The Grammy-winner spoke with theGrio about the award and the completion of his “blacksummers’NIGHT” trilogy.
The first three things that Maxwell’s grandmother ever gave him were a Bible, a harmonica and a radio. All of those things would steer this half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican kid from Brooklyn into the direction that not only solidified the course of his life, but impacted the lives of millions of others.
Cut to 1996 when Maxwell drops “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” the second single from his debut album, Urban Hang Suite, planting his feet firmly into the concrete of the music business. In an era when music was ruled by rap and slickly produced R&B with hip-hop attitude, Maxwell stood out with an album that included live instrumentation and sultry ballads, combining the best elements of the past with a look to the future.
Urban Hang Suite was the logical progression of acid jazz music from British acts like Sade and Brand New Heavies, but also drew from the traditional performance stylings and idioms of Al Green and Marvin Gaye. With this amalgamation, Maxwell became a darling of the Neo-soul movement, helping to legitimize a Black music renaissance held down by him and fellow artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild.
After five studio albums and three Grammys, Maxwell is this year’s recipient of the Legacy Award at the 2021 Soul Train Awards. Believe it or not, though, there were doubts that he would even make it past that second single from his debut.
When Maxwell got word that he would be honored with the Legacy Award for the 2021 Soul Train Awards, he was in disbelief. “I literally fell on the floor. At first, I was just like, ‘Are you kidding? Are you serious?'” Maxwell told theGrio. “It’s not that I’m unappreciative. I’m so used to it not working out sometimes.”
After Maxwell’s grandmother gave him that radio so many years ago, he gravitated primarily to R&B music.
“I go back to when R&B radio didn’t even play hip hop,” he said. “Where you can only hear hip hop on the weekends with, you know [legendary NYC radio deejays] DJ Red Alert and Marley Marl. And then, of course, you know, in New York, Hot 97 became like completely hip hop. And yeah, so I mean, I go that far when it comes to my love for soul music.”
Maxwell knew he was going against the grain in his debut. His collaborators included Sade member Stuart Matthewman, longtime musical partner Hod David and stalwarts of 70s soul like composer/producer Leon Ware, the man behind Marvin Gaye‘s I Want You album, and guitarist Wah Wah Watson, who lent his chops to Gaye’s Let’s Get It On and The Temptations‘ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
“I’m just honored that I’m part of the tapestry of a tradition that is for me, the most pristine and the most beautiful, you know. Soul music and R&B, it’s always been at the cornerstone of my heart,” Maxwell said.
When he put Urban Hang Suite out into a world dominated by hip hop, the pressure was on. “It took a lot of teamwork to convince people outside of radio that my first album could even do anything and would be viable, and have an impact because so much of the music was very hip hop,” he said. “And a lot of the music on Urban Hang Suite was, you know, different.”
After Urban Hang Suite became a hit, Maxwell refused to be boxed into the neo-soul chamber. When he released Embrya in 1999, it was full of ambient sonics, lurid but inviting production and arrangements. Singles like “Luxury: Cococure,” and “Matrimony: Maybe You,” brought out detractors.
“Yo! They came for me on that album,” Maxwell recalled. “Anybody who was like, low-key hating was like, ‘Yes! This is our chance. Let’s get him. Let’s get him. Let’s get him.’ And I was like, ‘OK.'”
Despite some of the critiques of Embrya, Maxwell says he feels vindicated today now that the rest of the R&B landscape resembles that record.
“What’s awesome is 20 years later, this very trance-like R&B sort of experimental thing is being like normal. And I’m so grateful. You know, I was so grateful to Columbia because, this is the thing, you know, without the support, nothing happens.”
Columbia Records would remain Maxwell’s label for his next three albums, including the first two installments of his trilogy, 2009’s BLACKsummers’night and 2016’s blackSUMMERS’night.
Earlier this month, he announced that he and BMG were partnering on his own record label venture, Musze, his songwriter/producer pseudonym. He said the deal actually happened back in March 2020, but he withheld the news and the music because of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests spurred by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
“I just couldn’t really go to press about something so amazing when something so horrific was happening in our world,” Maxwell said. “And throughout the summer with, you know, the marches and everything that we saw unfold, I just didn’t feel I was in good taste to make it about me.”
Last week, he released “Off,” the first single for blacksummers’NIGHT, the final installment of the trilogy, the first on his own label. “Off” is a mature, sensual slow jam that Maxwell says had been calling to him to be put out.
“‘Off’ was a complete surprise because I had the song for about five years. Not in the way that you hear it now, but in its skeletal form,” Maxwell said. “And then it just sort of like, kept going, ‘Bruh, I’m the one. I’m the one that you need to do.'”
He says the first single of Urban Hang Suite came out the same way.
“‘Til the Cops Come Knocking,’ same thing. It was like, you know, “I know you got ‘Sumthin’ Sumthin” there and you got ‘Ascension.’ But you need to start with the love.'”
Maxwell’s legacy has been cemented, not just by The Soul Train Awards, but by soul and R&B music history. As he reflects on his success, he’s pleased that he made it beyond being labeled a Neo-soul darling. He said songs like “Pretty Wings” and “Lifetime” helped him branch out beyond that label.
“[It was] all these types of things that would, later on, ease my anxiety about my fear that I would only just be a one-trick, one-shot moment,” he said.
Watch Maxwell receive his Legacy Award at the Soul Train Awards, airing on BET and BET Her Nov. 28 at 8 p.m. EST.
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