When legendary R&B crooner Maxwell performed at the 52nd NAACP Image Awards, he brought all the sophisticated soul vocals and neo-soul vibes that we've all come to know and love. Recreating a Black and white visual for one of his signature songs, "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)," against New York City's backdrop, Maxwell showcased the timelessness of his style and music. His silky-smooth falsetto reminded us of the first time we fell in love with his music twenty-five years on his classic debut Urban Hang Suite.
Released on April 2nd, 1996, on Columbia Records, Urban Hang Suite made an undeniable impact on the R&B world and established Maxwell as one of the new contemporary soul voices. With his infectious tenor and exceptional musicianship, Maxwell became a leading figure of R&B for a brand new audience.
A conceptual album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, comprised a collection of songs about a romance, based in part on Maxwell's personal experiences. It explores love, commitment, and even spirituality from the first date to the marriage proposal. The album sounds like a smoke-filled basement party where slow-grinding was a prerequisite. Recalling the layout of the album, Maxwell said, "I was just writing songs. However, I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to sequence them in a particular way so you could put the record on and just let it play."
Unlike his contemporaries who delved into the sonics of Hip Hop to curate a new wave for R&B, Maxwell went for a more mellow, subtle, sound that incorporated elements of mid-tempo funk, quiet storm, and smooth jazz. (Who else opened their albums up in 1996 with a saxophone solo?). Maxwell wrote and produced each track along with production assistance from Hod David, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Matthewman (Who previously worked with Sade), soul-singer, and songwriter Leon Ware, and guitar impresario Melvin "Wah-Wah Watson" Ragin, who all contributed to the texture of the record. Urban Hang Suite’s departure from the R&B hip hop production made it unique on the Black music landscape in the mid-90s. Maybe it was because Maxwell worked with Leon Ware, an unsung hero of soul music. Their chemistry made Urban Hang Suite the 90s successor to Marvin Gaye’s underappreciated gem I Want You, which Ware also produced.
Maxwell proved that traditional R&B with a modern twist was still viable on a music scene where Hip Hop was rapidly transforming all the rules. In other words, before the colloquialism became known, Maxwell’s music was for the “grown and sexy.”
Clocking in at just over an hour and eleven sultry tracks, the album spawned four singles that were game-changers. His debut single, “Til The Cops Come Knockin,” was seduction at its finest. This slow jam was Maxwell’s pronouncement that he had arrived, eventually; the slow-burning track became a quiet storm favorite.
The next second single, “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” was Maxwell’s breakthrough into the mainstream. It’s a must-have for the two-step crowd and it marked Maxwell’s first entry into the Top 40 on the Billboard Charts, peaking at 36.
Another single, “Sumthin' Sumthin'" was another mid-tempo jam that further cemented Maxwell as the new cat on the R&B scene that you needed to be checking for.
Lastly, the acoustic guitar-laden “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever,” captures Maxwell giving one of his best vocal performances. He displayed a vulnerability that drove the ladies crazy and had the fellas taking notes.
Urban Hang Suite was a landmark debut album. It introduced Maxwell to the masses as a soulful, romantic balladeer for the 90s like his predecessors Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Luther Vandross. Whether he liked it or not, the album propelled him into being a sex symbol of R&B. The LP was a watershed moment in the culture and along with D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, put Neo-Soul on the map and gave it mainstream viability.
Although Maxwell would go on to release other critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, Urban Hang Suite is his first masterpiece, an artistic statement from a visionary artist who found success by following his own path. Twenty-five years later, it sounds just as grown and sexy as the first time we listened to it. When more could you ask for?