originally published July 14, 1998 / VILLAGE VOICE
The main problem with Maxwell is he's not D'Angelo. It's so unfair. You try and boogie around it. Deal with the brother on his own terms. Forget "Brown Sugar" ever happened. It must be burden enough for the boy. For every post-retro-roots-nouveau soul singer--Rahsaan Patterson, Chico DeBarge, even Erykah Badu--there is the looming threat, the certainty, that D'Angelo is going to, one day very soon, release that long-awaited second album and render them all irrelevant. Quaint. It happens all the time. You pick up a ball, you're good, but you'll never be Jordan. You love your trumpet, carry it with you everywhere, but can you even hope to be Miles? Can you even be Roy Hargrove? You stand in front of the mirror, feign modesty, gyrate a little, strain your falsetto, and you're still no Marvin. You're not even Prince. So you try and be your own little groovy self, aware or--and this is the potentially dangerous part--completely unaware that perfection is out there, definition is out there, and all you can do is submit your very all right effort and pray. If not for greatness, then at least for goodness.
It happened that way the first time for Maxwell. Urban Hang Suite was a dainty album. In his first video Maxwell was trapped in some Ellen von Unwerth photo, rolling around a hotel room floor, wrapping himself around some honey's Manolo Blahniks. It was supposed to be sweet. An offering at the foot of femininity. But all you could think was, Baby, the cops are not coming to your door, for a single thing, not ever, not even in your own little video. So a dangerous man Maxwell isn't. That's okay. By the time his second single, "Ascension," was released, D'Angelo had squeezed all the singles and videos he could from his album and in his absence Maxwell seemed to many like the real thing. And he wasn't stranded behind a keyboard either. He danced a little. Wore shiny, sharkskin threads. Had a nicely textured 'fro. Musically, he was backed by most of Sade's band, by then making albums of their own under the hip moniker Sweetback. An interesting editorial note. But Sade's band always kind of sucked. She made the material interesting. Still, Marvin's onetime collaborator, the legendary Leon Ware, dropped by the studio a couple of times. And Maxwell managed a convincing soprano. And the album was, well, really decent. It grew on you.
So the reporters came. And Maxwell had things he wanted all the sexy ladies out there to know. He's painfully shy. He knows God is a woman. He, in fact, is generally afraid of women. Intimidated by their splendor. They blow his mind. Urban Hang Suite is about one woman. In a single space and time. Because he of course is a monogamous kinda guy. Most important, he is not some K-Ci or Aaron Hall or Charlie Wilson wannabe. He just wants to be your lover. The only one you come for. Morning, noon, and night. Now plenty of chicks fell for this. They showed up at his concerts and swooned and threw panties. And Maxwell was appropriately embarrassed by it all. Me? All this for me? I'm just an introvert, a twentysomething (he, like many of today's male stars, gets younger with each interview), who never had a date and I'm just so overwhelmed. You get the picture. But ever since I learned he used to wait tables at the painfully pretentious Coffee Shop in Union Square, where a fucking stack of pancakes is $12 and they sit the ugly people near the kitchen and only hire model material, my suspicions began to bubble. I imagined him in front of the aforementioned mirror, conceiving above "concept" album and constructing said shy guy. It occurred to me, based on this admittedly useless piece of information, that not only might Maxwell be a little much, but maybe his whole decent album required a more critical listen. But I couldn't do it. He was nice enough, despite everything. He wasn't exactly offensive. I abandoned the scrutiny. I'm not mean.
Like most skeptics, I wanted to be proven wrong. I want to believe. So I called an increasingly supportive Columbia (he's their D'Angelo) and requested his surely soulful second album, Embrya. I'm not gonna deal with the album title. I even managed to ignore the ridiculous, loaded song titles: "Gestation: Mythos," "Submerge: Til We Become the Sun," "Gravity: Pushing To Pull," "I'm You: You Are Me and We Are You," "Eachhoureachsecondeachminuteeachday: Of My Life." I mean, what the fuck? We put up with these kinds of eccentricities from Prince, because he is Jordan, and Miles. He is, even when he is Minneapolis corny, genius. I breathe deeply, forgive Maxwell as he is, like myself a child of the universe, and slide his CD in hoping for decent goodness to wash away his presumptuous missteps. But there is no such redemption. The writing is listless and unfocused and, worse, it's all about him. On "Know These Things:Shouldn't You" his toes are all curled because a woman came along who knows, instinctively, what he likes, how to service him, exactly how to love him. The band drones along as if in some somnambulant session that never ends. Not in any seamless, connected way. But in a manner that is absent of interesting changes, moods, or any real movement. Given that he fired his entire road band it's safe to blame Maxwell for the lazy sound. The instruction to completely taupe out must have come from him. The better to bounce around the tracks attempting small melodic acrobatics with his only good voice. By the fourth track the album recedes so far into indistinctness that you forget it's even on. Like a pretty girl who attempts a grand entrance only to become less noticeable with each guest because her entrance was really all she had in her to give. You find yourself thoroughly engrossed in an episode of Teletubbies when you know you were doing something. Oh, reviewing the Maxwell album. Did someone turn down the volume? No?
I should be thankful, I guess, that he's not being crude, singing about bumping and grinding me till he's ready for his second conquest of the night. Thankful that he's not threatening to date rape me or something at the top of his lungs. But even then, I'd be elated for what he's not. When is D'Angelo going to finish that second album?