In, “BLACKsummersnight,” his 4th studio album, Maxwell scraps every single construct that has made him popular. The warm, afro coifed R&B god that could have passed for a fashion model is gone, replaced by a clean cut, moody man with a serious case of the thirty somethings. In place of the smooth, up tempo funk that seemed ready made for urban coffee houses is a darker sound; more attuned to low chords and minor keys; night time music too edgy for your modern night club. Even the record packaging is different; whereas Urban Hang Suite, Embrya, and Now emanated a bright, United Colors of Benetton vibe, “BLACK”, with the picture of him right profile in darkness, has the feel of a Himes novel cover.

In short, he’s made a neo-soul album that will make your typical neo soul fan want to run from the room. Those more inclined to stay and listen to such outrages might love “BLACKsummersnight”, a near masterpiece full of uneasy, immense passions, a record as complex in it’s sadness as his earlier records were simple in their manners. In turns sardonic, wistful, smart and horny; it is as fierce a statement of individuality as I have heard from a top 40 R&B star. More than that, it is a genuine risk, a tremendous, yet thoughtful one, full of diverse influences, yet unafraid to make you slowly shake your ass. “BLACK” is Maxwell made new, full of fresh, bright ideas that need to taken seriously and listened to by as many people as possible.

To understand how much of a gamble this is for him, you have to understand how much of a gamble his earlier records were not. With 1996’s Urban Hang Suite, Maxwell was packaged as a newer, nicer version of Marvin Gaye( going so far as to hire Leon Ware, one of Marvin’s old producers) and his subsequent records ,1998’s Embrya, and 2001’s Now, strayed little from the same formula. The records are nowhere near as bad or as good as their critics say they are, and it is a testament to his talent that he could carry them so successfully; even shining in the rare occasion that he broke his own mold. The problem with the records were that they were just that, a mould, something to fulfill a market niche.

If you listen to it once, you might think that “Pretty Wings” his first single from “BLACK” is a continuation of that same mold; but only if you listen to it once. The same Muze sound is there, but Murkier, with muddy horns, slower chord progressions, and an organ that seems far, far too sleepy for church. Maxwell is there too, telling a lover goodbye in a passive aggressive language that harkens the creepy aesthetics of Eric Benet, R&B première sensitive phony. Just as you want to turn it off, however, Maxwell comes in with

“I came wrong, you were right/Transformed your love into like”

And begins to break down every convention of the R&B breakup song I have ever heard. Instead of phony I’m sorries, emo kiss offs, or quasi sociopathic sneers, Maxwell presents himself mixed up, vulnerable, willing to admit he’s stupid, but not to interested in wanting a cookie for it.Pretty Wings” is far more complex than any song with the hook “take your pretty wings and fly” needs to be; almost Ashberry esque in its garbled narrative. It is as odd a great R&B single as I have ever heard, but it’s a great R&B single.

The bulk of the record is in that same vein, a picture of a man going through immense romantic drama and…..acting like an adult about it. From “Playing Possum” to “Fistful of Tears” (it’s actually about a fistful of tears, not domestic violence) to “Stop the World”; Maxwell goes through all the stages of a bad break up, denial, anger, and morose sorrow. Yet in the end, the sweetness, the charm that carried his early records is still there, just weathered a bit by life. Unlike 808 and Heartbreak, Kanye West’s breakup record that degenerated into a quasi sociopathic temper tantrum, Maxwell retains a sense of self, a basic decency that seems honest, pragmatic, and in the end, deeply likeable.

This new sense of self burnishes even the songs when he comes on like a Wolf. “Bad habits” is a make out single that eschews the lite Marvin- isms that made him so famous; and in turn is his first great make out single. It exists in a messy space, full of emotions ranging from (slightly) dark, to deliriously sensual; kind of like what sex actually is but too few people are willing to admit it to be. There are no 8th grade metaphors or slam poet come ons, just a sweet growl that comes off real, sticky, and averse to convention. It n short, a booty call song for people who might not be inclined to listen to booty call songs.

Because it is part of a trilogy, there will be those who will compare it to Erykah Badu’s Nu Amerykah series, and they will be wrong too. For as Great a murky make out record as “BLACK summer’s night” is, it doesn’t hold up to what Badu did with her first installation, 2008‘s “4th world war”. That’s unfair to Maxwell, however, as few records I have heard this decade has held to that standard( regardless of genre); and if there is a lesson to be learned from this new record , it’s that we don’t know what Maxwell can do yet. He is re-introducing himself to us for the first time; in layers rich enough to make you want to hear him show more of them. The one’s he’s shown here, however, are more than enough to make “BLACK” the R&B album of the year*

* so far. Let’s see what Badu does this fall.