Maxwell and the Soul of Neo Soul

Black culture’s creative output in America has always been spurred by something of a triangular point-counterpoint dialogue between artists, the black community, and mainstream culture. For example, bebop was an answer to the musical mediocrity of “Tin Pan Alley”, while hip-hop was a reaction to the social nightmare of Reaganomics on the one hand, and the monotonous mind numbing sound of Disco on the other.

In that same vein, in the mid- to late ‘90s, a void in black music emerged, and was beginning to be filled by the emergence of a new breed of soul singers. For marketing purposes this sound has been dubbed “neo soul”, and though I prefer to just call it “soul” or even soul 2.0, for ease of understanding, I will continue to call it “neo soul”.

The antecedents of neo soul actually began in the early ‘90s as an assortment of “conscious” hip- hop artists, dubbed the Native Tongues movement, laid down a musical foundation that served as a counterpoint to the “buckshot and bling” mentality that dominated the hip-hop — and to a lesser degree — the R&B music of the time. It was as if the hip-hop artists from the Native Tongues era of the early ‘90s, who were drowned out by the buckshot and bling era (heretofore known as the B&B era), decided to strike back with weapons of mass musicality.

In striking back, the burgeoning soul artists weren’t dismissing the anger and aspirations of the B&B era, instead they were creating a soothing equipoise to the anger and materialism of those artists. Though the sound and the foundation existed, it wasn’t until early 1997 that this sound made its definitive musical statement, stuck its stake in the ground, and proclaimed that it was here to stay. That musical statement was the groundbreaking soundtrack to the movie, Love Jones.

Love Jones was a sweet little love story about Darius Lovehall (played by Larenz Tate) and Nina Mosely (Nia Long). While the movie was enjoyable and has garnered some cult following, the soundtrack was a true work of neo soul art. Now to be fair, Erykah Badu’s classic Baduizm was released a month earlier than Love Jones, and D’Angelol’s Brown Sugar and Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite had already been released in 1995 and 1996 respectively, but well-crafted and popular as all three of these albums were, they seemed more like individually exceptional debut albums than part of a larger, deeper movement.

On the other hand, by utilizing an array of both well known and obscure artists, the Love Jones album captured the texture and sensibilities of an urbane black America that understood the anger of the B&B era, but refused to subscribe to the cartoonish and ofttimes self-immolating message that permeated so much of that music. On the surface, songs such as Dionne Farris’ “Hopeless” and The Refugee Camp All-Stars’ “The Sweetest Thing” could simply be characterized as catchy love songs for they certainly were. When you factor in that Farris had already recorded with the conscious hip-hop group Arrested Development on their seminal 3 Years 5 Months and 2 days in the Life of… and Refugee Camp All-Stars’ Lauryn Hill had already established herself as a force in hip-hop with the equally “conscious” hip-hop group The Fugees, the question I had when first hearing their Love Jones efforts was why not stick with a purely hip-hop sound? Upon listening to the album a bit more, the depth of what neo soul artists were attempting to accomplish in 1997 became a little clearer. These artists wanted to relate to hip-hop, but didn’t want to be consumed or defined by their relationship to it. Had Farris and Hill made hip-hop recordings, rather than being part of Love Jones’ soothing sound they would have stood out like sore thumbs and possibly diminished the impact of the album.

Though I enjoyed “Hopeless”, I mentioned Farris merely to highlight the close relationship between “conscious” hip-hop and neo soul. The brightest stars of the album were Trina Broussard and the aforementioned Lauryn Hill. Both seemed poised for stardom. To her credit, Broussard has recorded three albums since her remake of Minnie Ripperton’s “Inside My Love” for the Love Jones album.

Unfortunately, her albums have been produced and positioned as standard R&B, and though the recordings have been solid, those production and promotional decisions have prevented her from coming close to the brilliance demonstrated on Love Jones. Nonetheless, she’s extremely talented, and my hope is that like novelist Terry McMillian’s protagonist “Stella”, Broussard will get her groove back.

Lauryn Hill’s story is well chronicled. In 1998 she produced a near masterpiece in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The album was a critically acclaimed, multi-platinum, multi-Grammy winning musical tour de force that not only raised the bar for the neo soul sound, but for all popular music.

The power of Miseducation lay in the fact that the album was equaly parts introspective, soulful, and hip-hop. Prior to Miseducation, no artist had been able to seamlessly combine each of those elements. However, as acclaimed as Hill’s album was, she has yet to come close to equalling that performance, and it may very well be the case that Miseducation is the musical equivalent of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – for like Ellison, Hill created a work of art for the ages, but also like Ellison she has been virtually silent ever since. Irrespective of what becomes of Hill’s recording career, it’s no accident that post-Miseducation there was a proliferation of new artists like Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, Jill Scott, Kindred and Eric Roberson armed with hip-hop sensibilities ready willing and able to throw their hats into the neo soul arena.

