Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a true R&B classic from 1996, the spacious and grooving debut from Maxwell.
In the late summer of 1996, Harlem was a loopy place to live—a mix of everyday strivers, storefront church-folk, street preachers, and bugged-out crackheads, buttressed by sneaker shops, streetwear emporiums (like Dr. Jays), soul-food joints, and no-nonsense African hair-braiding centers. Strolling down Lenox Avenue on a Sunday afternoon, I’d tuned my Walkman radio to DJ Hal Jackson’s legendary Sunday Morning Classics broadcast on WBLS: a slow-burn funk groove with an extended intro, hula-hooping bass, creamy electric keys, and mellifluous vocalizing stopped me dead in my tracks. “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” the second single from Maxwell’s debut Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, sounded more like the feel-good black cookout R&B associated with ’70s acts like Frankie Beverly & Maze than the machine-programmed, sample-heavy hip-hop and hip-hop soul dominating airwaves at the time. I can distinctly remember that moment I heard Maxwell’s exquisite, subdued soul for the first time as if it beamed in from another time and place; I was lifted right off the Harlem pavement, ascending into the blue and beyond.
More than two decades after its April 1996 release, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite—one of that decade’s constitutive R&B albums alongside Meshell Ndegeocello’s 1993 Plantation Lullabies, D’Angelo’s 1995 Brown Sugar, and Erykah Badu’s 1997 Baduizm—remains a decidedly urbane New York City record. Born Gerald Maxwell Rivera and mostly raised by his mother in Brooklyn’s gritty East New York neighborhood, Maxwell started out crafting demos on a janky Casio keyboard when he was 17. Over the next few years, he bopped in and out of NYC recording studios, formulating his sound. Maxwell cut his live chops and developed a solid reputation, crooning at nightclub venues like Nell’s in downtown Manhattan. With melodious hooks to spare, Urban Hang Suite captures the sparkling intimacy and free-flowing conviviality that characterized New York’s R&B open mic nights in the 1990s to a greater degree than almost any other album of its time.
Maxwell looked like a model. He sported a blow-out, outtasight afro and retro-bohemian fashion that evoked the Afrocentric Fort Greene coffee bars, elegant brownstones, and sandalwood poetry lounges of mid-’90s Brooklyn. While gigging, writing, and recording songs, he picked up spare change pulling shifts as a waiter at Manhattan’s Coffee Shop, a popular and chic Brazilian-themed joint in Union Square. It was there Maxwell met guitarist Hod David, who would go on to co-write “Dancewitme” and play on a number of other Urban Hang Suite tracks. Driven by talent and hustle, Maxwell landed a record deal with Columbia Records when he was 21; he remains a quintessentially New York musician.
Though it illuminates the sound of mid-’90s New York R&B lounges, Urban Hang Suite is an even more ambitious project—an 11-song concept album that’s a carnal and spiritual exploration of the mystifying terrain of heterosexual romance. It traces the entire arc of a relationship over the course of 58 minutes, from meeting to macking to break-up to reunion to marriage proposal to consummation. All this relationship drama between a single man and a single woman supposedly takes place in an unusually compressed period of time. For an album that sounds so decompressed, so languorous and so tempo-deliberate (the BPMs never exceed 100), Urban Hang Suite may be, at an even more meta-level, a profound commentary on the politics of place, space and time.
The story arc gets going with the seductive foreplay of “Welcome”, depicting a chance encounter between Maxwell and a woman, followed by the finger-snappin’ come-on “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” and the spiritually blissed-out “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” Heat rises as the duo moves to the bedroom: there’s hard-driving funk jam “Dancewitme” and torrid sex storm “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’.” The guitar-led ballad “Whenever Wherever Whatever”—sounding like David Gates of Bread, Sade, and Antônio Carlos Jobim got together and had a baby—suggests a dramatic mood shift.
