It was the summer of 2001 and there was a debate raging that threatened to tear apart me and one of my closest friends, Viviane. It started out as an innocent question - who’s the best R&B singer alive? - but by the time we’d narrowed down the list to D’Angelo and Maxwell our “discussion” was a musical civil war. I was firmly entrenched in the D’Angelo camp, but when I’d hit Viviane with Brown Sugar she’d counter with Fortunate, and when I unleashed my secret weapons, the classic Untitled, she just calmly responded with …
DJBooth Album Review
The only thing that saved our friendship was a mutual disappearance. D’Angelo got locked up on drug charges and Maxwell, well, just simply faded into the ether…until now. A mere eight years since Maxwell dropped his last album, the perpetually smooth singer has emerged from his self-described “time-off” to release BLACKsummers’night, an album that instantly re-establishes his presence in the music industry he so casually walked away from. (For the record, eight years is not “time off.” A month is time off, I’ll even give you a year, but eight years is a retirement). In fact, while unquestionably more mature, BLACKsummers’night is almost a seamless continuation of his previous work, work that was undeniably elite, but always left me feeling just a little disappointed.
I don’t want to run my hardcore street cred, but Pretty Wings is my joint. The first single off BLACKsummers’night, Pretty Wings is the kind of song that hypnotizes you with its slowly paced rhythm and captivating melody, forcing you to play it over and over again until you’ve memorized every snare hit and horn line. True to form, Maxwell’s almost impossibly smooth vocals weaves a tale of heartbreak over beautifully minimalist accompaniment, resulting in a track that beats with an undercurrent of regret and loss beneath its seemingly romantic surface (she’s spreading her wings, and in doing so flying away from him). In short, it’s one of my ridiculously early nominations for R&B song of the year.
Not all of BLACKsummers’night is as good as Pretty Wings, though it’s not that far off. Maxwell’s biggest strength may just be his restraint, his ability to always hold back just a little, avoiding easily accessible clichés and themes, and that restraint is the hallmark of BLACKsummer’snight. The album opens with the carefully burning Bad Habits, a track that pulses with the kind of soul Robin Thicke is always trying to achieve, and Love You picks up the tempo for a cut that was made to be performed live (I can just see the crowd swooning now). I’ll even throw in Cold, an extended jam that has a compelling and quiet energy. The album is short, only nine tracks, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Thankfully.
BLACKsummers'night proves that Maxwell can still make astoundingly thoughtful and elegant music, which is exactly what always stopped me from fully connecting with him. Maxwell sings about love, and on this album in particular about heartbreak, but in Maxwell’s world love and loss are always measured, poetic, clean. His seeming refusal to explore the messier side of love, the uncontrollable lust and joy and pain that are the hallmarks of real relationships, has always frustrated me, and it continues to frustrate me here. Just take Fistful of Tears, the most overtly emotional cut on the album and a track that builds but never reaches climax, largely because he seems unable or unwilling to push his voice to a point where it could even possibly break, choosing instead to stay in his vocal comfort zone. It’s a problem that’s compounded on the up-tempo Help Somebody, a dense track that was his opportunity to truly cut loose, but is instead transformed into an inspiring but ultimately bland offering. Maybe Maxwell sees himself as an antidote to the often overly testosterone fueled world of modern R&B, or maybe he simply isn’t capable of creating such dynamic and complicated music, but either way, in my mind the same restraint that makes him great will also always keep him out or R&B’s truly elite circle. So while BLACKsumers’night will deservedly earn a place in my stereo, eventually I will exhaust its possibilities. And when I do, I’ll put in D’Angelo’s Voodoo. Even after all these years, I always get the last word.
Listen to More: Maxwell Written by Nathan S.
First DJ Booth Appearance:
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