Slow to warm to a voice that was comfortable with mediocre songwriting, I didn’t like Maxwell until the “Lifetime” single in late fall 2001 (I wasn’t even much impressed with the Kate Bush cover: a vacant show of virtuosity). But I yielded with 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, one of the new century’s most fleet-footed of R&B albums — also coolest, as in temperature, body heat, shows of passion. In my review of blackSUMMERS’night at SPIN, I note how he’s mastered this reserve:
Evolving from an inchoate and rhythmically lethargic R&B simulacrum to structures that, like a good poet’s command of the sonnet, gave him liberties within the affirmations of form, Maxwell has nevertheless sculpted an aqueous and often androgynous sound. He pledges his troth to Woman while letting the listeners worry about specifics (by contrast, D’Angelo’s fetid, knottier funk is never in doubt about whom it’s addressing). Thank Sade Adu for the tips.
The Kate Bush cover was the tip-off: Maxwell is one of the few contemporary R&B artists who counts women as influences. Maxwell’s worked with Sade’s sonic architect Stuart Matthewman for twenty years. It’s taken a long time for fans to catch up to a male Sade enthusiast who records music.