‘There are not enough panties on my stage tonight,” declares Maxwell, to shrieks of near-homicidal lust. He has interrupted the intro to a song called ” ‘Til the Cops Come Knockin’ ” (which is not about homemade crystal-meth production) to lodge this complaint, and soon, indeed, he is proudly brandishing an enormous pair of feminine unmentionables. (Remember the “Giant Underpants!” episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? Like that, but sexy.) “You got some junk in your trunk, girl,” he notes, appreciatively. “I don’t mind.” The shrieks of near-homicidal lust intensify. ” ‘Til the Cops Come Knockin’ ” resumes. And soon, Brooklyn’s finest exiled soul singer is crawli—goodness gracious, he appears now to be actually humping the floor.
Still, this is merely the second-most salacious moment of Thursday night’s sold-out, absurdly libidinous Radio City Music Hall spectacular: Earlier, during a song titled “Everwanting: To Want You to Want,” Maxwell had engaged in fairly graphic public coitus with his microphone stand. Missionary position. He was not on top. “He’s freakin’ a microphone, man!” my usher declared, incredulous, nearly drowned out by the ecstatic din.
No, he has not released an album in seven years. We nonetheless welcomed the prodigal son back home unconditionally, and he led us straight to the bedroom, which is, frankly, kind of strange. His smooth, sultry 1996 debut, the instructively titled Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, had helped portend the rise of neo-soul, a label that all its alleged proponents—D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, etc.—eventually came to despise. He got a wee bit pretentious on 1998’s Embrya—consider the song title “I’m You: You Are Me and We Are You (Pt. Me and You)”—but mostly atoned three years later with Now, another plain-spoken boudoir opus (“Turn the lights down low,” etc.) that climaxes with our host howling Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” in an unearthly, bombastic falsetto, as though he’d decided to have a baby of his own.
Then he disappeared. Occupational hazard. After 2000’s cataclysmically orgasmic Voodoo, D’Angelo had vanished as well, and the intervening years were cruel indeed: A fantastic recent Spin article charted D’s plunge from a diamond-cut sex god to an overweight, chemically addled shut-in wreck, felled by a complex assortment of demons, but among them, apparently, his ravenous fans’ demands that he flaunt his perfect ass instead of his precious art. (A dilemma every single female artist in the history of the music industry might recognize.) Maxwell, and his own vanishing act, was cited as supporting evidence: “Some close to him suggest that, like D’Angelo, he’s been wrestling with a rather ill-fitting public image as a sex god.” Two accompanying photos of Max drove that point home: a 2001 shot of a lushly maned smoldering beefcake, and a 2007 near-mug-shot, his hair demurely buzzed, wearing Clark Kent glasses and a stately plaid shirt.
And now he’s back, commanding a tuxedoed-up porno-soul backing band at Radio City, himself lavished in formal wear, his bowtie undone in advance, freaking a mic stand. Forget all that, then. He’d started us off with Now‘s “Get to Know Ya,” which makes his motives explicit:
They be tryin’ to bring you flowers
But you prefer your roses blue
Others were tryin’ to get in your trousers
I was just tryin’ to get into you
Oh, go on. “Get your asses up out them damn seats!” he bellows, and everyone does; he grabs his then-virginal mic stand by the base and points it out into the crowd, and everyone screams out the choruses. This is a crowd-pleasing greatest-hits deal: We want to hear “Somethin’ Somethin’,” and we are obliged. Maxwell’s endlessly delayed new record, Black Summers’ Night, has now apparently mutated into a trilogy, which is not generally regarded in the industry as A Good Sign, but he offers only a few morsels therein, and those as sheepishly and apologetically as possible. “You don’t wanna hear no brand-new stuff,” he insists. “Play what I know. Play what I bought. Put that record out, and then we can talk.” (After one unfamiliar tune, he adds: “Thank you so much for dealing with that.”) By available evidence, he doesn’t intend to reinvent the wheel so much as once again provide four wheels and a backseat in which to (politely) freak nasty. (It’s luxurious, PG-13 slow-jam r&b to the core.) His most explicit let’s-do-it-all-night tunes are loaded with caveats (“If it’s all right with you”) that serve as formal waivers and declarations of consent. You know what you’re getting into when he announces his intention to get into you.
So, justifiable fears aside, Maxwell does not seem to be shying from his sex-god persona or plotting some catastrophically pretentious Terence Trent D’Arby comeback triumph. Moreover, he is clearly enjoying himself, bounding about the stage and up into Radio City’s balconies with a childlike exuberance, his dance moves half-sexy and half-goofy, a tremendously pleasing combination of Barack Obama and Wayne Brady. The shrieks of homicidal lust clearly thrill him; sating the crowd’s appetite for a long encore, he drags his band through a rambling, abruptly aborted, but oddly appealing jam clearly designed to keep him onstage as long as possible. He is comfortable, or at least more comfortable, with the notion that not everyone reads him for the articles. Back during the underwear-demanding, floor-humping portion of the evening, he’d pampered us without quite pandering: “I wanna take you to the living room and live in you,” he purred. “I wanna take you to the bathroom and get you dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty.”