Throwback Record

Week of April 10

Stevie Wonder, Music from the Movie "Jungle Fever", 1991

TOP 10 Maxwell Songs

TOP 10 Maxwell Songs

Oh Shiet It's Max. 

I almost can't believe this is real. We're only 2 days away from the official comeback of the neo-soul crooner. Last time we heard any new material from Maxwell, I was a frickin' junior in high school, Michael Jackson had just passed away, and the whole world was still blessed by the absence of any Justin Bieber music whatsoever. Bruh, how time *flies*, amirite? Anyway, in preparation for the triumphant return of Gerald Maxwell Rivera, the smooth-like-baby-lotion songster and the falsetto-singing Mr. Steal-Your-Girl, here's an *subjective but definitive* ranking of the 10 best songs by the Brooklyn singer. Not including any of the 3 singles that Maxwell has just released before the album release; We're stickin' to the old-school shit right heeya. 

*10.5. The Urban Theme, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, 1996

Real quick: I'm actually listing 11 songs, and while this right here doesn't quite belong on the all-time-great ranking of songs (because it's not a full-length song), it was the first ever Maxwell track heard by the world. This was the beginning of the sound that captivated all the soul lovers and co-crafted the term "Neo-Soul" along with Brown Sugar. The layered guitars (wah-wah on the left and dissonant riff on the right), a dreamy E. keyboard motif, and insanely groovy drum pattern together brought the funk back. What a debut. Maxwell was bringing sexy back before it was cool. Timberlake was still the 15-year-old baby-face assassin in 'N Sync.

10. This Woman's Work, Now, 2001

A song that most Maxwell fans would probably place higher on this list. Now, full disclosure, I've nothing against this cover of Kate Bush's tune from the 80's. There is something about a man, standing over 6 feet with a huge afro and dashing good looks, singing a song by a white, female British singer about motherhood in his effortless falsetto that is so incredibly powerful. The original intro was performed in the piano, but the harp in Maxwell's version gives the song a kind of subtle magic that resembles what I could only imagine what the moment of childbirth must be like. What the breed of artists that emerged around the same time as Maxwell in the mid 90's, such D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, etc., all have in common is their immense respect for the past. Only genuine appreciation and understanding of already-achieved creative heights can bring out more vibrant inspiration. Part of D'Angelo's early success came from his rendition of Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'", and Lauryn covered "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" in Miseducation, but "This Woman's Work" by Maxwell is a product of beautiful re-imagination. Kate Bush wrote the song in the perspective of a man, and Maxwell in his cover completely owns up to the point of view. In his falsetto, there's patience, affection, and motivation. I'm, however, placing this song at the #10 spot because: first, it's not an original, and sadly Maxwell has always got this to prove throughout his career, not known to be a memorable songwriter; second, the overall sound is a bit more commercialized and similar to the mainstream 1990-2000 R&B than other Maxwell songs we've heard. Still a DAMN GOOD song. 

9. Fire We Make (Duet with Alicia Keys), Girl on Fire, 2012

The only one song on this list that comes from our current decade. Between the years 2009 and 2016, new solo material by Maxwell was nowhere to be found after BLACKsummer'snight. However, in one of the rare instances in his career, we were lucky enough to hear Maxwell on a recorded duet, and we were lucky that on other side of this collaboration was Alicia Keys. I have conflicted feelings about Alicia Keys. She's a little too mainstream. She's often corny. She can't *really* play the piano. She's getting cornier and cornier these few years. However, here are two things that cannot be denied about Alicia: girl is classy af, and girl can sing the hell out of a song, albeit oftentimes resorting to a lot of forced and unhealthy belting. While this duet was rare for Maxwell since most of his recorded material has been solo music, "Fire We Make" also saw Alicia Keys stepping out of her comfort zone (AKA boring ass piano ballads), as she takes on a slow, seductive quiet-storm song with her outstanding vocals in the rare low register. When I first heard this song, I thought, "Well this just makes so much sense. Why doesn't she do more stuff like this?" Alicia and Max worked together like bread and butter, the former blesses the listeners with a soothing, tender and moanful performance, and the latter follows her lead with his own uncanny impression of the melody in his signature falsetto. Boy, when dude comes in with the "Hey baby", that was the original "oooh baby Maxwell is back baby" moment before "Lake By the Ocean". 

