In the mid-1990s, a kind of renaissance began in R&B music. It started in 1995 AD, only the AD stands for After D'angelo, one of the earliest and most talented groovers of a movement known as neo-soul.
It was a kind of pejorative term, as it suggested that R&B had been languishing for a long time. In many ways, it hadn't. It had migrated and mutated, relying heavily on samples, synths and slushy drum machines. There was still good music being made, but it did, on occasion, sound kind of canned, processed, with the vocal serving as the focal point for any claim it made to being soul.
What artists like D'angelo did wasn't so much a throwback as a recast. They favored real musicians over bleeps and boops. They explored groove and melodicism in ways that struck a balance between art and commerce. They sounded classic and contemporary in the same breath. It wasn't so much that they were looking backward, they were trying to find a new way forward with all of the musical influences they had accumulated.
Unfortunately, some of the most exciting artists to come out of this renaissance - Joi, D'angelo, Lauryn Hill, Bilal, Remy Shand - disappeared into the ether or retreated to small labels on the margins of the industry. Industry pressures, indifference and artistic crises swallowed up some of the most appealing and visionary R&B artists to come onto the scene in a long time.
Which brings me to today's Song of the Day, Pretty Wings by Maxwell, who deserves points for perseverance. Of all the lauded neo-soul artists, he had, in some ways, the most auspicious debut - Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite. It's a sultry scorcher filled with make-out music of a caliber and insistence that few had attempted since, well, Marvin Gaye. In fact, Leon Ware, who collaborated with Gaye, conferred considerable cred on Maxwell's position as the new Gaye by lending his writing skills to the album.
That album, held up for a couple of years by an anxious label, Columbia, went gold on the charts, and in 1998, Maxwell returned with Embrya, an even more ambitious artistic endeavour that couldn't have made the label very happy. Not to mention the fact that there had been squabbles over Maxwell's Unplugged cd that made the release an EP. Three years later, he released Now, which featured a Kate Bush cover (part of his Unplugged repertoire, apparently) and...
...and that was it for the better part of eight years, in which there were rumors of albums rejected by Columbia, but little else. But this year, Maxwell returned with BLACKsummers'night, and the single, Pretty Wings. It's a real slow groove grower, with a mellow vibe that hearkens back to Urban Hang Suite. It's the kind of ballad Prince used to put on his albums, like like Adore, only a bit more modest and spartan. It doesn't reach out to you; it just hangs out in the corner, building mystique and intriguing you until you come over to it. And you will. You will.
The better times and days he alludes to? I hope they presage more delicious R&B. It's been too long, Maxwell. Too damn long. Welcome back, friend.