Disconsolate and sullen break-up joint “Lonely’s the Only Company (I&II)” comes up next. But the warmly optimistic “Reunion” suggests things are looking up, and by the time we get to “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam),” Maxwell has pledged his life eternally to his lady. Two dusky smooth jazzy instrumentals, opener “The Urban Theme” and closer “The Suite Theme,” bookend the album. The dramatic album sequencing turns Urban Hang Suite into soul music as hushed erotic breathing, rhythmic like warm blood coursing through the veins, the sensual choreography of two better halves moving toward a musical vision of holy union.
Urban Hang Suite is also marked the debut of Maxwell’s tenor on a recording. His vocalizing—Brooklyn Baptist church-inspired but Quiet Storm smooth—remains a timbral wonder. On falsetto-driven torch tunes like “Lonely’s the Only Company (I&II),” his luscious voice wafts out of the speakers, floating on whispery utterances and feline coos that can cause shudders like the unexpected stroke of a hand down the spine. Maxwell’s secret weapon is a slightly-serrated chest belt, which means he knows how to drive a song home and cut straight to the bone, like on the post-chorus closer of “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’.” Maxwell’s larynx, luxurious and intoxicating like streetcorner incense, remains one of 1990s R&B’s great gifts to pop.
Urban Hang Suite’s starry-eyed romantic story is supposedly based on a real-life experience. Maxwell even dedicates the liner notes to his “musze,” confessing, “I could never have done this without you.” But Maxwell never initially made public any other details about his “musze” (whom he reportedly met while working at Coffee Shop); in fact, he kept matters so under wraps that, at the time of the album’s release, gossip floated the songs were actually about his relationship with a man. “Music is my life,” he’d tell journalist Cheo Coker, “but as a profession, I don't want it to interfere with the daily routine of being a human being. Hopefully, people will respect that.” He might have been right: Maxwell’s insistence on privacy added to the album’s alluring mystique—who needs details when the musical sexiness is so off the charts?
“Chill” conveniently describes Urban Hang Suite’s atmospherics, as well as its central thematic concern. Long before Tinder-era millennials hijacked the word “chill” as a euphemism for “hook up,” the album staked out ground as makeout music that was also very much about the complex interpersonal politics of chilling, aka hooking up. In its tale of a fleeting lustful encounter that turns into a lifetime romantic opportunity, the album infiltrates the same territory as other fling-turned-serious-relationship projects like Richard Linklater’s Sunrise film trilogy (the first of which, Before Sunrise, kicked off in 1995; the entire series, prefiguring his later Boyhood, is itself a meta-commentary on compressed time) and I’d like to imagine that it maybe even carved out ground for works like Andrew Haigh’s 2011 interior and touching film Weekend.
Under the cryptic pseudonym MUSZE, Maxwell produced much of Urban Hang Suite himself and in collaboration with co-producers Peter Mokran and Stuart Matthewman. He wisely recruited Marvin Gaye’s I Want You producer Leon Ware to co-write confectionary “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” and Motown journeyman Wah Wah Watson, Gaye’s Let’s Get It On collaborator, to deliver trademark rhythmic guitar strumming. Because of its relatively restricted budget, Maxwell and crew painstakingly pre-produced, pre-planned, and mapped out large parts of the album at Maxwell’s home set-up and at other NYC recording venues before professionally tracking the material in pricier venues. Spread out over a battery of studios including Electric Lady Studios, RPM, Sorcerer, and Chung King, tracking for Urban Hang Suite began in earnest in 1994 and lasted until March 1995.
During the recording process, live musicians replayed MPC samples, early drum loops, and other demo sounds. In addition to multi-instrumentalist Maxwell and Matthewman, Urban Hang Suite’s other accomplished session players include Scritti Politti and Meshell Ndegeocello collaborator David Gamson, and Groove Collective keyboardist Itaal Shur (who co-wrote “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder”). The album’s precise, slick, and clean sound is a testament to the professionalism and organization with which the recording sessions were reportedly conducted. Given that self-contained polymaths in R&B and hip-hop—including Babyface, R. Kelly, Fugees, D’Angelo, and the Tony Rich Project—were increasingly becoming the norm in late 1996, Maxwell’s Columbia A&R rep Mitchell Cohen granted him a relatively large amount of creative freedom. In turn, Maxwell emerged, even from the onset of his career, as an auteur, seemingly in total control of the direction of his sound and style.
