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R&B Singer Maxwell Is Majestic — And Vulnerable — On 'blackSUMMERS'night'


This is FRESH AIR. At the recent BET Award ceremony, Maxwell performed not only a new song "Lake By The Ocean," but also saluted the late Prince with a version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" that found the R&B singer on his knees and the audience on its feet. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Maxwell's new album "BlackSUMMERS'night."


MAXWELL: (Singing) I see your face. You see my face, a thousand races into space. Universal law never makes mistakes. Baby, you know. I just want to live and do what I can to be my best.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The falsetto that beseeches a lover to join him in a romantic escapade enumerating as the title of that song says "All The Ways Love Can Feel." This is the Maxwell method, by now tried and true. Maxwell's new album "BlackSUMMERS'night", not to be confused with his 2009 album also titled "BLACKsummers'night", is the second part of a trilogy projected to be called "Blacksummers'NIGHT" as well. The man is nothing if not persistent in his work habits and his romanticism.


MAXWELL: (Singing) I want to love you, baby. Say that you'll be with me. Don't leave me. I'm in vain because I've been lost for too long. Don't you go. Don't you leave me because I've been lost for so long, so long.

TUCKER: Born in Brooklyn and now in his 40s, Maxwell came to prominence with the 1996 album "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite," a chunk of first-rate neo soul that found him grouped with artists such as D'Angelo and Erykah Badu, each of whom was sailing slightly against the prevailing tide of hip-hop. Maxwell and the others were not anti-rap or self-deluding nostalgias. It's just that they heard something still vital and open for new variations in soul and R&B music.


MAXWELL: (Singing) Demons are following me, following what we can't see. I just want to dance, baby, move around, twirling. See you on the floor, you're back. Nobody has it like you have. Let me feel something more than just the ordinary night. People in the club, they be hating, baby. They see you looking over, relating, lady. I just want to hold you down, maybe if you want to go around town, walk the High Line, do a thing, maybe if you want to swing.

TUCKER: That song, called "III" is one of the high points of this album. It finds Maxwell approaching the seduction of a woman on various fronts. He's not just looking for someone to lure into the bedroom.

He's talking to her about what she's interested in, what she wants to talk about, places they might want to go. I would say that my favorite lines in the song are - go to Paris, maybe France, even Russia if you want to dance.

Except that the song has already become a little bit famous for another couplet - a rarity for a man who rarely name checks a public figure - when Maxwell says, I just want a Michelle Obama lady to hold me down when the world's crazy. Yes, siree, Maxwell knows how to frame an argument convincingly. Who would not want to go with him on this getaway described in the song "Lake By The Ocean?"


MAXWELL: (Singing) In the light of the sun, I was dazed. I was burned. I was lost deep in the storm of a grave, had a bed as a coffin. You were only the one that made me fulfilled, only the thing that made me reveal my destiny was before us, beach of a forest. Anything ain't nothing. It's just - it's just you, just us, nobody but love on trust, on us, nobody now. Can we swim a lake by the ocean? We'll be one like drops in slow motion.

TUCKER: Part of the gratification of a Maxwell album is hearing the melodies, beats and grooves constructed with a studio band and musicians that include his longtime collaborator, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Hod David.

Together, Maxwell and the music create an atmosphere of free-floating sensuality that is dreamy and roomy enough to accommodate a wide array of emotions. It allows for vulnerability, as he says on one song here - I'm shy to show you just how weak I am because sometimes I am not the kind of man I would like to be.

Yet, that vulnerability is placed within a musical framework that is so confident, so pleasurable that Maxwell remains a romanticist full of imaginative might and, at his best, a kind of majesty.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Maxwell's new album "BlackSUMMERS'night."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, the wind and our ability to forecast the weather. My guest will be biologist Bill Streever. After writing books about climates of extreme heat and cold, he's written a new book about wind. As part of his research, He put himself at the mercy of the winds in a sail boat journey covering a thousand miles and 43 days from Texas to Guatemala. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


MAXWELL: (Singing) I never felt the fame. I never won the game. If I had a wedding ring, you would be the only thing that I want to be (unintelligible). You are where spirits go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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