20 Years Later, ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’ Still Gives You That Ooo-Wee Feelin’
It’s you, the listener who must first grow and explore.
You must take a lover and then be taken for granted. You must perfect your flirtation skills, pick up on subtle cues and learn when and how to send your own signals. Learn the importance of a well-placed kiss on the nape of someone’s neck and feel the support and power that comes from holding hands. You’ve got to fall in love, become a fool because of it, weak by it, and die inside from the thought of not having it. You should have already laid with someone, clothes on, and experienced the intimacy that comes from naked conversation and after you’ve experienced the wonders and bewilderment of it all, then and only then will you be ready for Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite.
In 1996, Maxwell’s debut album was considered left of center. Before listeners pressed play, the Brooklyn born singer-songwriter already didn’t look the part of your typical “R&B dude.” In 2012, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als recalled first meeting the bohemian crooner in 1993 when he wrote for Vibe, and like many, couldn’t take him seriously. (Allegedly Maxwell was wearing a choker, which can be difficult for some to digest). Standing tall, strong jawed with Cinnamon Toast Crunch colored skin and a rambunctious afro, Maxwell’s sound was likely to not sit comfortably on the palette of some, but would be appreciated by those who worked past his undeniable looks and were willing to listen.
Released on what would’ve been Marvin Gaye’s 57th birthday, Maxwell looked to his yesteryears for inspiration and racked up the equivalent of the musical Avengers to help craft his sonic introduction to the world. Collaborating with producer-arranger Leon Ware who worked with Gaye on “I Want You,” Motown Funk Brother guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin and Stuart Matthewman who played keys in Sade’s band, Maxwell was cooking up that good good. The 11-track record is littered with high vibrations and live instrumentation as experienced on the album’s opening number. “The Urban Theme” is a jam session where percussion, horns and guitar all rhythmically compete to keep the shoulders of even the most loyal of wallflowers swaying.
But lest we forget this was 1996. The musical standard was excellence. Just two months prior, The Fugees released The Score setting an undeniable tone, which catapulted the trio and solidified their place on hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore. And while hip-hop is to R&B as lavender is to purple, not the same entity but of the same ancestry, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was a musical hue unheard of at the time. Word on the street, Biggie loved Maxwell, liked his music and enjoyed the fresh air he brought with his sound. It could be just a rumor, or proof that 20 years ago Big knew better than us all.
You’re three minutes and two tracks into the record before you actually hear him. At just 23 years old, Maxwell’s voice was grown. It’s gentle and delicate, and then roars passionately when need be. There are moments on the album that feel as unexpected and thrilling as when someone catches your eye, and then there are tracks that are more suggestive, like a cold hand looking for warmth between a woman’s thigh. But what separated Maxwell from his musical brethren was the irrefutable sensuality that oozes from him and came alive on “Til The Cops Come Knockin.” This isn’t a song about f**king you back to sleep, beloveds. This is about a man committed to pleasing a woman, satisfying an urge and making eye contact with each thrust. Maxwell is a sexy man who enjoys a sexy pair of legs wrapped around him, but he’s more mysterious about this desire. It’s not blatant nor obvious, but it is there.
The album’s zenith is the acoustic guitar-laden “Whenever Wherever Whatever.” The romantic record has no doubt accompanied many a brides as they walked down the aisle. While Maxwell sings of giving his last breath to his woman and being unafraid of who sees it, in an age where situationships are normal and proclaiming loyalty to anyone but yourself is poor etiquette, Maxwell’s “Whenever Wherever Whatever” stands as a reminder love isn’t selfish or tragic, it was—and still is—air.
Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was a slow burn on the Billboard charts. Nearly five months after its release, (on top of the year Columbia shelved it) the album was certified gold and in 2002, it became double platinum. Yet, the R&B singer’s status, despite lackluster sales, elevated and he was credited with helping to introduce a new sound of music coined by industry exec Kedar Massenburg as neo-soul. D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and others would also be inducted into this musical draft. My big brother Victor never liked the term as he believed there was nothing new about soul music, but it was more so a new experience for the listener. He rebuked the phrasing, and he’s my big brother, so I rebuked it as well.
I don’t remember the first time this album made its way into my orbit. I was just shy of my 11th birthday when it hit shelves, but I remember thinking it was… peculiar compared to what I was hearing. Vibe’s OJ Lima called it first when he said it was a “refreshing detour from hump-bouncin’ ’90s R&B.” I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to articulate it like Lima did, all I knew is that I heard horns and the clash of high hat for the first time listening to Maxwell.
As I got older and tasted different emotions—some sour, others sweet—this record took on an amalgamation of feelings. The LP didn’t change, I did. I lived. I smelled roses and was pricked by their thorns. I broke hearts and got my heart broken and it was Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite that helped me navigate all those intricate “in between” emotions as my one time claustrophobic skin eventually became cozy and later grew to be comfortable.
This record is 20 years old. Times have changed. We used to have liner notes on an album. Hell, we use to buy albums instead of downloading or streaming them. But no matter how much technology changes, you’re still going to partake in the human experiences that add color to your lives. You’ll fall in love, become a fool because of it, weak by it, and die from the thought of not having it and after you’ve let love dirty you up a bit, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite will be ready and waiting to help you make sense of it all.