Maxwell

Now (Columbia)

Soul brothers can't win for losing. While sisters can share the throne--there seems to be plenty of room at the top for Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray, Mary J. Blige and even rising divas like Mya--in the guy's court, as in the Highlanderseries, there's only room for one.

The Maxwell that would be king may have already enjoyed his reign back in 1996, when Maxwell's Urban Hang Suitemade old-school R&B trouble men wonder what's going on; here was a sensitive soul man tough enough for the guys to like and silky enough to loosen the ladies. But after D'Angelo worked his Voodoo last year, and with R. Kelly's "Fiesta" showing no signs of going away, Maxwell best be worrying about controlling his domain. His sophomore slump, Embrya, sounded too much like Enya and was almost as pretentious, but Maxwell backtracks a bit with his latest, Now, a less conceptually ambitious effort, but ripe with sophisticated songs.

Perfectly aware that he butters his bread with the romantic slow jam, Maxwell leads off Now with the no-frills single "Get to Know Ya," a straight-up sax-funk affair over which he drapes his voice like a familiar lover. Better in that department is "For Lovers Only," a smoky, down-tempo ode to true romance that'll melt hearts when he croons, "This ain't for the ones/That just love for fun/That just love and run."

Still, Maxwell's greatest gift is his ability to take a late-'60s soul approach and make it feel fresh and clean, as when his sexy-funky falsetto wraps its lithe limbs around a crackling groove in "NoOne," or in the guitar-powered "Temporary Nite." It's a strong comeback, but you hope he's keeping an eye on the young anointed one, Craig David. If Maxwell decides to dabble in David's thoroughly modern electronic approach to R&B, it's gonna be a bloody battle in the coming years.

 
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