blackSUMMERS’night (released July 1, 2016)
If you’re a Maxwell fan, patience HAS to be a virtue.
The last time Maxwell blessed us with a solo LP, it was a world without Instagram. Snapchat and those weird dog-faced filters y’all love were years away from cluttering up timelines. Lame prospective presidential nominees were just lame reality TV stars. And in the seven years since that last album, R&B fans have been craving the lush, soulful sound Maxwell helped pioneer in the late ’90s.
Yeah, Maxwell’s watch is permanently stuck on CP time. But that’s definitely by design – he knows absence makes the heart grow fonder.
And it doesn’t take long to learn that blackSUMMERS’night, the second album in Maxwell’s running trilogy, was worth the wait.
Look no further than the second single “1990x.” While the title may hint at a return to Maxwell’s neo-soul roots, it’s a red herring. Like the album itself, “1990x” is not meticulously structured – and that’s its beauty. It unfurls slowly and unpredictably, constantly changing pace and challenging the listener’s ear. The final 90s seconds climax with some of the most beautiful production you’ve heard all year.
It’s a new sound but it’s the same old Maxwell, an artist who would rather blaze his own paths than travel well-worn roads.
While blackSUMMERS’night might not sound like a “traditional” Maxwell album but many of its themes still ring with familiarity.
“Lake By the Ocean,” the single that finally broke Maxwell’s self-imposed exile, is probably the most radio-friendly track here, thanks to its warm, infectious arrangements. “All the Ways Love Can Feel” is loaded with horns and Maxwell’s patented sensuality, creating a song that’s both a feel-good jam and a perfect mood-setter.
But don’t expect a totally upbeat affair; blackSUMMERS’night has many moments of introspection. “I feel like I’m average, the pressure is so savage,” Maxwell croons on “The Fall” where is admits his love is as fickle as the seasons. “Lost” is a bluesy, regretful love letter while “Listen Hear” showcases his insecurities (“the life that I’ve chosen is not the life I should be living.”) But it’s the sprawling “Gods” that finds Maxwell at his breaking point: “With your crimes you convicted me, as you swore so convincingly/ you played the game of gods.” Only Maxwell can make a record this bitter sound so beautiful.
Maxwell glides through the gentle march of “Hostage” and even gives a touch of early ’90s R&B with “Of All Kind” which sounds like the offspring of something from BET’s old Video Soul countdown. Maxwell is occasionally hindered by eye-rolling lyrics, like “I just want a Michelle Obama lady” on “III,” but you’ll be too busy grooving to the song’s bouncy keys to take offense.
And that’s the true beauty of blackSUMMERS’night. Instead of being bound by traditional song structure, each track here finds strength in instrumentation and pacing. The production’s live feel and intricate grooves often tell a better story than the actual lyrics. Every song is like an individual jam session – one that you never want to end.
Maxwell’s catalog is filled with highly regarded albums, but blackSUMMERS’night ranks near the top of that already impressive list. His hallmark is his willingness to innovate – it’s an impressive feat for an artist whose material spans two decades. Maxwell is truly R&B’s Halley’s Comet, and this is the type of album that only comes around once in a musical generation.
And we better enjoy it. There’s no telling when we’ll see Maxwell – or another album like this – again.
Best tracks: “1990x,” “Gods,” “Lake By the Ocean,” “Of All Kind”
4.5 stars out of 5