Advertisement

Maxwell, performing in Baltimore Saturday, still happily operates left of R&B's center

R&B singer Maxwell is quietly having a great year, thanks to his joint tour with Mary J. Blige and the success of his album, "blackSUMMERS'night."

On the phone from Copenhagen, Denmark, recently, the R&B singer Maxwell had plenty to tout from his 2016 — the year he later described as "the greatest Christmas present I've ever gotten." A discussion was timely, given it had only been a few months since he released his fifth album, "blackSUMMERS'night," to commercial and critical success.

Maxwell's attention, however, was focused on a woman — as has been the Grammy winner's wont since the Brooklyn, N.Y., native helped usher in R&B's influential neo-soul movement of the mid-1990s. This time, the 43-year-old Lothario heaped praise on his tour partner, Mary J. Blige. (The duo is performing throughout Europe, and kicks off their U.S. tour Saturday at Royal Farms Arena.)

Advertisement

"You don't realize how many records this girl's got! And you're about to step out after her set, and you have to rework your whole [expletive] because Mary's a beast!" Maxwell said, sounding more like a fan than a co-headliner. "I've just showered her with so much love to make her feel good because she's such an important figure."

His affection and celebration of women won't surprise any listeners who first discovered the enigmatic Maxwell on his debut album from 1996, "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite." Released around the time of other landmark neo-soul albums (D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar," Erykah Badu's "Baduizm"), "Urban" was a welcome respite for listeners exhausted by the era's mainstream party anthems.

As he found more success with follow-up records (1998's "Embrya," 2001's "Now"), Maxwell maintained something of a mysterious persona.

"People used to think I was English when I first started. Nope, I'm from Brooklyn, but because everything had that European vibe to it — the way I dressed, my hair at the time — it didn't seem like something from the 'hood," Maxwell said.

While many R&B stars built brands on hubris, Maxwell has remained fixated on pleasing others, or more intimately, the listener. It still rings true today: If the majority of R&B hits are focused on indulgences and in-the-moment escapism, then Maxwell aims to provide a soundtrack for life after the club.

"My music has always been: It's time to make love," he said. "It's like, we just left the club, now we're waking up in the morning and the liquor is now phasing away, the weed is phasing away, whatever we did — you've got reality now. There's no makeup on you. That's where I like to come from."

Today — after successful tours, more albums and a couple of Grammy Awards — Maxwell still embraces operating just a bit left of the R&B center. That doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy the artists currently dominating radio.

"Don't get it twisted, I love Rihanna. I love Drake," he said, before name-checking other rising artists like Anderson .Paak and Thundercat. "I never feel like there's a competitiveness. I know we're all a part of a community that's so special."

Competition or not, Maxwell has proven this year that his latest record belongs in the discussion of 2016's top R&B releases. Largely written and produced by Maxwell and longtime collaborator Hod David, "blackSUMMERS'night" debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's top albums chart, and earned the singer more positive reviews.

"All I see is just / everything is lust / lake by the ocean / sweet like the motion / love is the medicine / I can heal us," he sings, full falsetto, on a sultry single from the record. "BlackSUMMERS'night" led a reviewer at the music website Pitchfork to write it had "no skippable tracks, the better to soundtrack sessions of sex so exquisite and transcendental, tantric comes off as boring."

Maxwell's ability to connect intimately with listeners has earned the New York City resident a passionate core fan base, though he admits there's nothing fancy about what he's trying to achieve as a performer.

"I'm just trying to connect," Maxwell said. "I try to be vulnerable. I try to sing the thing I least want to discuss. It's the truth, and it's what needs to be heard."

The messages are delivered, but not always promptly. "BlackSUMMERS'night" — the second installment of a trio that started with "BLACKsummers'night" — was Maxwell's first album in seven years. He wishes he had a better reason as to why fans have to regularly wait years between his records, but Maxwell, frankly and with a laugh, blamed the delay on "a combination of procrastination and integrity and laziness and impulsiveness."

"I'd really love to say it's patience, it's diligence, but sometimes, it's literally, 'I can't be bothered with this song right now.' Trying to figure it out, it's like a puzzle," he said. "You're trying to get all the pieces together for it. It can just be so daunting that it's like, 'Uhh, I'll do it tomorrow.'"

Advertisement

Maxwell said the third and final part of the BlackSummers'Night trilogy won't take nearly as long. The acceptance of this most recent record — "an album that doesn't follow any trends in the landscape," he said — has given him the confidence to get back into the studio quickly.

On the next album, he expects to touch on current events more than ever because of the 2016 election season's polarizing effects on the country. Listeners heard a preview of this on "III," an up-tempo track from the latest album, when Maxwell (who said he's voting for Hillary Clinton) sang, "I just want a Michelle Obama lady to hold me down when the world's crazy."

Not one to take explicit political stances in songs, Maxwell said seeing so many recent examples of prejudice and police brutality has him re-evaluating his role as an artist.

"My ear is to the ground. I'm starting to realize that there's a lot I can do on a personal level to assist in being a bit of a relief to people," he said. "No one will ever be Prince or Michael [Jackson] — it's a league of their own. But you start to realize, well, you're here. You need to do something. You need to say something, to try and help in some way."

After the U.S. tour with Blige wraps in mid-December, Maxwell will take a couple of months off before heading back on the road for a solo tour, he said. He doesn't have firm plan for hitting the studio yet, but the singer sounded inspired enough to not make fans wait years like they have in the past.

"I'm very excited about what's happening in my life creatively," Maxwell said. "I feel like music is coming back. The world is going through too much for it not to get creative again in the way that it usually does when there are a lot of issues."

Advertisement
Advertisement