Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
|Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite|
|Studio album by Maxwell|
|Released||April 2, 1996|
|Recorded||1994–95; Electric Lady Studios, RPM, Sorcerer, Chung King Studios, New York City; CRC, Chicago|
|Producer||MUSZE (Maxwell), P.M., Stuart Matthewman|
|Singles from Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite|
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite is the debut album of American recording artist Maxwell, released on April 2, 1996, by Columbia Records. Recording sessions for the album took place during 1994 to 1995 at Electric Lady Studios, RPM, Sorcerer, and Chung King Studios in New York City and CRC Studios in Chicago. The album contains a mellow, groove-based sound and incorporates elements of funk, jazz, smooth soul, and quiet storm. A concept album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite is composed of a song cycle that focuses on an adult romance, which Maxwell based on his own personal experience.
After being shelved for nearly a year, due to label issues and record executives' doubts of its sales potential, the album was released to considerable commercial and critical success. Despite an initial lack of mainstream interest, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite experienced a boost in sales with the help of the single "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)", and within a year it had sold one million copies. The album received generally positive reviews from music critics, who praised it as a departure from the mainstream-oriented R&B of the time, and it earned Maxwell several accolades and comparisons to soul singer Marvin Gaye.
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite had a considerable impact on Maxwell's career, helping elevate his reputation to that of a sex symbol and a serious performer on the music scene. Maxwell has been credited with shaping the "neo soul" movement that rose to prominence during the late 1990s. Along with D'Angelo's Brown Sugar (1995) and Erykah Badu's Baduizm (1997), Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite has been recognized by music writers for providing commercial visibility to neo soul. It has been cited by critics as Maxwell's greatest work and remains as his best-selling release with domestic shipments of two million copies.
After receiving a low-cost Casio keyboard from a friend, Brooklyn, New York-native Maxwell began composing material at age 17. Raised in the borough's East New York-section, Maxwell's previous musical experience included his beginnings as a singer in the congregation of his Baptist church, which had become an integral part of his life after the death of his father in a plane crash. Already a fan of what he described as "jheri curl soul", which was the trademark of early 1980s R&B acts such as Patrice Rushen, S.O.S. Band and Rose Royce, Maxwell began to teach himself to play a variety of instruments. According to him, the R&B of the early 1980s contained "the perfect combination of computerized instrumentation with a live feel", and that the genre's dynamics later became lost due to the influence of hip hop on R&B. Despite facing ridicule from classmates for being shy and awkward, he progressed and continued to develop his musical abilities.
At 19, Maxwell began performing throughout the New York club circuit while supporting himself by waiting tables during the day. He was able to gain access to a 24 track recording studio and started to record songs for a demo tape, which he circulated among his friends. The demo engendered interest, and his official debut concert performance at Manhattan nightclub Nell's drew a crowd. During the next two years, Maxwell wrote and recorded over three hundred songs and played frequently at small venues throughout New York City. Maxwell's performances continued to draw interest and increase the buzz about him, and he was called "the next Prince" by a writer from Vibe magazine who attended one of his shows. After earning a considerable reputation, Maxwell signed a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1994. He adopted his middle name as a moniker out of respect for his family's privacy.
Recording sessions for the album took place in 1994 and 1995 at Electric Lady Studios, RPM Studios, Sorcerer Studios and Chung King Studios in New York City, and at CRC Studios in Chicago, Illinois. Its production was primarily handled by record producer Peter Mokran, credited as P.M. and Maxwell who is credited as "MUSZE", a play on the word muse. Columbia executives reluctantly gave Maxwell creative freedom in his contract and were hesitant to allow him produce the album alone. They assigned Chicago-based, English producer and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Matthewman to the project, but he only produced the first few tracks. Matthewman had previously worked with English R&B and jazz group Sade. During the recording sessions, Maxwell worked extensively with collaborators, including Matthewman, soul singer-songwriter Leon Ware, and funk guitarist Melvin "Wah-Wah Watson" Ragin. Prior to working with Maxwell, Ware and Ragin were collaborators of soul musician Marvin Gaye; Ware had produced and composed most of Gaye's tenth album I Want You (1976).