8. Whenever, Wherever, Whatever, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, 1996

One of the few times that Maxwell actually stunned the world with a melody not only memorable, but so warm and perfectly suiting to his voice it's almost hard not to get teared up listening to it. The only 1 track off of his outstanding debut that doesn't feature a rhythm session, the song presents two gorgeous classical guitars and slow-panning ambience, while a mellow and romantic Maxwell pleads his helpless obsession and dependence to a lover: "If there's a thing that you need/I'd give you the breath that I breathe". This kind of affection is otherwise almost creepy, but the truthfulness in Maxwell's voice overcomes any negativity, and all that remains is an endless moan of infatuation that we all can relate to. 

7. Drowndeep: Hula, Embrya, 1998

In what was otherwise an unsuccessful sophomore effort deemed by most to be pretentious and lacking focus, "Drowndeep: Hula" stands out as a signature Maxwell track off Embrya with effective use of ambience and a catchy hook. Maxwell sings an abstract melody about the spiritual connection between him and a woman, driven by a subtle rhythm pattern and enriched by the singer's vocal layering. "Drowndeep" is a tune full of passion that gently enchants and embraces the listener.

6. Get to Know Ya, Now, 2001

The 2001 album opener sees a Maxwell more energetic than ever. "Get to Know Ya" isn't a typical Maxwell song: in upfront fashion, it's upbeat and jolly, written in the bright key of G Major. In yet another one of his groove-based efforts, Maxwell deviates from his usual lyrical abstractness and incorporates a narrative in the songwriting, crooning a woman he barely knows and hoping for a chance to get to know her. The vibe of the song reminds me of "Just Friends (Sunny)" by Musiq Soulchild a lot with its memorable rhythm pattern and theme. "Get to Know Ya" is a pretty rare song in which Maxwell caters to a poppier sound, and it still remains one of Maxwell's more famed tunes.  

5. Pretty Wings, BLACKsummer'snight, 2009

Where's your fro, DUDE?! I honestly still don't quite know where I stand in terms of my opinion on the titles of the trilogy. I mean, I hope that the different themes and focuses brought about by all this different capitalization are worth the confusion that comes along. Just one thing: how are people supposed to talk about these two albums, and the last one coming up? "Hey man I liked black summer's night, but I thought black summer's night was better. Black summer's night was disappointing, though." Ugh, getting a headache just thinking about that. "Pretty Wings" was otherwise a hell of a comeback in 2009 (also 7 years after his previous album). As a matter of fact, it actually might have trumped his old records and become Maxwell signature track among the younger audience, which is a little sad, but hey, it's a great song. Maxwell is a master of reverb and ambience, and the atmosphere he crafts in "Pretty Wings" is *pretty* magical. Everything is on point on this track. Not much else to say about it. 

4. ...Til' The Cops Come Knockin', Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, 1996

Now we get to the tycoons of swoons. I just adore this song, god damn it. Along with the other hits off his debut, "Til' The Cops Come Knockin'" helped model Maxwell's signature sound and established his status as a master-seducer and romancer with its complex instrumentation, catchy hook, explicit theme, and Maxwell's soaring falsetto. The 4-3-6-2 is probably one of the classiest chord progressions in the world of soul, so incredibly smooth and entrapping it almost makes me sick swaying to the groove. In the process of crafting Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, it's clear that Maxwell used a similar format as Gaye's I Want You--also an extremely erotic record--as Maxwell also used a leitmotif that appears throughout the album. Marvin had 3 tracks titled "I Want You" sparsely placed throughout his album, while in Maxwell's case, this 6-minute track reprises as the outro in the conclusion of the album. Rightfully so, I'm gonna put this track on blast until the cops come knockin' on my door, too.

