“Drowndeep: Hula” by Maxwell (1998)

Imagine yourself on a tropical island. A breeze is blowing by, all you can smell is clean ocean air and the faint scent of fruit. Feel the sand between your toes. Inhale deeply. Then imagine that all this is happening, and Maxwell is singing to you, while a band plays a lilting, vaguely Hawaiian-sounding tune behind you. Exhale. You have just imagined Maxwell’s “Drowndeep: Hula”.

“Drowndeep” is romantic. It’s sensual. It’s atmospheric. It’s sexy. It’s all of the things that make Maxwell great, and it’s the standout track on a divisive album; Embrya, Max’s sophomore effort. 

Maxwell was coming off the success of his debut album and had a bit more artistic license, so Embrya became a loose concept album with pretentious-ass song titles like “I’m You And You Are Me And We Are You (Part Me And You)”. The album had a dubby/spacey/atmospheric vibe that felt more in line with Portishead or Seal than traditional R&B. It went Platinum during a time when damn near everything went Platinum, but it didn’t build momentum, and reviews were largely savage. A year later, he collaborated with R. Kelly on “Fortunate” and his capital was replenished in the marketplace. For all its pretentiousness, though, Embrya is not a bad album. It’s way more obtuse than Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, but I say it’s held up well over the last two decades, and you can cut a fairly clear path between it and current work by artists like Syd. Hell, you could make the case that Embrya was ahead of its time, as most of what they call PBR&B owes a pretty serious debt to the sound of this album.

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