Production assistance and instrumentation from such veteran session musicians contributed significantly to Urban Hang Suite's vintage overtones and classic R&B influences. Matthewman and Maxwell played several instruments during recording for the album, including guitar, drums, saxophone, bass, and keyboards. They also composed three of the album's eleven tracks together. After the recording sessions ended in March 1995, Urban Hang Suite was mixed by P.M. (Peter Mokran) and audio engineer Mike Pela, after which it was mastered by Tom Coyne at Sterling Sound in New York City.
Music and lyrics
The song was co-written by Leon Ware and is about a man's affection for a woman.
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Although one of his earliest influences was early 1980s urban R&B, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was inspired by the sounds and themes of classic soul artists such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, Stevie Wonder and Prince . According to Prince biographer Alex Hahn, Maxwell adopts the singer's sound and style, particularly from songs such as "Do Me, Baby" (1982) and "Pink Cashmere" (1993), while The New York Times's Amy Linden said that he "melds a soft-spoken singing style with the fluid, spacious grooves often associated with the cocktail funk of Sade". Critics have also noted Maxwell's falsetto singing voice, and the music's atmospheric, funky instrumentation, featuring mellow horns, wah wah guitar, Rhodes piano and deep, articulate bass lines. The tempo of the songs slowly diminishes through the course of the album's songs. One critic attributes the tempo decrease to Stuart Matthewman's production. The album contains elements of funk, jazz, contemporary R&B and quiet storm, and it is mostly composed of sexual balladry and slow jams.
A concept album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite features song cycle that focuses on an adult romance from first encounter to its dramatic conclusion. Over the course of the album, Maxwell details a single passionate encounter. Throughout, it examines the concept with lyrical themes of love, sex and spirituality, as well as issues such as commitment, marriage and monogamy. Maxwell has described the themes and his thoughts on romance as "idealistic" on Urban Hang Suite. The album has been noted for the sincerity of Maxwell's lyrics, which depict a man's weakness and vulnerability to a woman's love. In an interview with music journalist Mark Coleman, Maxwell cited his respect for African-American women as the inspiration for the respectful nature of his lyrics towards women. Maxwell told Interview's Dimitri Erhlich that his main muse for Urban Hang Suite was women, and further elaborated on his inspiration, stating:
|“||I think creativity is innately feminine. Obviously women at 12 or 13 get either cursed or blessed with the fact that they're vessels for human life to come through. And that's what music--what creativity--is to me. I guess being a man is a truly physical state and mentally it's a little bit limiting. But what I'm talking about is not a person's 'female side' or 'male side'. The only way I can pay homage to that feminine thing--not necessarily women but to what they represent as creative forces--is by getting artistic and making music.||”|
He also cited his grandmother and other West Indian women he knows as the inspiration behind his romantic notions. Music writers have noted the album as being inspired by or based on an unsuccessful affair in Maxwell's life, as well as the music of Marvin Gaye. Maxwell said in an interview, "I'm so innately romantic and always have been, and I went through this particular romantic experience and based my album on that". The album's liner notes have a dedication from Maxwell to his "musze", stating "I could never have done this without you".
The song was co-written by composer Itaal Shur and features a mid-tempo funk sound and gospel overtones.
