Just one month before Michael Jackson died, rap mouthpiece Jay-Z released an obituary for a different roar de force, Auto-Tune, or the technique of correcting one's pitch with technology. Lately, it seems like all that you need to have a hip-hop hit.
With "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)," Jay argues that urban music's trend of overwhelming voice manipulation has gone too far. Rappers need to stay in their own lane of, well, rapping. That is, if you can't sing, leave the singing to people who can. Makes sense, right?
Rallying behind any sort of grand statement like this means we have to consider who can actually sing and entertain without misleading, repetitive and trendy veneers, especially after the death of the guy, the king, who did just that. And, as if on queue, Maxwell's fourth album, BLACKsummers'night, the first installment in a trilogy slated to be released over the next three years and his first album in eight years, arrives to give us an option worth keeping.
Maxwell's 13-year career has never coincided with any prevailing music trend. He was at the top of neo-soul, for instance, when he bowed out of music for nearly a decade. But Maxwell has continued to play his cards right, holding them when need be. For that, he deserves to be called a king of sorts—and we should welcome him back to the fold.
There's one important parallel between the careers of Michael and Maxwell: influence and the imitation that followed. Almost every R&B artist has tried to channel at least one of MJ's moves or notes. (Did you see that BET Awards show?) They've often done this through the use of production tools like Auto-Tune. To boot, many R&B vocalists (and hip-hop artists) also attempted to achieve the same type of vibrato that Maxwell delivered on classic ballads like "The Woman's Work."
Michael never really got his chance to get even with his imitators, but now that Maxwell has returned, we get songs like "Pretty Wings"" and "Fistful of Tears," both of which should intimidate any namby-pamby artists from coming out of the studio with anything as inert and anomic as the soulless voices that we've been hearing on the radio for two years. With "D.O.A.," perhaps Jay-Z expressed what the publicly soft-spoken Michael needed to say to his acolytes: If you can't sing without the machines, kids, find your talent. And, now, Maxwell has somehow saved us from having to have an argument about who's valid when Auto-Tune is dead by offering us three years of answers.
While it may seem appalling to associate the absolving nature of Maxwell's suite/ sweet pleas with anything by a 39-year-old rapper whose own return seems founded on penning a death shot to a hip-hop toy, remember that, before BLACKsummers'night, Maxwell's only musical offerings since 2001 were unannounced features on two different hip-hop tracks. On Nas' Street's Disciple, Maxwell sang a hook. In a rather odd pairing, he collaborated with New York producer The Alchemist (mostly known for supplying frightening, street-friendly beats to whoever can afford them) on one song.
BLACKsummers'night is Maxwell's brief, nine-song reassurance that, unlike D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill, he'll stay with us and share his break-up pains as long as we let him be who he wants to be. Or, as he recently told Uptown magazine, his seven-year absence stemmed from dissatisfaction with the notion of conditional celebrity. "I got tired of chasing my tail and other people's approval," he said.
If we've learned anything from the past month, it should be that the pressure one has to endure in courting public approval can lead to unfortunate ends. So, starting with Maxwell, let's prove to ourselves that we can appreciate some damn good singing for what it is.
And if it's bad singing, kill it.
Maxwell plays Durham Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 5. Tickets cost $51.50-$127.