Maxwell on His New Album and R&B in a Post-Prince World

Maxwell on His New Album and R&B in a Post-Prince World
Photo: Eric Johnson
Maxwell is mindful of mortality — the passing of Prince has the R&B/soul singer thinking about longevity, legacy and influence.
 
"It worries me. Prince passing away is a weird chapter closing, man. Like, wow he's not around. He's like one of the baddest musicians and creative visionaries ever," he tells Exclaim!
 
Now 43 years old — his debut Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was released way back in 1996 — his new project blackSUMMERS'night (out now on Sony) is the second in a trilogy and his fifth full-length effort overall. Even after all these years, there's always a sense of how a new album is going to be received, especially in a post-Prince world.
 
Prince's recorded music will be around for generations, but it's important to maintain that musical legacy, according to Maxwell — important to people to realize that musicianship and songwriting is still alive, and that instrumentation is still in.

In that sense, Maxwell is perhaps the last of his kind. Stemming from the "neo-soul" tagged era of the late '90s, he was a key component of that dreamy era of major label R&B, where artistry seemed limitless and soul sounds were prominent in the mainstream. Through the years, the New York City native has been able to maintain a signature sound that's both exploratory and traditional. He's effectively reached that Sade status — untouchable in a sense, accessible in others, all while maintaining an unassailable platinum-selling brand. Even though it doesn't felt like it to him.
 
"It's nice to be able to write from a place of not feeling famous," he says. "I like to work from a place of that, from the perspective of we're still trying out here. Trying very hard. I like feeling like losing when I'm winning."
 
While remaining in his own musical lane, Maxwell remains plugged in. "Sometimes I like trap [music]," he notes. "I'm out in the clubs. I listen to music. I see the ever-changing tapestry of what's going on in music."
 
Everyone is always so confident in today's music, he muses, "but we are all kind of freaking out, most of us. Freaking out how we are going to continue, about someone we love…" It's okay to feel vulnerable, to be open about feelings, especially for men of colour, he adds.
 
Touted as a trilogy, the project was conceived back in 2001; he's recorded hundreds of unreleased songs in that time. The first album in in the trilogy, BLACKsummers'night, came out seven years ago. The BPM remains on a slow to midtempo wavelength; tracks like "Lake by the Ocean," "Listen Hear" and "Hostage" hew to a fresh yet familiar vibes of verve and vulnerability.
 
This particular record was developed primarily in New York with longtime collaborator/co-producer Hod David along with names like Stuart Matthewman of Sade. It's unknown when the third one might drop after this one.
 
"We're just picking ones that match what we're trying to do collectively as an album," Maxwell explains. "I don't know if that's what they are going to think [about blackSUMMERS'night]. Hopefully [my] record is realistic for people."
 
His own 20-year musical legacy is something he's only recently started thinking about. And it was during the creation of this record that he started going back to listen to his old stuff.

"I was surprised about it — that making music was so much fun to me and people responded to it," he says.

But success at this stage, he notes, is in touching people's lives and having them affected by what they hear. "People come to the shows knowing the songs. That's when my heart is open."
 
Check out the video for "Lake by the Ocean" below.