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The album opens with an instrumental track, "The Urban Theme", which begins with the sound of a stylus dropping on a vinyl record. The track's prominent funk sound is reminiscent of the music of the Brand New Heavies. "Welcome" features the album's prominent sexual vibe, and contains a quiet storm sound and saxophone. The two opening tracks both contain prominent funk influence. Roni Sarig wrote that their "early '80s full-band R&B and jazz pop grooves are reminiscent of Maze's brightest days and Steely Dan's coolest nights." The funk-influenced "Sumthin' Sumthin'", which was co-written by Leon Ware, contains a strong, rhythmically-tight groove created by the implementation of the "pocket" bass technique. Co-written by songwriter Itaal Shur, "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" opens with a funky groove and bass line, and features a forceful rhythm and rough funk sound. The song contains strong gospel overtones with references to God in the lyrics. The song has been covered by gospel artists such as Londa Larmond and LaShun Pace.
Cited by Blender magazine as one of the Greatest Make-Out Songs of All Time, "...Til the Cops Come Knockin'" contains sexually-explicit lyrics and a slower tempo than its preceding tracks. It also contains the sound of distant sirens and "grinding porn-movie" guitar licks. The songs "Whenever Wherever Whatever" and "Lonely's the Only Company (I & II)" are ballads that contain themes of vulnerability to love. "Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)" completes the album's concept of monogamy with lyrics depicting a marriage proposal from Maxwell. Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite closes with the instrumental track "The Suite Theme". While the length of the track is listed as 13:47 minutes, the song ends after 6:00 minutes, followed by a period of silence, before resuming with a hidden track, which consists of 1:41 minutes of an instrumental version of "...Til the Cops Come Knockin'". Both the hidden track and "The Suite Theme" are available as individual downloads in the iTunes Store.
Release and promotion
After production for Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was completed in 1995, the finished product was presented to Columbia Records in Spring of that same year. However, it was shelved for nearly a year, due to issues with Columbia's management, the label's extensive reorganization and record executives' doubts of the album's commercial potential. The marketplace dominance of hip hop soul at the time of its delay contrasted the monogamous themes and vintage style of Urban Hang Suite, which may have been interpreted as old-fashioned.
Columbia executives also feared that listeners would not comprehend Maxwell's romantic concept and image. Maxwell made matters worse by refusing to allow his picture to be placed on the album's front cover; instead he preferred to have the track listing and other pertinent information about the album in place of his photo. On the issue of the cover, Maxwell later stated that "I wanted people to have the facts: the title, the selections and the fact that you had to basically buy it. I wanted people to come to the music and not base any opinion on the image". The label reached a compromise and used a promotional shot of him as the back cover, taken by photographer Eric Johnson. The album's cover artwork features a picture of a pair of golden women's shoes on the floor of a hotel room, with the bar coding prominently displayed.
In the period before its release, Maxwell wrote and demoed songs for a subsequent studio album, and embarked on an African American college tour with Groove Theory and the Fugees. Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was eventually released April 2, 1996 on Columbia Records.
Initially, the album was slow to obtain commercial interest. On April 20, 1996, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite made its chart debut at number 38 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The first single released, "...Til the Cops Come Knockin'", debuted on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks at number 87 in May 1996. Peaking at number 79, the single spent 12 weeks on the chart. The album's second single, "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)", debuted on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks in August 1996 at number 11, eventually peaking number eight and spending 29 weeks on the chart. It spent eighteen weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 36 on September 28, 1996. The single also peaked at number 25 on the Rhythmic Top 40 and at number five on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales. It received extensive play on radio stations, as did the song "Whenever Wherever Whatever", despite not having been issued as a single;
The third single from Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, "Sumthin' Sumthin'", peaked at number 22 on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales. An alternate version of the song, titled "Sumthin' Sumthin': Mellosmoothe (Cut)", was released as a single from the soundtrack album to the film Love Jones (1997). The soundtrack album's single peaked at number 23 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart. The album's fourth and final single, "Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)", entered the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay component chart in May 1997, peaking at number 64. During August to October 1996, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite experienced chart growth on both the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Billboard 200, peaking at number eight on the former and at number 36 on the latter. It spent seventy-eight weeks on the Billboard 200 chart. It became a Top 30 hit in the United Kingdom.
