Don’t ever wonder…..if this brotha can still make sweat taste sweet. Whether or not he gets as much “babymaking” cred as Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass, he is one of the most original, melodic and sophisticated soul crooners of the 21st century.

In the earlier 90’s, Hip-Hop, West Coast Rap and New Jack style powered R&B radio. In 1996, Maxwell competed with Tupac, R.Kelly, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, The Fugees, Ginuwine and Keith Sweat for positions on the Pop, Rap and R&B charts. But where his contemporaries bragged about raping, robbing, killing and accumulating street life credibility, he was crooning returning to the basics of life: love, and lust. He was Uptown afro-boho elan. He was that kid always rocking no-name gear that suddenly became the hotness just because HE was stylin’ it.  Everybody knew him without knowing a damn thing about him. He was that dude, that cat, that cool-ass mofo everybody touched but could never quite embrace. Who was this cat?

Before Maxwell, a half-smooth, quarter-cool cat could charm the naivete off a preachers daughter with some Manischewitz Blackberry Wine & Olive Garden take-out, Night Queen incense and Keith Sweat.  Despite profit-making success, neither Sweat nor his “drop your drawers” contemporary R.Kelly, possessed a true balladeers voice.  Dismissing the loving nature of his songs, Keith Sweat was accused of whining and begging his way into the bedroom. He lost favor with male fans and was ridiculed out of the R&B slow-drag spotlight.  R. Kelly, having released both 12 Play (1993) and R. Kelly (1995), was busy building bridges of contractions as he produced albums  intertwining sexually aggressive jack-n-jill rhymes with cathartic gospels. The mind behind “Bump-n-Grind” and “I Like the Crotch on You”, delivered an apogean spiritual in “I Believe I Can Fly”.

Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite awakened the Kundalani sensuality absent from soul’s music. In truth, we were probably confused when “Ascencion (Don’t Ever Wonder)” hit R&B radio in Spring 1996. We’d ceded love songs to Luther,  and while Luthers’ genius was without question, he was not an heir to the musical complexity and depth of Marvin or Stevie. The cool heat of his delivery was no match for Barry’s baritone. His refined expressions, and fully clothed head to toe, were a counterpoint to Teddy’s Mandingo superlover persona- half-naked, chocolate sweat dripping down to crotch-straggling hot pants.  Luther was great, but  he was clean. Inasmuch as love songs are about romance, they are also about sex. In real life expression, sexuality is dirty, naughty, lustful and incoherent. Vanilla ice cream has its place, but the fully developed tongue desires more palatial adventures in dining.

Maxwell’s, fluid, mollitious and evocative debut was soul rebirthed at its most voluptuousness. It was sandalwood oil and patchouli incense mixed into Egyptian cotton sheets, stroked dry with Turkish towels, and boozy with fresh fruit and Eiswein.    He had Lenny Kravitz looks, and Smokey Robinson smooth. He gave grace and a grown-man gentleness to the new R&B movement. He was a  welcome antidote to the  heavy rotation of hard rap hegemony of R&B radio. If R. Kelly was the speed-dial “break your back-out” type that handled “meet you at the HoJo” 4am service calls, then Maxwell was The Peninsula, with imported roses, honey-n-milk baths, hot stone massages, and Grand Siecle.

From 1996 through 2001, Maxwell delivered four albums, ripe and indulgent pleasures.  After 2001’s Now, he took a hiatus long enough to make us serious wonder if he and D’Angelo were living on the same island. In his absence the rising contemporary male R&B singers would replace depth and artistry in love songs with empty, juvenile lyrics and hyper-swagger. Love-making was for metrosexuals and sissies. Real men banged it in, tore it up and wore it out.  R.Kelly ascended into unrivaled stardom.  His reductive lyrics and on-stage antics denigrated love. R&B music began to sound like a porn flick soundtrack.

When 2010 bought Maxwell back with BLACKsummers’night, erotic sighs of relief sang from between womens’ legs. Funkier than Maxwell’s fanbase might be used to, its’ first two releases, Pretty WingsBad Habits, reestablished Maxwell’s  grown-man blueprint for smooth seduction.

Spotlight: Maxwell