The BET Awards telecast June 26 was full of worthy tributes to the late Prince, from the Philadelphia soul singer Bilal’s jaw-dropping performance of “Purple Rain” chestnut “The Beautiful Ones” to the triumphant show-closing medley headlined by Sheila E. But the performance that most effectively mirrored the dearly beloved pop polymath’s desire to push culture forward came from the soul singer Maxwell, who segued from a simmering version of his besotted “Lake by the Ocean” into a “Nothing Compares 2 U” cover that doubled as a referendum of sorts on soul music. “I went to the record store, Apple, Spotify too,” he sang, “and they told me, ‘boy you’d better try to make some music, which you can’t do — ’cause Prince is the truth!’ ”
That winking protest also acted as a sly advertisement for Maxwell’s own music. While saying that any artist is “the next X” offers little benefit to anyone involved, Maxwell’s musical ambitions certainly equal those of Prince, as his fifth album, the stunning “blackSUMMERSnight,” attests.
The Brooklyn-born Maxwell debuted in 1996 with “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” which planted his flag in the pantheon of the then-emergent neo-soul genre. Maxwell’s music threw back to the era of Curtis and Marvin, yet didn’t merely imitate those titans, instead pushing to places of sublime tension and deriving inspiration from further-flung sources, like the enigmatic British singer Kate Bush. (Maxwell’s delicate cover of her ode to femininity “This Woman’s Work” is a consistent highlight of his live sets.)
After the release of his 2001 album, “Now,” he took a break, returning in 2009 with “BLACKsummersnight,” an expansive, daring statement of prickly, precisely calibrated soul music that illuminated a full emotional spectrum, from lust to regret. “blackSUMMERSnight,” the second part of a planned trilogy, builds on the groundwork laid by that complicated, gripping work, looking at love and its attendant feelings with compassion and openheartedness.
Opening with the thumping “All the Ways Love Can Feel,” “SUMMERS” (as it’s known in the trilogy’s context) is confident and questioning; Maxwell serves as both bandleader and head romantic as his voice veers from its slightly weathered lower range to his cloud-borne falsetto. The jittery drumming of “The Fall” plays against its luscious keyboards and soaring saxophones to create a feeling of impatience that mirrors its lyrics; on “Lost,” Maxwell throws himself into the gloom of the blues, extending his vowels in a way that makes him sound like he’s trying to conjure the impossible through sheer emotion.
Maxwell may take his time between records, but “SUMMERS” shows why: His deeply felt meditations on matters of the heart and the soul are matched by the meticulously detailed, gorgeously rendered music that surrounds them.
MAURA JOHNSTONMaura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.