The gold-certified single "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)", which had shipped 500,000 copies in the US by October 1996, has been considered by music writers to be a significant factor in the album's increased commercial interest at the time. On September 17, 1996, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). By 1997, the album had shipped in excess of one million copies in the United States, and it earned platinum status from the RIAA.
|Los Angeles Times|||
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite received generally positive reviews from music critics. It was called a "masterpiece" by several critics that viewed it as a departure from the mainstream, hip hop-oriented R&B of the time. Maxwell was compared to soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Marvin Gaye and Prince. OJ Lima of Vibe praised Maxwell's musical style, describing the album as a "refreshing detour from hump-bouncin' '90s R&B." Dimitri Ehrlich of Entertainment Weekly wrote that Maxwell "smooths hip-hop's and soul's edges, proving that black dance music doesn't automatically mean ghetto culture." Jim Farber of the New York Daily News called it "one of the few modern sex albums to offer a sense of succor". Music journalist Kerika Fields wrote that Maxwell "is revolutionizing R&B music while reminiscing its past" on Urban Hang Suite. The album received four out of four stars from Connie Johnson of the Los Angeles Times, who commented that "Maxwell manages to sound sweet, soothing and sexy at the same time." Rolling Stone's David Fricke compared its seductive themes and sound to the work of MFSB and Barry White, and wrote that Maxwell "has a talent for sweet talk. And marathon foreplay." Fricke also compared Maxwell's concept for the album to that of Marvin Gaye's double album Here, My Dear (1978), which dealt with Gaye's divorce, and perceived that Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was reworked as a treatise on monogamy.
American Visions writer Michael George praised Maxwell's songwriting and stated "In an age where young, black artist are criticized (often rightly so) for misogynistic lyrics, Maxwell's focus on commitment is refreshing. But more important, he can flat-out sing." Urban Latino called it "one of the most soulful releases of the year", and compared Maxwell's music to "the soul of Curtis Mayfield, the poetics of Beni More and the stage presence of Michael Jackson, pre-Thriller?". Yahoo! Music's Dan Leroy called the album an "astonishing debut" and praised Maxwell's vintage influence. Daryl Easlea of BBC Online praised him for "the simple economy" of his vocals and the album's "sophisticated, accessible R&B". Stephen Cook of Allmusic wrote that it is "destined to become a classic contemporary R&B disc." In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, Arion Berger stated, "[Maxwell's] laid-back romanticism has heat at its core and a powerful groove that grounds the music: By varying the push of the beat but retaining the central mellow vibe, Maxwell creates a sound as felicitous on headphones as it is in the bedroom." However, music journalist Peter Shapiro panned Maxwell's lyrics and called it "overly mannered pastiche of early 70s soul [...] all style and no substance." In his consumer guide for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau gave the album a "dud" rating, indicating "a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought."
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was ranked as one of the year's top-10 best albums by Time, Rolling Stone and USA Today. Nick Coleman of The Independent cited it as the "sexiest record of 1996", and Q magazine called it "one of the very best R&B records of the '90s." The album was ranked number 20 on The Village Voice's 1996 Pazz and Jop critics' poll. It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album at the 39th Grammy Awards, losing the award to The Tony Rich Project's Words (1996). Urban Hang Suite earned Maxwell three NAACP Image Award nominations, and at the 1997 Soul Train Awards, he won both awards for Best Male R&B/Soul Album and Single (for "Ascension"), as well as Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist. In selecting "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" at number five on its list of the Top 100 Soul/R&B Songs, SoulBouce.com called it a "modern soul classic". Stylus Magazine ranked Urban Hang Suite number six on its list of the Top Ten Albums from 1996.
