Since the mid-’90s, the Brooklyn-born Maxwell has been one of popular music’s most exciting artists; when the R&B auteur releases new music it’s a drop-everything occasion, and when he looks back it’s a good time to reflect on his discography. His 1996 debut “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” which comes out in remastered form to celebrate its quarter-century anniversary on Friday, still sounds brand new — brimming with the optimism that comes part and parcel with romance, with lyrics full of awe and music that feels boundless.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Maxwell was influenced early on by the R&B that was popular in the early ’80s, which blended the vibe of live music with the then-new sonics offered by synthesizers. “Urban Hang Suite” brought that spirit into the ’90s, with contributions from songwriter and producer Leon Ware and Funk Brothers guitarist Melvin “Wah-Wah Watson” Ragin rooting the album in tradition and Maxwell’s songwriting and production giving those conventions a new-school spin. The result is a fully realized world where love rules; the flinty guitar and synth noodles of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” add a playful element to his come-on, while the gorgeous “Reunion” celebrates a rekindled love with instrumentation that gives off heat, Maxwell’s vocal rising to the occasion. The remaster shows how meticulously crafted “Urban Hang Suite” was, and how thorough and confident a statement Maxwell — just in his early 20s — was making over its near-hour length.
Listeners heard it — and reacted in kind. “Urban Hang Suite” was a slow burner, but it eventually hit big in the United States, selling double-platinum and helping kick-start the commercial embrace of a movement known as “neo-soul” — which threw back to the decidedly analog R&B of the ’70s and ’80s while also looking toward the looming 21st century lyrically — alongside early albums by other revered R&B artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill. It also resulted in Maxwell being invited to record an episode of “MTV Unplugged” — a sign that he had Made It not only commercially, but critically, given the ideals of “authenticity” surrounding that show.
In addition to tracks from “Urban Hang Suite,” that performance, recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, included a funked-up rework of Nine Inch Nails’ glitchy “Closer” that trades in the original’s menace for joy, capping it with a frantic gospel breakdown. It also marked the on-record debut of his take on Kate Bush’s delicate yet steely “This Woman’s Work,” and his reverent vocal showed off both his falsetto and his tender interpretative skill. (When I saw him at the now-Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion in 2014, he introduced the track with Bush’s 2011 re-recording of it — a nod to her continued artistry as well as his own.)
Maxwell works at his own pace. Since “Urban Hang Suite” came out in 1996, he’s released four albums and EPs with reimaginations of his own songs, as well as an EP-length edit of the “Unplugged” taping. (A studio version of “This Woman’s Work” appears on 2001′s “Now.”) He’s fine-tuning the final piece of his “Blacksummersnight” trilogy, which began in 2009 and has, so far, resulted in indelible songs like the shimmering “Pretty Wings” and the lush “Lake By the Ocean.” “Shame,” which came out in 2018, is the first taste of part three, and its sumptuous groove and feather-light rebuke of the social-media-saturated present day — ”true love ain’t digital, nah nah,” he murmurs over brushed drums and lightly touched synths — are both gentle reminders of what the word “classic” can mean.
The first two installments of “Blacksummersnight” show how Maxwell remains vital as an artist in his own right, but his influence on contemporary R&B can’t be overstated, with artists such as H.E.R. and Gallant absorbing his combined ideals of studio perfection and exploratory composition. Echoes of his work can be heard even at the top of the pop charts; the current No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the Justin Bieber-led love song “Peaches,” has a besotted verse from Toronto soul singer Daniel Caesar that lyrically recalls the romanticism of Maxwell’s most lovelorn work.
During Saturday’s broadcast of the NAACP Image Awards, Maxwell performed the “Urban Hang Suite” track “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” a groove-led profession of love that shows off his supple upper register and his knack for writing instantly grabbable melodies. Shot in crisp black and white, the performance captured Maxwell walking around New York City, reveling in his hometown’s tableau while delighting in his lyrics’ expression of love. Maxwell wrote that song when he was in his early 20s, but his performance of it at age 47 was no less potent, full of hope and joy and triumph.