Most love-balladeers aim for the heart; neo-soul crooners Maxwell and Bilal want you for your mind. Maxwell's laid-back CD Now lacks the fire and immediacy its title seems to promise, but the immaculate production and Maxwell's thoughtful, nuanced vocals raise the album above standard R.-and-B. fare. Bilal's smart debut, 1st Born Second, has an admirably adventurous spirit, blending hip-hop, scat, reggae and rock. On a few tracks, Bilal's eclectic musical vision flies out of control, but on the best songs, such as Sometimes, he conjures up gritty grooves that keep his spacey melodies tethered securely to planet Earth.
--By Christopher John Farley