The long-stroke idealization of sex as intimate connection ran counter to romance-challenged, freaky-sex tunes storming the charts around the same time, like R. Kelly’s 1995 “You Remind Me of Something” and Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me.” While far too many hip-hop and R&B artists were busy relegating women to the status of video honeys, Maxwell promoted his debut album praising the opposite sex and, according to at least one journalist, telling interviewers he believed God was a woman. What’s more, Maxwell’s cosmological orientation was squarely rooted in R&B, not in hip-hop, which distinguished him from more ruffneck peers like D’Angelo, Ginuwine, and Mark Morrison. Maxwell was selling a bohemian throwback version of gentleman soul at a moment marked by intense commercial pressure for black male R&B artists to keep it real and pledge allegiance to the street.
While D’Angelo constructed 1995’s Brown Sugar out of low-end sonics and throwback jazz, Maxwell had admiration for the Black British artists of the ’80s and early ’90s like Sade and Omar, given that they seemed to exert more artistic control than their American counterparts. In pursuit of Sade’s autonomy as well as her atmospheric jazz-inflected sound, he recruited her collaborator Stuart Matthewman as co-writer and co-producer, as well as other members of Sade’s Sweetback band to play on the album. Mixer Mike Pela, who’d also worked with Sade, helped deliver the album’s spacious mix. More than any other artist of his generation, Maxwell made an explicit connection to Sade’s legacy in the crafting of his musical identity (it would be years before Drake and others did the same).
Maxwell himself was a product of a certain version of transatlantic blackness: he was born to a Haitian mother and a Puerto Rican father who died in a plane crash when he was three. In 1998, Maxwell, seemingly positioning himself as a hybrid of Eddy Grant and Bryan Ferry, referred to his own mellow smooth sound as “Caribbean Ambient Soul.” On Urban Hang Suite, Maxwell’s island roots might show up in the album’s sinewy bass grooves, the long instrumental rhythmic stretches, and the vaguely Latin/calypso horn arrangements. But his Caribbean roots have everything to do with his desire to overcome sandbox limitations: “As a West Indian, Puerto-Rican,” he said in an interview at the time, “I know that a lot of people in my clique are tired of being represented by one or two types of music…There's more to the urban lifestyle than that.”
The album title alone is a deft double entendre: On one hand, it evokes “suite” as in a collection of songs, and on the other, it invents “hang suite” as a hip euphemism for the celebrity hotel suite / metropolitan black bachelor pad. Film scholar Steve Cohan, writing about cinematic representations of the bachelor pad in 1950s pop culture, argues that the post-war bachelor represented a kind of “arrested development” in his inability to settle down, even as he captured an exciting new breed of masculine sophistication and sexual intrigue, a playboy alternative to compulsory married life. Rock Hudson and Doris Day’s 1959 film Pillow Talk, with its depiction of a modern bachelor pad full of nifty consumer-era technologies and gadgets designed to seduce and/or ensnare women, epitomized that dichotomy. In keeping with Hollywood studios’ compulsory hetero-romantic code, every playboy’s bachelor pad had to be transformed into—or left behind for—a heterocentric home for two.
Urban Hang Suite, crafting its own neo-soul version of pillow talk, might be the most salient and self-aware musing on the politics of the black bachelor pad/hook up spot ever. “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’”—the only song from Maxwell’s early demos that made it to the album—follows up on H-Town’s 1993 “Knockin’ Da Boots,” offering up a vision of sex so seismic it threatens to surrender private intimacy for public disturbance. “I’m gonna take you in the room, suga, lock you up in love for days,” Maxwell promises. Even more so than contemporaries like D’Angelo or Eric Benét, Maxwell has spent his career fascinated by domestic spaces like the bachelor pad and celebrity hotel room, by the black indoors, by the interpersonal politics of the boudoir. Urban Hang Suite’s videos confirm the singer’s domestic pre-occupations: Eric Johnson’s “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’” unfolds in the hotel suite/bedroom, and in Sophie Muller’s “Whenever Wherever Whatever,” a solipsistic Maxwell wanders around an apartment room doing mundane chores like brushing his teeth.
