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Maxwell's 'blackSUMMERS’night': EW Review

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Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

We gave it an A-

Maxwell starts his new album by schooling us in “All The Ways That Love Can Feel.” And who better to do so? Over the course of a two-decade career, the R&B-soul singer has found more ways to express love than Eskimos have words for snow. Yet never has he matched his amorous entreaties to sounds as broad and fresh as these.

blackSUMMERS’night makes clear, once and for all, that the old “neo-soul” tag that’s saddled him from the start has long outlived its use. The music on this record looks decisively forward, leaving behind the Marvin Gaye references which marked Maxwell’s earliest work. The music refigures the rhythms, and brings fresh textures, to familiar soul sounds. But at the same time, the title ties Maxwell to history: blackSUMMERS’night is the second in a declared trilogy.

Seven years have lapsed between the first BLACKsummers’night and this sequel. It’s part of a pattern of retreat by Maxwell which has had one happy result: Each release catches him at a different point in his creative evolution. In the latest phase, he shows a new level of aggression and variety. That opening “Love” ode comes charging out of the box with a vintage disco beat, which anchors Maxwell’s balletic falsetto. From there, the beats keep evolving, from the military thrum of “The Fall,” to the horn-punctuated pluck of “III,” to the lapping undulations of “Lake By The Ocean.”

Maxwell’s vocals also morph, from heavenly highs to lows that can recall Prince at his gritties. Like His Purpleness, Maxwell upholds an elaborate sense of melody. And in an age dominated by the droning monotones of Drake and The Weekend, the fullness of Maxwell’s music feels almost revolutionary. His latest melodies have enough flexibility to be covered by others—from the pop-ready “Hostage” to the gospel-graced “Fingers”—and the melodic fluidity helps make Maxwell the most accessible of the stars he was originally lumped in with, including the airy Erkyah Badu or the funk-hard D’Angelo.

While Maxwell’s peers have evolved their lyrical point of view, Maxwell has stuck with his. He still sings of relationships in aspirational terms, casting them as stabs at transcendence. On “III,” he reveals a romantic role model: Michelle Obama, the first name-check of his career. And on “Of All Kind,” he idealizes marriage itself, an institution he has yet to join. To balance such dreamy visions, the music remains grounded. The blues in “Lost” could trademark its grime, while “1990” updates the arty sumptuousness of trip-hop to create one of the year’s sexiest jams. Even here, Maxwell refuses to give in to the cliché of the soul stud. The softer role he counters with doesn’t sound wimpy. Instead, it exudes enough confidence to let his heart show and to let his music grow in any direction his muse demands.

Key Tracks:

“Lake By The Ocean”

Like Maxwell’s last hit, “Pretty Wings,” this gorgeous ballad buffs its soul core with a pop sheen.

“Gods”

The graceful melody finds Maxwell upholding a tradition of song craft modern R&B often lacks.