The anticipation for a second album had already set in when Maxwell released his 1996 debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. Recognized today as a landmark contribution to the neo-soul genre, Maxwell’s longtime label Columbia Records was well aware of the LP’s positive reception upon release and wanted to replicate a slow-burning success with Embrya, the soul crooner’s 1998 follow-up.
“We are anticipating having really good sales in our first week but we want to do it correctly but deliberately slow it down. There’s a lot to be said about the way we ultimately ‘undress’ the project,” shared Michael Mauldin, former vice president of Columbia Records and former President of Columbia’s Urban Division. “There’s a lot to be said about the way we ultimately ‘undress’ the project,” he cautioned to Billboard.
For many, the slow reveal of Maxwell’s highly-requested sophomore release seemed unusual and somewhat unnecessary. His debut effort shattered all expectations, achieving platinum status within less than a year of its release and landing him the first Grammy nomination of his career. The LP’s lead single, “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” was certified gold and became a mega-hit on the Billboard Adult R&B Songs chart, peaking at No. 2.
Despite all the positive affirmations for a great album turnout, there were some legitimate reasons why Maxwell’s team would seek to tread ever so lightly on their second go-round. Upon release, it was evident that Maxwell’s prized jazz-funk sound had been totally upended with his new project and no longer blended as smoothly with the acoustic trends popular with neo-soul audiences at the time. Instead of playing it safe, Maxwell sonically flanked in the opposite direction with Embrya, but for what would prove to be good reasons.
A self-coined phrase, Embrya symbolized a “rebirthing” for the singer. He wasn’t interested in making a sequel to his debut. Instead, he wanted to create music that would stand out and, whether the test of time, like the soul legends he looked up to for inspiration.
“I have so much respect for what [Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite] was and the experience that inspired it than trying to duplicate that it is more insulting,” he shared with Tavis Smiley in November 1998.
“If I would’ve done a 10 times better [job] on the second album and it was a duplicate of Urban Hang Suite, I would have been more depressed and more unsure of who I was as an artist. I feel like for me it’s all about doing different things. It’s all about creating a broader scope of something that will one day be looked at upon as a body of work.”
Finding it “odd” that fans and critics pressure artists to release follow-up albums similar to their predecessors, Stuart Matthewman, famed English musician and longtime Maxwell collaborator, tells Rated R&B, “If [artists] didn’t evolve musically, we would never have artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Sade because they were constantly changing their sound and what they were writing about. And I think that’s really important for an artist.”
Despite the contrasts between Maxwell’s first and second albums, Matthewman stands firm on “everything that Maxwell does sounds like Maxwell.”
Matthewman continues, “It’s because of his voice, his lyrics, and the way he sings. He could sing a big band song or he could sing with a string quartet and it would sound like Maxwell. He did the cover of ‘This Woman’s Work’ and that was very different from Urban Hang Suite, but it sounded like Maxwell.”
Maxwell’s decision to go against the grain, and experiment with a new recipe of sounds and textures, found him at the mercy of consumers and critics. Embrya arrived on June 30, 1998, and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 with a commendable 149,000 copies sold in its first week. A swarm of mixed reviews came in. Some applauded Maxwell for his evolved lush sound, but few offered the praise conferred upon his debut. One observer called his writing “listless and unfocused,” while another commented that he “broke grounds” and grew “more confident” on each record.
The harsh comments foisted at Embrya left a permanent imprint on Maxwell for years to come. From declining to promote the album with a headlining tour and rarely performing the album cuts on subsequent tours, this experience left Maxwell struggling thereafter with the “tendency to be a perfectionist.” Maxwell let the scathing words of the critics get the best of him.
To help repair this R&B crooner’s crushed spirits and to give Maxwell’s underappreciated sophomore album a fair reevaluation on its own terms, Rated R&B has dug deep into the record bin to reveal the overlooked pros and exaggerated cons of the Embrya LP and its era.
We also spoke more with Matthewman on his contributions to Embrya, early criticisms of the work, and the album’s significance in retrospect.
A lot has been said about Maxwell’s Embrya, mostly negative and hardly constructive. Yet, the question is: did early reviewers genuinely tap into the mood opened up by this album? Were they overly haste in their dissatisfaction, secretly hoping out for an Urban Hang Suite 2?
The first single, “Luxury: Cococure,” from Embrya is a “goodbye to the ailment of a love affair” and “hello to internal luxury.” Ultimately, the pulsing tune describes a lover searching out more meaningful relationships after finding a way to preserve their heart in the face of heartbreak.
Maxwell debuted “Luxury” at the 1998 Essence Awards. Dressed in an all-white ensemble and rocking cool braids, the romantic singer brought out some funky dance moves as he sang an alternate version (not featured on the album) of the lead single for the audience and viewers at home. Two days ahead of Maxwell’s performance, the sensual ode was sent to radio as a promotional single. Although “Luxury: Cococure” missed the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Maxwell earned himself a top 20 single on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay (No. 16) chart. He also secured the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart.
The fifth track, “Drowndeep: Hula,” which is one of three songs co-written with Matthewman, took on the sound of mellow soul and blended it with Hawaiian styles. The latter sound wasn’t intentional, according to the British creator.
“It was just an accident that happened,” Matthewman says. “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.”
For “Matrimony: Maybe You,” parallel in theme but vocally and sonically different to “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)” on Hang Suite, gave Maxwell’s listeners the closest recollection of his debut work. It describes the real story of Maxwell developing strong feelings for a lady he initially accepted as only a casual hookup.
