The Suite Turns 20…

20 years ago on Saturday, April 2, this man released one of R&B’s best albums. (p/c: billboard.com)

At first glance, I don’t look like your typical R&B enthusiast.

I grew up in a small podunk town in south-central Pennsylvania where there are just as many traffic lights as there are pizza shops. Country music probably serves as Everett’s favorite genre of music, and while I also enjoy it my passion has always resided in the rhythm and blues – or its more common term, R&B – category.

I can’t necessarily pinpoint an exact time of when I fell in love with the genre, but my tastes have stretched throughout its many deviations – from older stuff such as Marvin Gaye (who I would consider my favorite artist), to 90s classics from Boyz II Men, to the new “PR&B” subgenre that The Weeknd and How to Dress Well excel at. As a sophomore at Robert Morris University, I wrote an opinion piece for The Sentry on the impact R. Kelly has made for R&B, and was questioned at work the following day about how much I actually knew about Robert Sylvester Kelly. (I then proceeded to rattle off between 10 to 15 songs of his that weren’t his two most notable tracks, “Ignition” and “Bump ‘N Grind”.)

So while I’ve been an R&B fanatic for quite some time, I honestly can’t say the same about the subject of this post.

With Maxwell, I jumped on the bandwagon extremely late, first stumbling upon the 2009 single “Pretty Wings” before delving into the rest of his discography. That was about four years ago, three years after he released the album BLACKsummers’night, which was the first LP of a three-part trilogy. (After being told over and over that the second album from the soulful triumvirate was coming, it looks like that promise will finally be fulfilled this year.)

While albums such as Embrya, Now, and the aforementioned BLACKsummers’night have all gained acclaim from music critics, his debut Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite has served as the vocalist’s magnum opus. Critics hail it as one of the founding projects of the neo-soul movement and it gained perfect ratings from review outlets such as AllMusic, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Los Angeles Times, and Urban Latino, among others.

Urban Hang Suite also celebrates its 20th birthday this Saturday after spending two years between 1994 and 1995 being conceived. Because of the notable anniversary, I decided to put together a brief review of the classic LP, which doubles as my favorite album ever.

Urban Hang Suite features the tracklist on the front album cover. (p/c: audiocastle.cc)

The concept behind Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite details the timeline of a relationship between the narrator and his lover, from its opening encounter (Welcome) to closing matrimony (Suitelady). Over the album’s course, Maxwell touches on subjects such as love, sex, and commitment, intertwining the themes with the narrative he created. It’s sophisticated, it’s sensual, and most of all, it’s so damn smooth.

After an instrumental intro in The Urban Theme, the LP begins with Welcome – a groovy opener that has Maxwell asking for an opportunity with a woman who has shut down his every move. He continues his pursuit on the funk-influenced Sumthin’ Sumthin’ and it seems as if our protagonist is starting to make some progress based on an increasingly confident voice throughout the song.

The woman’s guard begins to come down on Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder), another upbeat number that has Maxwell recalling his feelings from when he first saw her. She succumbs to his persistent effort on Dancewithme, which also features a quicker tempo compared to what’s yet to come.

The mood shifts on …Til The Cops Come Knockin’, an after-hours classic that features some of the most sexually explicit lyrics from the album. Here is where Maxwell’s work pays off as the two share a passionate night together following their first embrace in the previous song. Whenever Wherever Whatever continues to put Maxwell’s affection for his counterpart in full display behind a soft acoustic guitar and tender lyrics such as “I’d give you the breath that I breathe, and if ever you yearn for the love in me”.

Lonely’s The Only Company (I & II) features a downtrodden Maxwell not withholding his emotions after the pair goes its separate ways. He’s at his most vulnerable here, somberly singing about aloneness and love lost. That feeling doesn’t last long however, as Reunion sees the couple reconcile (obviously). Maxwell had looked at moving past this woman, but realizes when he sees her again that she’s the best thing to come into his life.

Capitalizing on that revelation, Suitelady (The Proposal Jam) has Maxwell crooning to the woman about their night together in …Come Knockin’ before making the ultimate commitment by asking for her hand in marriage. It serves as the climax of Urban Hang Suite, while The Suite Theme closes the album blissfully with Maxwell and his fiancée celebrating their engagement over a few drinks. An instrumental of …Come Knockin’ is hidden at the end of the LP, serving as the conclusion to the couple’s evening.

There are two distinct themes on Urban Hang Suite – the pursuit and its outcome. The opening five songs feature upbeat production to demonstrate Maxwell’s confidence in completing his conquest, while the latter six bring forth vulnerability after he realizes his true feelings towards the woman. It’s a story arc that might come across as a bit overdone, but on Urban Hang Suite it’s executed beautifully with incredible performances from all contributors. Maxwell’s voice is straight out of a dream as he bounces between registers with relative ease, while the production is atmospheric, funky, and soulful.

Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite might have not gotten me into the R&B genre, but it does serve as one of its biggest highlights. Thanks for crafting my favorite album, Maxwell, and please release blackSUMMERS’night this year.

Listen to Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite on Spotify.

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