He is without question the crown-prince of the Neo-Soul movement. Blessed with bohemian good-looks, with the requisite wild hair and an enigmatic and self deprecating personality, Maxwell was not quite prepared to be the poster-boy for the next generation. At the time of its release Urban Hang Suite was little more than a sweet slice of retro-soul, the kind of thing that was always gonna be in the changer, but was never gonna be in regular rotation on anybody Hot-100 station. R&B's little secret -- secretly cultivated by a small cadre of listeners (many of which who initially peeped the joint at places like Circuit City on sale for $7.99), who wanted to protect Urban Hang Suite and the man behind its genius from over-exposure (we can use Alicia Keys as a reference) and the filthy hands of over-promotion and commercial expectations.
Then came "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" and regular views on MTV and suddenly the "secret" had become the "savior" of soul music and with it came comparisons -- expectations really -- to Marvin, Curtis and a host of other "dead" legends who would themselves have collapsed at the weight of expectation and triple-platinum projections. Embrya never had a chance. "Saviors" are not supposed to be obtuse, ambiguous, inaccessible and unnecessarily artistic. They are supposed to sing (sell?) catchy melodies and bouncy rhythms and shoot artsy videos, but not exhibit artistic growth -- "how dare he leave us?" Maxwell's latest release is aptly titled Now as it finds Maxwell neither looking back or forward for that matter, but rather statement about accepting his audiences' most basic assumptions about his art. This is not to say that Now is in any way a disappoint -- on the contrary it should stand up as one of the most accomplished R&B recordings of this year, but one that is not emblematic of the artistic growth that Embrya suggested.
At the time of Embrya's release Reuters critic Frank Paul, Jr. suggested that Maxwell had taken a page from '70s rock and perfected the "album oriented R&B" soul. Months before the release of Maxwell's latest Now, critics were asking whether he had re-bounded from his "sophomore slump" (read increased record sales) and even his label got cold feet delaying the project's release date after audiences were lukewarm to the Embrya-esque "Get to Know Ya". Then came the second single, the breathlessly simplistic "Lifetime" -- Maxwell's aching, yearning cinnimonny tenor caressing lyrics of love and life resolved -- easily his most powerful single since "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)".
Ironically the roots "Lifetime" do, in fact, lie in Maxwell's past, but not in Embrya or Urban Hang Suite, but rather "Fortunate", the R. Kelly written and produced track that Maxwell contributed to the soundtrack of the 1999 film Life. However complicated Robert Kelly may be, the key to his musical success has been to couch life's complexities in the most accessible language possible -- "You remind me of my jeep", "half on a baby" and in the case of Maxwell, "fortunate to have you girl, I'm so glad I'm in your world . . ."
The lyrics to "Fortunate" were a far cry from tracks like Embrya's "Drowndeep: Hula" ("I'll wear your liquid kiss and watch as if inside/Dispel the negative as if myth alive"), though the latter is one of the most exquisite R&B ballads of the last decade. The synthesized "ear whispers" of "Lifetime" is firmly within the conventions of "Fortunate," though like much of Now it represents a tenuous balance between the esoteric and the accessible. So while "Lifetime's" chorus features the easy hook "I can't let my life pass me by / Or I can get down and try this lifetime" the song's bridge features a brilliant gem of a lyric like "ooh I can make you understand that love is not a fairly tale in a melody".
Ultimately though what carries Now is the fact that Maxwell is a brilliant vocalist, whose interpretive skills easily outpace those of contemporaries like Will Downing and Bilal, are on par with Luther Vandross (minus Loofah's sheer power of course) and Jill Scott, and likely to one day put him in a class with Nancy Wilson and Marvin Gaye. In layman's terms, "bruh can flat out 'sang'". Such skills are apparent on tracks like the sinewy "Silently" or his rendition of Kate Bush's "A Woman's Work". In the latter example, Maxwell's excruciatingly beautiful falsetto recalls the classic '80s "jerri-curl" R&B of Ready for the World, Dreamboy ("Don't Go") and The Deele ("Two Occasions" and "Shoot Em Up Movies"). Maxwell's version of "A Woman's Work" is a welcome addition to Now, with a more polished feel to the track than his equally stunning version from his Unplugged performance.
Maxwell plays it straight on the very fine "Was My Girl" which is fashioned with the kind of mid-tempo deep blue funk that marked tracks like Urban Hang Suite's "Sumthin', Sumthin'" and Embrya's "Matrimony: Maybe You." He is even more pedestrian on the bass-laden "Changed" which will likely be a future single. Both tracks are the kind of "ride-friendly" head-nodders that'll keep Maxwell in regular rotation in CD changers. Such is also the case with the lead single "Get to Know Ya" and "Temporary Night" which are more in line with the sensuous funk of Embrya.
Maxwell is a little more adventurous with "NoOne" which suggests that Maxwell was one of many folks secretly dug Christopher Cross. In the project's most surprising track, Maxwell gives a nod to the fine pop sensibilities of classic "country-soul" stylists like Hank Williams, Sr. and Patsy Cline ("Crazy" is one of the greatest pop performances of the 20th century) on "For Lovers Only". The track is reminiscent of Sade's moving interpretation of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love". Though the song is a Maxwell original, it may leave fans aching for the possibility that Maxwell will one day record a collection of standards along the lines of George Michael Songs from the Last Century or Marvin Gaye's posthumous release Vulnerable, which contains some of his finest vocal performances.