and other outspoken #blacklivesmatter-conscious releases, Maxwell recently has suggested that blacksummers’NIGHT might have a more “political slant”—and also that it “could very well make its presence felt in February right after the Grammys.”
This idea is a little worrying, when one imagines Maxwell, with his chronically mangled lyrical style, rushing toward topicality. Hopefully, he won’t let trends or any burgeoning midlife crisis make him too hasty.
In an interview this week with NPR, Maxwell offered a claim that might at first seem striking: two songs on the album, “Lost” and “Listen Hear,” were one-take improvisations over instrumentals by Stuart Matthewman (of Sade, one of Maxwell’s most potent forbears and an intermittent collaborator ever since Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite). The interviewer’s mind boggled: “So if that’s how you work, why does an album take seven years?” Yet those two tracks are to me the low points of blackSUMMERS’night: “Lost” is a generic hangdog blues and “Listen Hear” a lovermansplaining reminder of how diffuse Maxwell sometimes can be. They’re the only songs that nudge my thumb to the “skip” button.
Luckily, those two experiments come late in the running order, and Maxwell and his primary co-writer Hod David (no Max Martins or other hookmeisters-for-hire here) clearly have crafted everything else painstakingly. Who, after all, should know better than Maxwell, that guru of feminine pleasure, that the outcome depends on the slow build, the gradual tease, the long spiral? No shade against the prospect of him approaching bigger statements eventually, but for now, we’re satisfied, Max. Keep taking your time. Later, we’ll all climax … with reason.