maxwell urban hang suite album turns 20 years old




20 years ago yesterday, after a bout of hesitation by Columbia Records and Modern Soul recording artist Maxwell, Urban Hang Suite was released to a consumer market where — for right or wrong reasons — American music executives and many performing artists cowered into creative capitulation by the powerful forces of post-New Jack Swing, Hip Hop and other Rap/R&B music hybrids. Through this album, Maxwell helped to define what it meant to be Soulful and sexy in the 1990s.

I think the album remains a fearlessly brilliant body of work not only for its sensually Modern Soul majesty , but also for its approach to artistic collaboration and packaging.

By most measures, Maxwell is a good-looking man, and conventional sales instincts would’ve attempted to commercially leverage Maxwell’s features by placing his face on the album’s front cover. Maxwell instead offered a downward-facing photographer’s view of gold stiletto shoes lying on their sides near what has to be covered hotel walls.

This approach to visual marketing left listeners with a clear message, even before playing the first song: “This aphrodisiac is best taken by ear,” and “Respect the artistry, thank you.”

By 1996, concept albums were soooo 1970s. Nonetheless, Maxwell based the 64+ minute album on a love affair. He also went further in his journey to the past by respectfully borrowing old school Soul elements to blend with modern flavors of his own design.

It’s not surprising if parts of Urban Hang Suite remind you of early 70s Marvin Gaye. Leon Ware, who co-wrote several of Gaye’s biggest hits — including the concept album I Want You joined Maxwell’s team, as well as Gaye’s venerable guitarist Wah Wah Watson. Modern Soul injections were made by artists like Amp Fiddler and Sade’s multi-instrumentalist collaborator Stuart Matthewman.

The creative result was time-to-change-your-drawers magical.

Despite the luminary assistance and influences, Maxwell is clearly the star of this set. His rich and passionate falsetto vocal delivery, which at times went down to an attention-grabbing mid-tone for points of emphasis, blended beautifully with a story soundtrack that sounds all at once breezy, sophisticated, funky and romantic.

These Album (or Two) in My Head posts are not meant to be music reviews, so I’ll skip the track-by-track commentary. I’ll simply add that after playing the entire album this afternoon, I never once winced at any point out of anachronistic-induced embarrassment. Urban Hang Suite remains a brilliant album today.

Thank you, Maxwell …

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