We spoke with Maxwell who talked about celebrating 25 years of Urban Hang Suite, the young R&B artists, and the new music he’s working on.
Maxwell is grateful that people are still tuned into the sounds of Urban Hang Suite. When he first made his way onto the music scene, back in the mid-’90s, the R&B crooner had no idea how much of an impact his soulful debut would have generations later. But, to this day, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite still goes down as one of the most influential R&B albums of its time.
At the age of 22, the Brooklyn-bred artist introduced his deeply soulful, spiritual, and romantic style — one that put a spin on R&B like no other. D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, which came out in the summer of 1995, and Urban Hang Suite are two albums that birthed the neo-soul era. Despite introducing his musical style nearly three decades ago, Maxwell — who draws inspiration from artists such as Marvin Gaye, Sade, and Prince — has maintained a fluid essence that’s allowed his influence to impact multiple generations of fans, contemporary artists, and music lovers alike.
Though most artists today make music for the moment, Maxwell has built an esteemed reputation for himself recording material that’s considered both timely and timeless, remaining relevant beyond the moment it enters our listening rotation. Maxwell has matured as a powerful force in the music industry and the effects of his music are still seen today in artists like H.E.R., Bruno Mars, Giveon, Snoh Aalegra, and more.
On April 2, Urban Hang Suite turns 25. Maxwell is set to kick off the celebration of his masterful debut with a live performance at the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on Saturday, March 27th. The legendary singer is also releasing a 24bit Hi-Res Audio remastered edition of Urban Hang Suite that drops on the album’s anniversary.
We recently spoke with Maxwell about celebrating 25 years of his iconic debut album, how young R&B artists are carrying the torch in music, and what new music he’s been working on.
How does it feel to celebrate 25 years of what a lot of people consider a masterpiece?
I’m really grateful for it. I wouldn’t have even imagined in a million years that there would be any thought about [Urban Hang Suite] after releasing it, especially as I was making it with no idea anyone would receive it, appreciate it, or listen to it. So to just know that so many people of so many different ages are aware of it, it’s something I’ve always wanted to try to accomplish.
In what ways do you think your music has matured over the years and how have you been able to maintain this multi-generational appeal through it?
I think what we’re all dealing with now [amid current events] is about what’s going to happen to [us] and all these things are crossing people’s minds. I try to write things that will hopefully make them feel okay about the uncertainty of it all. When I look at Urban Hang Suite, it’s an album written out of complete uncertainty. I’m just sort of grateful to give people the sense that [as an artist], you have to work hard, have a vision, and come from a place of purpose and also a place of service. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m here to serve not only my truth in terms of the work I do, but also serve those who listen to [my music] so they can ultimately find their truth.
This album and your sound helped spearhead the movement that created neo-soul. How does it feel to be able to say you’re a pioneer in that regard?
I was just happy that I was able to come into meeting the right people. I love old soul and old jazz. I could remember a time of records, and vinyls, and having people share the uncut gems in terms of songs and hits that we really didn’t know, especially during that time when it was a sample generation. I’m happy to be part of a family and part of the community. [At the time] I wasn’t really trying to do that, it was just something that kind of happened that I was put into.
What are your thoughts on how neo-soul has progressed and grown over the last couple decades?
For me, I’ve always believed that soul music would progress and mutate into different variations of itself, but it always comes back home to that simple notion that we’re making a joyful noise so that others can experience that. I won’t be here forever, and I know that, but what I try to do creatively is leave a lasting impression as much as I can.
You’ve not only used your talent as an artist to break barriers in music, you’ve also used it as a vessel for your activism. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
I’m pretty subtle with it, Like [on] “Fistful of Tears,” on the first installment of the BLACKsummers’night [album.] I try to throw it in when I can because I never know what songs will mean down the road. Like “Lifetime,” I’ve spoken to people who say that’s been a major record to them, especially during the pandemic. I want the music to mean what it means in a broader scope, but I let people who will listen to it come to their own conclusions and how they want to apply it to their [own] experiences.
Overall, what kind of legacy are you trying to leave behind?
I just want people to know that I really care and I really want to uphold a tradition of soul music with a twist, so to speak. I’m very grateful to be among the community of artists that are leading the way. I understand that I’m a part of a long history of music, but I want to just be a part of the movement more than be the [actual] movement. I’m grateful that, if I was in any, that I was around to be there.
How excited are you to be able to revisit some of those classic cuts from Urban Hang Suite for the NAACP Image Awards?
I’m just blown away that the NAACP Image Awards even called. It doesn’t get any more prestigious than that. I’m so happy that people remember [Urban Hang Suite]. There are so many records that come out and hundreds and thousands of artists that I believe don’t get seen or heard, so to just even be included is really what it’s all about. We went to New York [for this], a city that’s still dealing with the pandemic. I really wanted to celebrate and do a performance on those steps that birthed me. Being from Brooklyn and knowing how much New York means to me and how it played such an important role in how I got to network and meet my team, we wanted to celebrate [the city] and do a performance that would show the world that we’re strong, we’re back, and it’s going to be okay.
What are your thoughts on the state of R&B today?
At some point, I was given the tools to make what I made, so you have to have faith that some of the newer artists are going to do the same. That they’re always going to look towards the tradition and timelessness to what they’re doing to be above the trends if they can. Not everyone has the creative freedom that I’ve been given over the course of my career, so I’m always very sensitive in looking at that before I judge what I listen to. But I love everybody out here, I’m so happy for anybody who could get to the point where anyone is aware of them. People don’t realize how hard that is to do. It seems quite effortless after the fact, but you don’t know their origin story or the creative political situations they’ve gone through to even get to a place where they can be seen and rewarded for what they do.
I encourage all those artists to keep rocking, keep doing you, keep bringing that soul, truth, and enlightenment to the music, and be true to the ancestors who have given you this opportunity.
Is R&B dead?
No! Everybody wants to be R&B now so it’ll never go away, it’s always going to be around. We could label it in so many different ways, and we do because it’s a part of every generation’s way to embrace something for them. Neo-soul is my generation’s way of expressing what this meant to them and then you have TrapSoul and others like it, but at the end of the day when you cut it up raw and get to the center of it, it’s soul music. It’s rooted in gospel, blues, and experience that we are continuously echoing out so that people remember what contributions soul music has made to the entire world.
I just hope that the artists that are very focused on being part of that know it’s in their power to always be true to it, no matter what the trends are at the moment. If you stay true to how you started, then you’ll [always] be around.
Is there any new music in the works?
Over the course of this pandemic, I had to put everything on pause. Everybody had different plans in 2020, so I had to adjust [mine] and focus on what really mattered. I’ve been feverishly working on many songs – more songs than I think I’ve ever worked on – but I’m just waiting for the right time. I honestly didn’t think that last year people, out of everything they were experiencing, needed new music from me. I’m happy that I got to hear all these great songs from artists, but I just wanted to take a minute and be an OG.
Njera Perkins is a New York-based freelance writer and editor who covers music, culture, and business.