In an era where “R&B” is starting to sound more like an offshoot of pop or dance, you’ll be lucky if you can find new music that reflects the classic nineties slow jam vibe. Even if you can, it’s probably sitting at the bottom of the charts while some auto-tune crap is blasting out of the speakers on the streets – R&B artist Ginuwine’s new album, A Man’s Thoughts, saw this fate. Surprisingly enough, Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night is doing very well for an R&B album from an artist who debuted in ’96 to great success, but has completely disappeared from the scene since 2001. Eight years later, Maxwell is back with the first of three albums that will be released in the next few years.
BLACKsummers’night is a pretty short album, with only nine songs, but every one exudes sensual class, a defining quality of what R&B used to be. The leading track, “Bad Habits,” brings out the full band and makes it clear that those R&B-dance/pop crossovers that dominate the radio today have got no place on this LP. “Cold” is possibly the jazziest cut out of the nine, with trumpets, handclaps, while just oozing old-school funk. Melting into the light and sexy first single “Pretty Wings,” where Maxwell showcases his trademark falsetto in full force, the mood suddenly flips 180 on “Help Somebody,” stepping away from love and dealing with death.
The break from the sultry slow-jam vibe is short-lived though, as “Stop the World” brings some Prince, and “Love You” brings the piano on a more frantic beat, and simply radiates the desperation of true love. It might not be a good thing that Maxwell’s keeping it short, because the quality of the music on BLACKsummers’night is surprisingly high, even near the end. “Fistful of Tears” is one of my favourites, with Maxwell’s silky voice flowing over a subtle throbbing beat. The last song on the album with actual singing on it is the melodiously sad “Playing Possum,” which is exactly what Maxwell does with the listener, as he ends the album far earlier than he should, and leaves the listener wanting more. The final cut, “Phoenix Rise,” is as close to contemporary R&B as you’ll get on BLACKsummers’night, and it ends this first part of Maxwell’s trilogy with some light synths and celebrates the rebirth of the phoenix. Welcome back, Maxwell.