It’s also no accident that artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu took note of Miseducation. In fact, the year 2000 saw both artists release work that contained the hip-hop, soul and introspection of Miseducation, and much to my pleasure, Badu’s Mama’s Gun was in some ways the equal of Miseducation. Where Miseducation brought sorrow, Mama’s Gun brought a fearlessness and an outspokenness that hadn’t been seen before on a neo soul album. Upon first hearing Mama’s Gun and considering Hill’s work, I was convinced that neo soul’s course was clearly set, and that course contained a heavy dose of hip-hop attitude to go with the mellow-funk jazz musicality and anti-B&B outlook on black life.

Which brings me to Maxwell. I have to admit that I initially overlooked him. Being a one time ’80s b-boy who sported a flattop hairdo and fat-laced Addidas sneakers, I’m sure his very un-bboyish Thundercat hairdo discouraged me from listening with complete objectivity. So even though his first album showed promise, he was still on a short hook with me and his second album Embrya seemed amorphous and it appeared that instead of delving deeper into soul music, Maxwell was starting a vacuous one man genre that could easily be called neo new age music.

This all changed when I heard Maxwell’s version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” while watching the movie Love And Basketball. Maxwell’s rendition had an emotional depth to it that moved me to tears.

By partially judging a book by its cover I had slept on Maxwell and the power of his emotional range. Though I disliked Embrya, as I said earlier, I did like Urban Hang Suite, I just didn’t see or feel any substantial emotional depth in the album. So when I was sitting in the movie theater darn near crying like a newborn as “This Woman’s Work” played in the background, my wife teased me that the song I was crying to was sung by “the Thundercat dude, Maxwell.”

My point here is simply this: though I’m a fan of hip-hop’s aggression, be it the confrontational, political lyrics of a Public Enemy or the intelligent yet hard-edged ghetto-centric vignettes of contemporary artists like Talib Kweli or Lupe Fiasco, having a musical experience that literally brings you to your knees makes you think a bit, while feeling a lot. If Maxwell could do that, then there had to be something deeper to his music than I had first noticed, and by extension, maybe I’d misunderstood the full potential of neo soul.

Earlier I mentioned that neo soul struck an equipoise to the anger and materialism contained in hip-hop, but equipoise suggests a balance, meaning that neo soul at a basic level bought in to some of hip-hop’s anger and materialism — if only to criticize those aspects. This is what appealed to me with Badu, Hill, Jill Scott and others. However, where Maxwell is concerned, that balance simply doesn’t exist.

Instead, it’s as if he’s internalized the words of James Baldwin when Baldwin criticized Richard Wright’s Native Son. Baldwin said, “… Wright’s Bigger Thomas has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth… the failure of the protest novel lies in its ‘rejection of life’.”

Now I’m not indicting all hip-hop, but when some artists in that genre feel comfortable dehumanizing one another with the “n-word”, the “b-word” and s on, one need only substitute “hip-hop” for “protest novel” to get the relevance and urgency of Baldwin’s nearly 60-year-old crticism.

So while other neo soul artists fought the good fight by making conscious and nuanced use of hip-hop attitude and imagery, Maxwell’s music seems to be a total rejection of the bravado and materialism underpinning much of hip hop. This conscious rejection speaks volumes to his actual understanding of hip-hop and its limitations.

Artist: Maxwell

Album: Blacksummer’s Night

Label: Columbia

US Release Date: 2009-07-06


Armed with that understanding, Maxwell’s latest effort Black Summer’s Night uses layers of love, compassion, and affection to combat the sonic assault and faux spirituality that informs not only much of hip-hop, but much of today’s black music. If Dr. Martin Luther King composed songs, they may very well sound like Maxwell at his best.

By saying “may” I’ve hedged my bet slightly, since Maxwell’s music, beautiful as it is, doesn’t contain an iota of social commentary and it’s hard to imagine music created by Dr. King lacking that dimension. Still given his new hairdo (a possible nod to President Obama?), perhaps Maxwell is internalizing Obama’s message of change, and is preparing to add social commentary to his musical repertoire. If he is, then all of us are in for a treat. If he’s not, I’m sure there is somebody out there ready to seize the opportunity and make neo soul the dominant musical soundtrack of black folks during the Obama age.