The album isn’t merely about bedroom carnality; it aspired to the status of a spiritual, existential “Black Love” album. If you’ve ever thumbed through the pages of Essence, read works by writers Maulana Karenga or Lerone Bennett Jr., or even spent 10 minutes at any corner in the ‘hood selling black-themed books, you know about black love: the idea that intra-racial kinship between members of the opposite sex can offer relief, if not therapeutic recovery, from oppressive racism. Black love emerges as a balm that offers members of the community the chance to become healed and unbroken from systemic trauma.
Besides the torrid black-on-black macking that is “….Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” soars on Afrocentric lyrics like “Honey Dew Sugar Chocolate Dumplin,” going so far as to give praise to an “ebony” sista shimmering with a “cocoa kind of flow.” Even the streetcorner slang “sumthin’ sumthin’” and the album’s titular hijacking of the word “urban” (the music business’ lazy and enduring ’90s shorthand to refer to anything black or street-centric) suggests a vision of blackness tied to notions of slick upscale living. There’s no such thing as a rural hang suite; Maxwell only ever envisioned black love as a nuevo asceticism for contemporary urbane lifestyles.
Here was the soulfully sensitive, new age black man, relishing in the carnal opportunities afforded by the bachelor pad, but ultimately in search of long-term stability and monogamy. “I feel that if romance can be re-introduced in this age,” Maxwell told a reporter in 1996, “it might save a lot of people from running around.” He’d go on to say, in a separate interview: “`Respect, commitment, monogamy...it's my trip.” He wanted to hang with women, not on women.
Given the ubiquity of ghetto-centric hip-hop and R&B in 1996, Columbia wasn’t entirely confident they could successfully market Maxwell’s throwback, boho style to a desirable young black demo, nor were they initially sure that they could effectively cross him over to an international audience. Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite debuted at No. 38 on the Top R&B / Hip-Hop Albums chart, and I can recall my surprise, at the time, that Tower Records slashed the price of the cassette format to $7.99 (most new release cassettes at the time cost more than $10). But strategic price promotion, in tandem with persistent plugging and programming on urban radio, heavy rotation of Maxwell’s videos on BET, VH1 and MTV, and a robust touring schedule (even though he was initially booed on stage while opening for Groove Theory and Fugees) afforded the fledgling album sleeper success.
Just two years after its release, the album had already gone platinum, and it captured a 1996 Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album. Though D’Angelo got out of the gate first in 1995, proving to the world that that alternative retro-R&B could catch on with mainstream audiences, the slow-burn success of Urban Hang Suite further confirmed non-single format R&B’s coming of age. It is unlikely to ever garner the critical respect of D’Angelo’s Voodoo (released in 2000 but recorded in the 1990s) if only because it never aspired to the textural engineering and scientific headphone details that have since made Voodoo’s intimate, experimental approach to R&B matter greatly to rock connoisseurs.
For an artist whose debut was so thematically focused on compressed time—the concept of the hook-up that evolves into a lifetime connection—Maxwell has been delivering new albums ever since at a turtle’s pace. He has always been about the soufflé, not the Big Mac—in his world, artistic releases take longer, but when they arrive, they nourish us with long-lasting, good taste. Maybe he’s traded in the bushy afro for a short crop and his boho Brooklyn threads for better-tailored suits, but Maxwell has never chased trends, and he’s never lowered his bar to play dress-up as a disposable factory-produced artist. Cool and classic, Maxwell has remained everywhere and barely there in the culture, simultaneously indispensable and inaccessible.
I got the opportunity to interview Maxwell in 2016; he mentioned that even though he hasn’t yet had children of his own, he half-jokingly claims all the children he’s likely to have helped bring into the world because of the album’s status as transcendent baby-making music. Maybe that’s the best reason to cherish the legacy of Urban Hang Suite: by crooning his way in between our sheets, Maxwell’s musical DNA—his uniquely chilled-out, über-romantic, black love soul sound—has embedded itself into the very fabric of contemporary pop, R&B and beyond.
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