Along with musicians D'Angelo and Erykah Badu, Maxwell has been credited with helping to shape the "neo soul" movement that rose to prominence during the late 1990s. Along with D'Angelo's Brown Sugar (1995) and Badu's Baduizm (1997), Urban Hang Suite has been recognized by writers for beginning neo soul's popularity and helping the genre obtain commercial visibility. However, in contrast to D'Angelo, Maxwell was more conventional in his approach on his debut album. The term "neo soul" was penned in the late 1990s by record executive Kedar Massenburg, who managed both D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. According to writer Peter Shapiro, the term itself refers to a musical style that obtains its influence from more classical styles, and bohemian musicians seeking a soul revival, while setting themselves apart from the more contemporary sounds of their mainstream R&B counterparts.
In commenting on the "new soul revival" in music, Maxwell told Entertainment Weekly in 1997 that "everything out there musically was inspired or influenced by something from the past. It's not about creating some super-fresh new thing. If it doesn't lend itself to your history, how is it going to extend to your future? That's what's really brilliant about looking into children's eyes—you can see their parents in them." The Washington Post called him "the Marvin Gaye of the '90s". Its columnist wrote that Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite "heralded the arrival of a top-of-the-class graduate of the old school of soul, one who could sing about romantic aspiration and tribulation with heart-wrenching emotion. It was as if the aesthetic that Gaye ascribed to — 'music that has feeling, hope and meaning – all the things people are looking for' — had been rediscovered after a long, hedonistic interlude." According to writer Kerika Fields, Maxwell received an overwhelmingly positive reaction to his debut album from music listeners due to their weariness of contemporary black music's predictability.
Maxwell's role in writing and producing the album exhibited a level of artistic control by an R&B artist that was uncommon in the recording industry at the time. On Maxwell's emergence with Urban Hang Suite, writer Carol Brennan cited him, along with the Fugees, D'Angelo and Tony Rich, as neo soul musicians that "exhibited the identifying characteristics of this new breed of R&B artists: lyrics that give voice to intense personal expression, creative control over the music, and a unexpectedly successful debut." In his book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America (2006), Craig Hansen Werner lists Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite as important in neo soul, including it along with R. Kelly's R. (1998), D'Angelo's Voodoo (2000), the Young Disciples' Road to Freedom (1991), Aaliyah's self-titled final release (2001), Faith Evans' Keep the Faith (1998) and "anything by Seal" as among "the starter kit" for the genre. In Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003), writer Mark Anthony Neal cited the album as one of the most popular of neo soul recordings, along with Musiq Soulchild's Aijuswanaseing (2000) and India.Arie's Acoustic Soul (2001), that helped to redefine the boundaries and contours of black pop and R&B.
Subsequent work by Maxwell
The unexpected commercial and critical success of Urban Hang Suite helped establish Maxwell as a serious performer in the music scene. He was described by writers and music critics as "part of a new generation of smooth soul crooners", and he obtained a reputation among fans as a sex symbol, which according to one writer, was due to his "wild" afro and "extravagant cheekbones" . His sex icon-status was also due in part to his concert performances in promotion of the album, which attracted many female fans. His sold-out concert at Radio City Music Hall was praised by a Rolling Stone columnist, who compared Maxwell to the likes of Prince, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Beverly and Luther Vandross. The columnist lauded Maxwell's showmanship, "down-to-earth" attitude and body movements including dropping down to his knees, swiveling his hips in a "slow grind", and crawling across the stage while singing. In a profile of Maxwell for Essence, music journalist Jeannine Amber compared his showmanship to that of Teddy Pendergrass after attending one of Maxwell's concerts. According to some writers, Maxwell's appeal to female fans is due to the respectful and sincere nature of his lyrics to women. In 1997, Rolling Stone voted him Best R&B Artist. The album's success also earned Maxwell his own MTV Unplugged special, which was a popular honor to receive during the 1990s. In a profile of Maxwell for Contemporary Musician (1998), writer Mary Alice Adams examined the personal impact of his debut album on fans, stating:
