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Now’s the Time?

Maxwell. Not D’Angelo — Maxwell. Not Bilal — Maxwell. Not Musiq Soulchild, even. Maxwell.

We draw on this little name-association game in order to prevent ourselves from doing what we promise we won’t do again beyond this paragraph. That is, mention Maxwell in relation to any other singer-songwriter of the hip-hop generation. Aside from the played-out nature of such rote comparison, the parallels are unfair, because there’s room enough in the neo-soul universe for a galaxy of such stars to coexist without sizing them up against one another. D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and, yes, Maxwell set off a soul revolution in the late ’90s with albums rooted in the musical-artiste aesthetic of the 1970s. They’ve earned the right not to be squished up beside each other as if they sound anything alike or have the same things to say.

So. While one must accord Maxwell respect for standing on his own two pretentiously bare feet, it must nevertheless be said that his new Now is a disappointment in the wake of 1996’s Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and its unfairly disparaged ’98 follow-up, Embrya. And of all people, Sade (the lady, not the band) may be to blame. Guitarist Stuart Matthewman has been at the nexus of output from both Maxwell and Sade (the band, not the lady) since their beginnings. Matthewman co-wrote “Welcome,” “Whenever Wherever Whatever” and “Lonely’s the Only Company, Pt. 1 & 2” from Maxwell’s debut (also co- producing the entire effort), and “Drowndeep: Hula,” “Know These Things: Shouldn’t You” and “Gravity: Pushing To Pull” from Embrya. Sade (the lady) may have needed her ’man back last year for the first Sade (the band) album in nearly a decade. Lovers Rock rocked; Matthewman plays guitar on Now, but doesn’t write or produce any of it.

The quiet storm of Maxwell’s signature sound becomes damn near somnolent over Now’s 11 tracks, two of which are reprised versions of older songs. The R. Kelly–produced “Fortunate,” a highlight in this context, appeared on the 1999 soundtrack to Life; the self-possessed cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” carries over from a ’97 MTV Unplugged EP. Whereas on Embrya the sly drum-’n’-bass elements Maxwell slipped into “Submerge: Til We Become the Sun” refined the song into a sublime ballad, Now offers no real surprises. As to be expected, there are horns, courtesy of saxophonist Andre Roberson, and typically rare-groove grooves. Now plays it prosaically safe.

Maxwell appeals primarily to women, but that owes to more than his squared jaw, arched eyebrows and mocha-chocolate mug. It’s his vibe, his whole sensibility, and that’s all intact on Now. The monogamy concept album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite centered on a singular relationship with one woman in particular; Embrya was intentionally not titled Embryo in order to accentuate the feminine. On Now, Maxwell remains true to all this: “They be tryin’ to bring you flowers/You prefer your roses blue,” he sings on “Get To Know Ya,” the leadoff single. “Brothers were tryin’ to get in your trousers/ I was just tryin’ to get with you.” Later, he repeatedly laments, “You and I were supposed to grow old” on the lachrymose slow jam “Symptom Unknown.” Maxwell’s game remains the same, even if his musical backdrop has grown a little limper.

Speaking of which, the snare-drum kicks of former New Power Generation drummer Michael Bland on jams like “Lifetime” and “Changed” make things livelier than your average Maxwell track. A crunch of electric guitar surfaces on the lead track, “Temporary Nite” — defanged for pop potential, but it pops up nonetheless. And the waltzlike meter of “Silently” is quaint, as our man implores in falsetto, “Don’t speak/Now with your soul, tell me/Silently.” On “Now/At the Party,” Maxwell claims, “I’d much rather watch my people movin’ it up at the party,” but things never cook hotter than your standard Jamiroquai jam session.

Now. We’d like to think that maybe, as a rejoinder to the criticism he received for the obtuseness of Embrya, Maxwell decided to rein things in to the point of banality — to prove a point. On the heels of Embrya’s perceived artistic pretension, Maxwell linked with R. Kelly and scored a hit (and a Grammy nod) with the radio-ready “Fortunate.” But after whatever record-company knuckle rapping may have followed the chancy Embrya, maybe Maxwell wants to show the suits that things aren’t so interesting when you swing with a net . . .

Nah. Maxwell would never put his reputation on the line by resorting to such shenanigans. After all, Maxwell isn’t Prince.

MAXWELL | Now | (Columbia)

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