It’s incredible how wide the stream of creativity was in the mainstream music scene of 1996. While rock had finally started to get itself worked out following the death of Kurt Cobain (there were a few good rock records that year – Ministry released Filth Pig, Lou Reed put out Set The Twilight Reeling, The Wallflowers released Bringing Down The Horse and The Tragically Hip released Trouble at the Henhouse – there just weren’t many), other musics were doing great. Electronica was beginning to get wheels under it in a mainstream capacity and hip hop had started to expand its horizons. Of course, the genre was already riding high thanks to Dr. Dre’s landmark The Chronic album (released four years previous), but other artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Maxwell were reaching into soul and jazz for fresh inspiration.
The result was the emergence of Neo soul and Quiet Storm, forms which both favored slick, smooth and savory songwriting styling over gritty Thuglife posturing, but also infused the necessity for fine performance talent from backing musicians instead of just throwing the spotlight on an emcee. In that regard, Neo soul was the most ‘uptown’ subgenre in the mix but, in other respects, it inspired a multitude of ideas which continue to exert an influence on pop in the twenty-first century – so it only makes sense that the roots get examined and celebrated with some new reissues.
Listening to the new, double-disc vinyl pressing of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, it suddenly becomes obvious just how much twenty-first century pop owes to this album and others which bore the Neo soul tag in the late Nineties. After the instrumental introduction is made by “The Urban Theme” (which features the sounds of synths and keyboards made popular by Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder), “Welcome” pushes listeners deeper into a sweet, lush and perfectly relaxing epitome of quiet storm sensations.
Wah Wah Watson’s envelope filter-affected guitar adds a great accent to the synths which are the main instrument in the song and really captures listeners’ imaginations before the singer has even had the chance to enter the aural frame – however, after he does, even the stoniest souls’ hearts will melt spontaneously as the words, “I guess it never was/ The way I thought it was/ I say this only just because/ You never came to love.”
It isn’t profound, it might not open your mind – but it will rock you reader, guaranteed. It’s cool because it doesn’t speed up or cast any remarkable sonic fireworks in any direction – it just rides a vibe and can make anyone listening believe their lives just got changed by virtue of rhythm and ambiance. That sensation proves just how hypnotic it is by regularly false-finishing for the final minute of the song’s total of five; for sixty seconds, the song will reach a logical conclusion but then just kick over again for a few bars to make listeners gasp, and then do it again and again until listeners are just starry-eyed at the experience.
The carnal vibes continue on through the fairly obvious and giddy “Sumthin’ Sunthin’” which closes the side (yup, THAT fast – three songs and out) but, unlike the other two tracks, “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” makes the most of more upbeat movements instead of continuing through a set of more poignant or heavy ones.
While the running was in no way arduous prior to this point, the lighter air of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” still makes for a refreshing change at the A-side’s end. The slightly faster rhythm, slap bass figureand slightly brighter melody are instantly absorbing as Maxwell begins to leer playfully at his woman of choice (check out lines like “So if it’s cool, I wanna rock with you” and “Let me groove with you”), and the whole thing seems sweet in its teenaged way – even if it would be a bit laughable for anyone over thirty.
The B-side refines the styling first set forth by the A- and, while it runs a little longer, is easily redeemed by being that much more satisfying. The lead-off track for the side (and the song which would prove to be the break-out single), “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” instantly locks into a groove as the beat and guitar interlock and produce an absolutely gorgeous ballad structure, pushed forward by a bass line which is nearly bottomless in tone. Simply said, every single microtone is meticulously measured but, rather than feeling stiff (as most rigid compositions tend to), listeners will find themselves swaying involuntarily to what they’re hearing because it’s just so hypnotic. It is the definition of a Quincy Jones-inspired arrangement and will just hold listeners dearly and romantically.
The Jones-isms continue with “Dancewitme,” but the tone sinks deeper into the pocket and lends itself more to heavy petting than “Ascension” did. That summary might sound a little crass, but comparing one song with the other can end with no other conclusion, really; “Ascension” comes off as sweet thanks to lines like “It happened the moment/ When you were revealed/ ‘Cause you were a dream that/ You should not have been/ A fantasy real,” but “Dancewitme” (and lines like “Oh yeah, I like the way you shake your body all around, yeah/ Oh, so damn glad you came but I just wanna get down” as well as that deep, succulent bass line) is a different kind of game. The vibes get exponentially deeper and darker here.
Those vibes don’t get any lighter until “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever” arrives at the opening of the album’s C-side (which basically means that the rest of the B- is slow to the point of inducing comas). The thing about “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever” is that, like the blanket dances at every strip club in North America, it feels special and revealing regardless of how perfectly average it ACTUALLY is.
Here, finger-picked acoustic guitars add a worldly, exotic flavor while Maxwell does his best to charm the pants off of the woman he’s set his sights on with a sweet croon which actually comes close to Michael Jackson’s tonality. The phrases included here don’t quite do the performance justice but, as it begins to trail off three minutes and forty-five seconds after it began, listeners will find themselves wishing there was more. Just like that last song in a dancer’s set, “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever” feels too short.
After “Whenever, Wherever Whatever,” “Lonely” and “Reunion” both follow a similar trajectory as they make their way along (slow, pretty and soulful), with no fireworks that could jar listeners or break the spell. That’s fine, of course – many fans would say that’s exactly what Neo soul always does – but other listeners may find themselves aching for a flash or a spark or two because this C-side is just a little too slow; one couldn’t even really say it builds but then fizzles because it doesn’t develop that dramatically.
Conversely though, the D-side just blazes through, comparatively, because it only features two tracks. The first, “Suiteland,” continues the blanket dance tempo of the album’s C-side but features fewer ambiguous lyrics (“It’s been so long since I have got you lady/ Since I have had your brown legs wrapped around me” it decidedly straightforward) but, happily, the album does reach a resolution with “The Suite Theme” – an instrumental jam which typifies early Neo soul but manages to play well twenty years later too. The saxophone both aches and sweet talks listeners and the spare programmed beat does only enough to propel the song along, letting listeners fill in the gaps on their own. On this vinyl reissue, the hidden track which appeared on the CD version of the album has been omitted here but, really, no one will find they miss it; the sweet and smooth end of “The Suite Theme” is more than enough to keep listeners glowing.
So how does Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite hold up now, twenty years after it was first released? That question is complicated to answer, not because the music fails in any way, but because the music on this album ended up dispersing in a multitude of different directions from where it started.
Back in 1996, those who hear Urban Hang Suite recognized the correlation between what they were hearing with artists like Marvin Gaye and Prince and, in many ways, that helped to reignite interest in soul music in general. Younger listeners picked up on it too but, because Maxwell didn’t remain tied to what he’d done on Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite himself, the mixture of musics this album inspired is much wider.
It’s possible to hear elements of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite in Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” as well as (more obviously) in the music of BJ the Chicago Kid, Aaradhna and Alicia Keys – even if that’s not the direction Maxwell really ended up going himself. Regardless of the artist’s direction following the release of his debut, nothing could take away from it; I remains a beguiling album of a strain and style that no one has even tried to replicate.