In 1996, a young singer named Maxwell released an album called Urban Hang Suite, a loungy collection of sensual slow-burners and romantic ballads that helped establish what would be dubbed “neo-soul.” He, along with vocalists D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, were considered throwbacks to a bygone era, when artists like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye dominated airwaves with sweeter blends of soul. Maxwell fit that mold: A stately figure with a skyscraping afro and honeyed voice, he epitomized bohemian cool, a ‘60s and ‘70s Gaye coming through one body at the same time. Urban Hang Suite was an exceptional record that still holds up today: “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” “...Til the Cops Come Knockin” and “Wherever Whenever Whatever” are cornerstone tracks in ‘90s R&B canon.
And to think we almost never heard them. Though Maxwell had finished Urban Hang Suite in 1995, his label, Columbia Records, sat on the album for a year, claiming there wasn’t a market for the type of retro-inspired dance grooves he employed. Then D’Angelo broke through. “Maxwell told me Brown Sugar’s success got his Urban Hang Suite off of Columbia’s shelf,” the writer Nelson George penned in an essay for Brown Sugar’s deluxe edition.
Released April 2, 1996, Urban Hang Suite had been a slow burn commercially, until “Ascension” was put out as the album’s second single in July. The song sold more than 500,000 copies in the United States. By 1997, the LP had sold more than one million units. Maxwell was officially a star.
Fans weren’t prepared for his sophomore album, Embrya, a stark musical shift from Urban Hang Suite. Compared with that record’s efficiency, Embrya featured longer meditative tracks that weren’t as catchy or upbeat. On purpose, Maxwell ditched the afro and straight-ahead jams for an album that prioritized mood over show-stopping moments. Embrya was a total listening experience, not one based on singles for Billboard recognition. That it followed such a massive hit was equally curious and courageous, and the backlash was almost universal. Greg Tate, review for Spin, said it was a bit too “New Age-y (i.e.: ambient), art-rock pretentious, emotionally calculated, and sappy.” In Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield said that while the songs were “pretty wonderful,” the album was full of extended “soft-focus vamps that don’t bother much with chords or verses or choruses.” Critic David Browne called the lyrics vague and pretentious. “Embrya has plenty of pillow-talk moments,” he wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “but you wish Maxwell would spend a little less time fluffing the pillows, and a little more time on the heat of the moment.”
Browne’s criticism makes me wonder if Embrya was ever given a fair shot. As it arrived just two years after Urban Hang Suite, perhaps critics and fans — still basking in the glow of Maxwell’s debut album — were disappointed that it wasn’t Urban Hang Suite 2. I get it, though: It took me a while to embrace Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, DAMN., because it didn’t have the jazz/avant-rap sound of To Pimp a Butterfly. I shunned Badu’s Worldwide Underground because it just wasn’t Mama’s Gun. A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life? It was fine, I suppose, but it was nowhere close to Midnight Marauders. We do this often to our faves, and it’s not fair. Artists are supposed to evolve; the best ones create what they’re feeling and let the fans catch up.
Still, two years is a pretty quick turnaround, and Maxwell didn’t build a road for Embrya’s material. He did what he typically does: He released Urban Hang Suite, vanished, then came back with his sophomore title. There was no indication that he was headed in this direction. For those still two-stepping to “Welcome” and “Dancewitme,” Embrya was a splash of ice water to the face.
I remember buying the CD on release day, playing it at my best friend’s house, and watching him and his older sister (both Maxwell fans) shrug it off like the thing wasn’t even on. I can also acknowledge this: Some of the songs hang around too long, and the six- to seven-minute runtimes feel even longer without nuances in the music. In particular, “Submerge: Til We Become the Sun” and “Eachhoureachsecondeachminuteeachday: Of My Life” just sort of float along without Maxwell’s voice there to heighten the procession. While it’s somewhat unfair to reassess Embrya through ears reconditioned for brevity, these cuts drag in 1998 and 2022 all the same.
Regardless of how much I loved the album, I knew it was different. The CD version had a hidden track before the opening cut that was all reversed synths and indiscernible words that sounded immersed in water. While the track, “Gestation: Mythos,” referred to pregnancy, the lyrics were too cryptic for rightful interpretation. Much like the instrumental intro on Urban Hang Suite, “Gestation” was meant to set the album’s mood, but it’s a disservice to the gorgeous opener “Everwanting: To Want You to Want” and its sunny composition. My favorite was “Drowndeep: Hula,” a hypnotic, yet unintentional, mix of soul and Hawaiian music. “It was just an accident that happened,” producer Stuart Matthewman once said. “I was flickering through the presets on a new effects panel and it had a little guitar part. It had that funny wobbly sound. And I did the riff and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, wow that sounds great.’ I think that influenced him to sing ‘Hula, hula baby.’ It made us smile.”
Conversely, “Know These Things: Shouldn't You” is a moody, guitar-driven collage bubbling slowly to the surface. It’s the album’s bleakest track, mostly morose with a hint of light toward the end. That’s due to Maxwell’s work in the upper register; his falsetto juxtaposes the track’s pitch-black tone, bolstering the push-n-pull between darkness and light. Revisit this song, then go to listen to Frank Ocean’s Endless (if you can find it) or Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism. Go play the Weeknd’s f Balloons series and Nick Hakim’s Will This Make Me Good. I don’t know if they were directly impacted by Embrya, but I can’t deny the parallels. They’re celebrated for the type of downcast R&B that Maxwell was ridiculed for.
“We were living in an era where critics were kings and queens and could basically tell everyone what was good and what wasn’t good,” Maxwell said in a 2018 interview. “When I unveiled this album with all these strange titles and colons and sub-text titles, people were scratching their heads. Now when I look at records and I see so many artists out here who have these very specific titles that are very unique and very uniform. It wasn’t something that was done [then].”
History has been kind to Embrya. In 2018, Columbia reissued the album, prompting a series of reassessments across the Web. In his reappraisal for Pitchfork, writer Brad Nelson called it the liquid counterpoint to D’Angelo’s Voodoo, the follow-up to Brown Sugar and the singer’s soul-funk masterpiece. “It’s an album of traceless, amnesiac swellings, never seeming to quite know where it’s going or where it’s just been, flowing without ever seeming aware of its flowing, which is its truly remarkable achievement,” he wrote. I liken Embrya to Common’s Electric Circus and Mos Def’s The New Danger, as serious creative detours that confounded listeners to the point of near-alienation. Embrya was a challenging and rewarding listen that opened the door for like-minded creators to experiment with their sounds in similar fashion. Twenty years ahead of its time, it’s getting the love it always deserved.