A little sumthin' sumthin' on Maxwell's terms

Maxwell sure is one classy motherfucker.

Maxwell sure is one classy motherfucker. Horacio Hamlet

Twenty-two years after a debut that helped instigate the neo-soul movement, Gerard Maxwell Rivera releases music at his own sweet pace—a track here, an album there—with the caution and shrewdness of a politician testing the limits of what his constituents can stand.

When artists create the terms under which we accept them, they rehearse these terms before a mirror. “You play the game of gods,” Maxwell sang on a 2016 single, theoretically to an object of desire, himself most likely. Yet he isn’t a narcissist. Grooves have a way of deepening gallantry.

It took a few months for the subtle recasting of retro stylings on that debut, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, to sink into R&B radio; it’s an album that begins with sampled vinyl static. 1996 was a febrile time for the genre: “No Diggity,” a Keith Sweat comeback, Toni Braxton headed deeper into adult contemporary, and Aaliyah, Timbaland, and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott releasing a vision of the future called One in a Million that the trio kept refining, in various combinations, for the next decade.

By contrast, Maxwell’s choice of collaborator, Sade’s Stuart Matthewman, indicated his commitment to precision, for in Matthewman he got a guitarist who honed his subtle instrumental filigrees in years of live performances. Minimalism was Maxwell’s lodestar. Also, like Sade Adu herself, a basking in vocal luxuriance: treating vowels as one would fluff a pillow, holding notes as a call to prayer. The gentleness—the gentility, even—of Maxwell and Matthewman’s backdrops in “...Till the Cops Come Knockin’” insinuated romance without committing to anything but a metaphor at a time. Leon Ware appears on single “Sumthin’ Sumthin,’” another tributary in R&B history: Marvin Gaye’s collaborator on I Want You favored gleaming keyboards, wah-wah bits as modest fills, and the softest of percussion tracks.

After “Ascension” crossed over into pop, Maxwell went further into the Ware mode on Embrya. Time has been kind to this album; what sounded like handsome flabbiness in 1998 now has a welcome density that few artists have approximated, including Maxwell himself. “Luxury: Cococure” is his greatest composition; it’s also one hooky motherfucker. 2001’s Now, his first American #1 album, boasted what were for him spartan arrangements (“Lifetime”) and, in a courteous bow to an influence name-dropped with increasing frequency in the new millennium, a cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.”

This feminizing of male R&B’s anxiety of influence was a canny move, predicting cultural shifts that accelerated in the 2000s. Reminding his audience of the commercial shrewdness of silence, Maxwell stayed mum until 2009’s BLACKsummer’snight, the success of whose “Broken Wings”—14 weeks atop the R&B/hip-hop singles chart, tied for third longest in history—must have made record company execs sigh with relief. No grand gestures, no colons in the song titles, just up-to-the-minute R&B sung with precision and restraint in a manner reminiscent, as Jason King noted in a recent reappraisal of Urban Hang Suite, of late Bryan Ferry. 2016’s blackSUMMER’Snight mirrored its title: a minor reordering of the familiar.

In the meantime, “Shame,” leaked last month, will have to do. Maxwell still kills it live, and like many of the influences cited here he treats the stage as if it were an urban hang suite, deluxe and delightful, a promise of sensual abandon that complements the spare decor and well-lit bar. He’s worked it all out this lifetime.

With: Marsha Ambrosius
Where: State Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 21
Tickets: $46-$90.50; more info here