COVER STORY | It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Maxwell released his breakthrough debut, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite on April 2, 1996. The middle child of a holy trinity, the album would become a pillar of the birth of the Neo-Soul movement, in company between D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995) and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997).
Interior designing the hang suite was a long process that began in the tenor’s native streets of Brooklyn, New York. In secret, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent had written nearly 300 songs, while working odd jobs in New York City. A happenstance meeting as a busboy at Union Square’s The Coffee Shop would introduce the young dreamer to waiter Hod David, who would become his faithful collaborator and lifelong friend. A server by day and open mic performer by night, the pair would craft a 24-track demo that eventually caught the ear of executives at Columbia Records, who signed the artist in 1994. Only one song from his demo would make it onto his album.
Between 1995 and 1995, the singer crafted his debut by recording at New York City’s Electric Lady Studios, Sorcerer Studios, Chung King Studios and RPM Studios as well as CRC Studio in Chicago. Maxwell received creative freedom, typically not granted to new artists, as the label partnered he and collaborator Hod David with Stuart Matthewman, previously of the iconic group, Sade, as well as some of soul music’s shining veterans. Primarily produced by Peter Mokran, composer Itaal Shur, the album received its soulful seal by enlisting Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin of legendary Motown studio band The Funk Brothers, and Leon Ware who produced the majority of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album. The result of these studio sessions was an 11-track concept album of funky arrangements, R&B and Jazz, co-written and co-produced by the singer credited under the pseudonym of MUSZE, that could only be described as mellosmoothe. After being shelved for nearly a year, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was ready to be shared with the world. Welcome.
The album’s leading single, “…Til The Cops Come Knockin” delivered a steamy and smoked-out soliloquy perfect for the quiet storm with Maxwell’s angelic falsetto center stage. Reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, the candles were lit in Room 508 to position Maxwell as a new kind of sex symbol, unbridled and uninterrupted. “Gonna take you in the room, suga / Lock you up in love for days.”
When he emerged from the shadows with kinky afro, chiseled features and distinguishable note on the LP’s second serving, “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)”, we were hooked on the neo-soul prince’s new groove. The bass laden midtempo peaked in the top ten on Billboard’s R&B songs, reached top forty on the Hot 100 and No. 28 on UK’s Singles chart, captivating listeners across the world.
Continuing to showcase the uptempo first quarter of the suite’s journey, “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” kept the funk flowing. Maxwell delivers material that can simultaneously be a stepper’s shuffle or a slow dance. For the song’s accompanying visual, listeners were privy to Maxwell’s charismatic and playful side, important elements towards a blossoming relationship that would prove to be long-term.
Urban Hang Suite’s greatest moments lie in the intimate corners. Supported only by minimal guitar accompaniment, “Whenever Wherever Whatever” is essential balladry, offering a proposal with no strings attached. Like its counterpart, “Lonely’s The Only Company (I & II), parting is such sorrow. Maxwell’s sullen falsetto takes us along for his spiraling desperation. it is melancholy, it is endearing.
A conceptual piece, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite plays out like a maturing love story. Ready to receive love, the love prophet closes his set with the sweet rekindling of “Reunion” and “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)”. This time, invitation to Room 508 will end in the ultimate commitment. The youth who once dreamed is now a man with clear vision of what he wants from life and love.
Bookended by jazzy instrumentals, Maxwell’s vocals don’t have to be prominent to have a palpable presence. “Keep hanging just a little while longer”, he coos beneath saxophone and piano keys. “The Suite Theme” is an extended checkout time for us to stay rapt under the covers until we meet again.
Now considered a seminal LP, success was gradual but worth the climb, spending 78 weeks on the Billboard 200 Charts, and garnering a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album in 1997. Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA. The LP remains the soul star’s most heralded work to date and continues to inspire generations with its contemporary redefinition of classic soul.