Just ’cause he’s credited with helping launch the neo-soul R&B stylings that brought the falsetto back doesn’t mean Maxwell is all that comfortable in the spotlight. In fact, the Brooklyn-born 36-year-old’s been off the grid since the release of his third album Now in 2001, seemingly enjoying a self-imposed exile as mysterious as the man himself.
Following Now, Maxwell was poised to lead easy-listeners to smooth-groove bliss. His sexy songs likely paved the way for plenty of late-night booty calls, and yet his earnest odes to monogamy and treating a woman right kept Maxwell teenage girl-friendly and mom-approved, much like a certain singer named Usher, barely a blip on radio’s radar back then, who was chasing Maxwell’s register all over town. Back then, Usher was just a kid who hoped puberty wouldn’t touch his high notes, but after Maxwell vanished from the public eye, he nabbed the neo-soul crown.
But, on the cusp of a new decade, where everything 1996 is apparently new again, Maxwell’s back, with the first of a three-part trilogy. Black Summers’ Night pops with vocal tricks of all types: whispers, growls, upper octave ascensions into space. To Maxwell’s credit, his MO hasn’t changed: when he pens a song called “Pretty Wings,” it’s a sure bet that the song will be genuinely pretty, and the ridiculously limber falsettos will literally call to mind a bird flying up into the sky.
And it’s obvious that the man’s been missed: Black Summers’ Night debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, and “Pretty Wings” has already received over four million plays on his MySpace page. Usher doesn’t even need to step aside. He’s already been dethroned. —Andrea Warner