In the “Matrimony” video, Maxwell personifies Black excellence with endearing imagery of Miss Harlem, a local black beauty pageant of the ‘70s. Sure, Maxwell could’ve issued a more commercial visual; but instead, he gave us arguably one of the Blackest videos of the ‘90s and captured an important memory from his youthhood.
“Matrimony: Maybe You,” served as a follow-up to “Luxury,” and scored Maxwell’s top 20 success on the Adult R&B Songs, peaking at No. 14, and became a top 40 hit on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, earning a cool No. 38. The song also earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1999.
On Maxwell’s unbelievably deep cut “Know These Things: Shouldn’t You,” Matthewman remembers, “us layering up the sounds with the guitar. Everything on that record had this slightly watery sound to it. I think that [the song] sounded not out of tune but moving. Everything was slowly moving around like water.”
Like most of the songs on Embrya, Matthewman says, “[‘Know These Things: Shouldn’t You’] wasn’t incredibly thought out. We didn’t sit down and say, “Oh, we’re going to write this ballad and it’s going to be deep lyrically. It just happened.”
Maxwell even touched on his Latin roots on track three, “I’m You: You Are Me And We Are You.” He sang the entire first verse in Spanish before repeating the verse in English on the second run.
In hindsight, Embrya gave listeners everything (and then some) needed in a follow-up from Maxwell but this fact went remiss at the time. “It didn’t seem that weird what we were doing,” says Matthewman. “There wasn’t really no deep thought out plan about trying to change music or trying to change people’s views of music. We were just doing whatever we felt like at the time. But I guess at the time, maybe it was a little different for the American R&B audience.”
The Not So Good
Music in pop culture isn’t just about the sheer sound. There’s also an element of politics to it. Often an artist’s second album isn’t a replica or a more improved-upon version of the debut sound audiences gravitated to in the first place. The album could be diagnosed with the sophomore jinx.
In that sense, it wouldn’t be that left-field to admit that Maxwell’s Embrya did suffer a significant dose of this. While it doesn’t mean the collection of songs on the album wasn’t good, it does mean that the recordings didn’t live up to the high expectations set by his core fans and critics.
After reevaluating the album, scourging the critics’ reviews, and getting past the quirky system used to title the songs, the primary complaint Maxwell did not bring what we’ve come to know as his go-to musical self. In other words, the Brooklyn native wasn’t singing the familiar romantic croons from his previous albums, often describing vignettes of monogamous love in a well-packaged way. With soulful grooves at its foundation, Maxwell did build upon Urban Hang Suite, however, with funky, heavy basslines, hints of jazz and passionately picturesque content.
Contrary to his debut LP, where the theme was easy to comprehend and more translatable to one’s love life, the message on Embrya was oftentimes hard to decode. According to Maxwell, this decision was intentional. Maxwell described Embrya as “a story that unfolds,” to Billboard in May 1998. “I like people to apply themselves to my music. I don’t want it to be about who I’m dating or when I want to have kids. I don’t want the music to be about my life,” he added.
If we dialed back two years before the release of Embrya, however, Maxwell shared with VIBE. “People identify with honesty and risk.” What happened in between his first and second album exactly that caused him to be so guarded?
It wouldn’t be until 2016 that Maxwell revealed the painful answer. “I think I struggled to get that second album out. It wasn’t the most comfortable time with everyone focused on me and asking, ‘What was this?,’” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. “[So] what I did with that record, on purpose, was that it was the anti-Afro ’70s funk-soul record. It was much more esoteric and not formulaic in any way because I prepared myself for being able to do what I want creatively instead of a brand.”
Maxwell’s unexpected flank isolated his core fans. “It might sound funny but we write and do music to please ourselves and just hope that [we] have good taste and other people will like it,” says Matthewman. “To us, what we were doing sounded great. Everyone one was enthusiastic about playing on each of those tracks. There was no ego. We were in a good mood and it made us feel good at the time. If you think about radio or management or agents or fans, it will stifle the creative process.”
20 Years Later
Two decades ago, Maxwell released Embrya, an album many critics and listeners wrote off as an improper follow-up to his double-platinum debut Urban Hang Suite. While his breakout debut is indeed considered to be an R&B classic, Embrya remains a little more innovative.
Simply put, if Maxwell had released this album today or even as early as 2007, it would have probably received the exact same praise that urban/alternative releases receive today. In a way then, Embrya foreshadowed the rise of artists like Kenna, Miguel, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Matthewman nods in agreement: “I think [Embrya] would be fine right now. There are so many different styles, particularly in R&B, out at the moment. It’s the regular pop stuff and then it’s Leon Bridges,” he says.
Of course, Maxwell has an unmistakably different singing style than his offsprings; but the spellbinding production and queer themes of their projects and his LP Embrya are similar. Influenced by electronic synths, lush and relaxed vocal arrangements, erotism, spirituality and other unconventional vibes, their vibrant songs all run in the same circle.
For Matthewman, Maxwell stands out amongst his equals and successors for one unique reason. “Often, the very first thing Maxwell sings ends up what’s on the record. It just comes to him. He’s very gifted that way.”
Just imagine Maxwell’s Embrya going up against albums from Frank Ocean (Channel Orange), Chris Brown (Fortune), and Miguel (Kaleidoscope Dream) for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards. I have a good idea who would have won, and the color isn’t orange.
Although Miguel, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean evolved and slightly improved on what Maxwell introduced with Embrya, the lashings their forefather took from harsh music spectators and fans haven’t (and won’t) gone in vain.
A pioneer has to be born somewhere, and I guess 1998 was Maxwell’s dawning.
Revisit Embrya below.