|“||To his fans, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite lures them into the heart of a romantic encounter that ends with a marriage proposal. The honest, sincere sexuality has struck a collective nerve with many in his audience who have built, renewed, or refined relationships based on the many messages found in the songs from Urban Hang Suite ... Maxwell's emotive power seduced not only significant numbers of both the urban and pop audiences but critics as well.||”|
In contrast to his Urban Hang Suite, Maxwell's following studio albums received comparably modest reviews from music critics. Despite selling one million copies, his second album Embrya (1998) received mixed criticism for its more indulgent sound. With its internal focus and esoteric grooves, the album served as a departure for Maxwell, who did not regret risking his reputation with urban listeners for a more challenging record. Embrya experienced a critical backlash similar to that of other neo soul artists' work that broke their previous releases' successful formulas in favor of more compelling projects. Maxwell's third album Now (2001) became a platinum-seller and served as a return to the more straightforward romantic atmosphere of Urban Hang Suite. Despite receiving mostly positive criticism, Now did not parallel the acclaim of Urban Hang Suite and, much like Embrya, received some negative criticism towards Maxwell's songwriting. In 2002, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite earned double platinum status from the RIAA, after shipments of two million copies in the US. Following an eight-year sabbatical, Maxwell resurfaced with his fourth studio album BLACKsummers'night (2009), which was originally slated for 2004, serving as the first release of a trilogy of albums by Maxwell. The album received general acclaim from music critics. Urban Hang Suite has been cited by writers and music critics as Maxwell's greatest work, and remains his best-selling release.
|1.||"The Urban Theme"||MUSZE (Maxwell)||MUSZE||2:42|
|2.||"Welcome"||MUSZE, Stuart Matthewman||MUSZE, Stuart Matthewman||5:18|
|3.||"Sumthin' Sumthin'"||MUSZE, Leon Ware||MUSZE||4:18|
|4.||"Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)"||MUSZE, Itaal Shur||MUSZE||5:46|
|5.||"Dancewitme"||MUSZE, Hod David||MUSZE||6:15|
|6.||"...Til the Cops Come Knockin'"||MUSZE, David||MUSZE, P.M.||6:56|
|7.||"Whenever Wherever Whatever"||MUSZE, Stuart Matthewman||MUSZE, Stuart Matthewman||3:45|
|8.||"Lonely's the Only Company (I & II)"||MUSZE, Stuart Matthewman||MUSZE, Stuart Matthewman||6:22|
|10.||"Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)"||MUSZE, Hod David||MUSZE, P.M.||4:48|
|11.||"The Suite Theme" (ends at 6:00; hidden track at 12:06)||MUSZE||MUSZE, Federico Pena||13:47|
Credits for Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite adapted from liner notes.
Guitars: Wah Wah Watson, Stuart Matthewman, H and MUSZE
|Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite||
Produced or co-produced by MUSZE (Maxwell) with Stuart Matthewman or P.M.
|1||"The Urban Theme"||
Arranged and produced by MUZSE
Written and produced by MUSZE and Stuart Matthewman
Written by MUSZE and Leon Ware
|4||"Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)"||
Written by MUSZE and Itaal Shir
Written by MUSZE and Hod David
|6||"...Til the Cops Come Knockin'"||
Written by MUSZE and Hod David
|7||"Whenever Wherever Whatever"||
Written and produced by MUSZE and Stuart Matthewman
|8||"Lonely's the Only Company (I & II)"||
Written and produced by MUSZE and Stuart Matthewman
Written by MUSZE
|10||"Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)"||
Written by MUSZE and Hod David
|11||"The Suite Theme"||
Produced by MUSZE
|U.S. Billboard 200||37|
|U.S. Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums||8|
|U.S. Billboard Top Heatseekers||2|
|Billboard Hot 100||Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks||Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales|
|1996||"...Til the Cops Come Knockin'"||—||79||—|
|1996||"Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)"||36||8||5|
|1997||"Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)"||—||—||—|
|"—" denotes a release that did not chart.|
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