3. Fortunate, 1999

One of the only two songs on this list, and possibly of all Maxwell songs as well, that weren't written by Maxwell himself. "Fortunate" was a single written by R.Kelly and wasn't featured on any studio album by Maxwell, but to many R&B/quiet storm listeners, "Fortunate" was probably one of his more memorable songs. For all the wrong he's done, nobody can ever deny that Robert Kelly has been and still is one of the most prominent songwriters in the game; the man's ability to create impassioned and captivating melodies is almost unparalleled among all R&B artists,  and to top it off, he's also super effective with his arrangement and production skills. I mean, "U Got It Bad" by Usher? "You Are Not Alone" by MJ? "I Turn to You" by Whitney? Not bad at all for someone who wrote a song titled "I Like the Crotch on You". But I digress. Peaking at #4 on the hot 100 chart, winning Maxwell a Billboard and a Soul Train Award while earning him a Grammy nod, "Fortunate" was one of Maxwell's bigger commercial successes. The mature melody is simple yet profound. The song is a honest love-statement accompanied by a gorgeous vocal performance. When Maxwell hits the high note for the first time in his falsetto toward the end ("...it's making me daaaaaaaannnnnccee"), we find ourselves drowned deep in our urge to dance as well. Damn Maxwell.

2. Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder), Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, 1996

Okay the top 2 songs are both from his first album. I mean, who didn't see that coming. "Ascension" embodies Maxwell. It's almost Maxwell's signature track. From the long, sustained falsetto note that opens the song, to the emphatic break ("without you here by my side") in the middle of the song, everything works to perfection on this track. Maxwell's performance is beyond on-point, the bass line is hypnotizing, the layered, syncopated percussion provides a rhythm impossible not to groove to, the repeated motif "Don't Ever Wonder" don't ever stop stressing the sensual ambience. In an album that impressed all the way through, "Ascension" was one of the songs that especially stood out. Maxwell's superior artistry and performance abilities are put on display in this song: he's doing things, that probably every other R&B singer was trying do, so effortlessly and casually, all the while exuding the kind of sex appeal and spiritual energy that can only be compared to Marvin Gaye. Sure, Maxwell's songwriting isn't quite as remarkable as the all-time legends, but who cares? Even the Godfather of Soul wasn't writing mind-blowing melodies 100% of the time.

1. Sumthin' Sumthin'

Let me tell you sumthin'. "Sumthin' Sumthin'" is still one of the nastiest tracks I've ever heard after all these years. It's on par with "Ascension" as one of Maxwell's signature tracks, but it's got a more interesting chord progression and a more unique chorus. "Sumthin' Sumthin'" is the perfect blend of songwriting and groove, and that's why it's the Greatest Maxwell Song of All Time. This song hits all the right formulas: a James-Brown-esque drum intro, a *Kool, old-school funk instrumental arrangement, layered guitars performed in a variety of techniques, a breakdown jam sesh in the middle, a Maxwell channeling the Let's Get It On era Marvin Gaye with his high-low-register fluctuating vocals, etc., altogether result in this 90's R&B hero taking us way back to the 70's. This song was one of the reasons the term "neo-soul" was coined. While a lot of the artists have stressed in the past that "neo soul" is a constraining term, it still holds as the most appropriate name to represent this sound introduced on Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite. It was new, it was refreshing, and it rocked everybody's socks off. And all the other clothing items. 

Maxwell, "blackSUMMERS'night" Album Review

Maxwell, "blackSUMMERS'night" Album Review

D'Angelo, "D'Angelo Essence Festival Rehearsals 1998", Album Review

D'Angelo, "D'Angelo Essence Festival Rehearsals 1998", Album Review