When Maxwell arrived on the music scene, a writer at VIBE did him the disservice of dubbing him “the next Prince.” That was a lot for any artist to live up to, but his 1996 debut Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite has endured as one of the essential artifacts of the so-called neo-soul movement along with such diverse talents as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. And slaying a rendition of "Nothing Compares 2 U" at last night's 2016 BET Awards didn't hurt his legacy, either.
Over the next five years Maxwell released four more projects before vanishing as suddenly as he’d appeared. Following an eight-year hiatus, he re-emerged without his trademark unruly mane, and released BLACKsummers’night—the first installment of a planned trilogy—which earned him his first Grammy in 2010 for Best R&B Album. Seven years later he’s returned with blackSUMMERS’night, which sounds even stronger than its predecessor. While preparing to embark on a U.S. tour, he spoke about what took so long to make this record and how Prince frightened him as a young man and later gave him courage as an artist.
COMPLEX: Certainly, having lost Prince this year, I think everybody is more sensitized to what he brought to modern music, and I hear his vocal influence a lot on this album. Maybe more than other albums of yours for some reason.
MAXWELL: It’s bananas, isn’t it?
Do you agree?
I’m proudly agreeing. I saw him a month before his passing, and I was shooting the album package, all the photos and stuff that you see with blackSUMMERS’night. And Prince was throwing some party and he was saying something about how he was going to write his life story. And it was pretty amazing for me to get to tell him, “You know that I am alive and I exist because of you, right?”
And he would go, “Aw, man, shut up!” He always says that. But, in the back of his mind, he’s like, “Yeah I know.” [Laughs.] Prince was quite aware how influential he was to people like myself and D’Angelo.
I was with Trevor Noah at the party, too; he was with his girlfriend and I brought them upstairs, to this private area for Prince. Prince has always been so inviting to me. I've known him over 15 years. And Prince says to me and Trevor, “Damn, you both look alike, don’t you?” And then he just walked away. [Laughs.]
But to get back to Prince, he was there, and I got to tell him that. Later, I get a call from this guy Mr. Dee Fatts, who’s a good friend of mine from the Bay, and he tells me he had a conversation with Prince, and Prince just wanted to know, “Why did it take so long, Max? What’s going on? Why does it take so long?” It’s funny to know that he was somewhere wondering why it takes so long for me to release records. 'Cause I guess he kinda cared. That’s an amazing thing for me to experience.
In another interview you mentioned that you know Prince records that other people don’t know or don't listen to.
I do. “Joy in Repetition” is probably hands-down the illest thing I’ve ever heard him do. Also, “Power Fantastic.”
I don’t remember that one. Which album is that on?
No album. It’s just something I went and found at a store somewhere. I think it's included on his The Hits/The B-Sides album that came out through Warner Bros. And then there’s a whole CD and vinyl edition of [One Nite Alone...Live!] with him just playing piano and doing a lot of songs.
He was just so bad-ass and, you know, I feel like he was going through a lot of pain. In some ways he’s probably in such better place. Such a better place. He’s free.
Still, I'm just so sad. I kind of broke down when I was in Trinidad and Tobago when the news hit me, because I had to do the New Orleans Jazz Festival maybe two or three days later. I was kind of in shock. I didn’t go out. People were really kinda worried about me.
But then I got out there and we did the show. And in “This Woman’s Work” we did “Let’s Go Crazy”—just the opening comments that he makes, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here”—people went crazy. And then “Sometimes It Snows in April.”
You did all this within Kate Bush’s song “This Woman’s Work”? Why do a Prince tribute that way?
Because he was very much in love with Kate Bush and what she did. From what I heard [he] really loved my rendition [of that song]. And then I just told them to look up into the sky and there was this huge Prince symbol made of clouds.
It was very powerful for me. But still, I was so sad. So sad. I was listening to all the old songs and… you know, it was real. It was really real. He wasn’t around anymore. I knew I wouldn’t get that random call from a fine-ass girl, saying, “Hey, Prince is such and such. Why don’t you come hang out?” He never had a phone, so you would just get a call from like a bad-ass chick. [Laughs.]
That’s how he would call people?
You know…stuff he knew that I knew, 'cause I knew a lot of girls. And his security knows a lot of my security. And it would be like that.
Something you said in passing earlier in this conversation really struck me: You didn’t say my music would not be the same without you. You said “I am alive and I exist because of you.” That’s very different.
Well, yeah. Because my music is my existence. And you have to understand: He was scary to me in the beginning. Think about how he looked and what he was wearing. Dirty Mind—the artwork alone was freaky, you know? He's positioned very erotically for a man who was very much into chicks. And there's graffiti sprayed on the wall for the title of his album. I mean, this shit looked crazy. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Who is this guy?”
And so he was kinda scary to me. Even in Purple Rain times. You have to take into consideration that I was an 11-year-old kid at the time, and I was very Christian, with church and all that. But as you get into the music and you start hearing “When U Were Mine.” And it’s like, “Wait a minute, this is like… This is some bad-ass songwriting.”
And he’s making it feel like it’s pop. But wait a minute, this is actually really soulful, too. He’s tricking you into believing this was a pop thing. I know that Rick James played a real big role in kind of guiding him. When he saw Rick, he probably thought to himself, “Wait a minute—this is interesting. I can be outlandish.” He was already very provocative, but he just…he really did something special.
In the hip-hop culture of the '90s when everybody was kind of feeling and sounding like him, but not necessarily looking like him… and now everybody’s sort of bugging out again and being who they want to be and acting how they want to act. And we don’t have the weird sort of… You know, someone being in an alternative lifestyle is not even anything. He was a symbol of that in some ways through his music and his art, and now he’s gone. And you know…what can you do? What can you say?
Switching topics, you have some Caribbean background, and it’s not something that people always talk about with you. I’d like to hear about what influence that's had on your music.
I grew up with the typical stuff. On the Haitian side, it was Tabou Combo, and on the Latin side it was Héctor Lavoe and Elvis Crespo.
People have literally stopped me on the streets about this stuff: “I felt the same way being from the Caribbean, not feeling like I was—I wouldn’t say black enough, but soulful enough.” Coming into the game, I didn’t have a “D’Angelo story”—someone that I respect and love—who comes from the South. I was a guy who was coming from two different Caribbean heritages, from Brooklyn. The pedigree was not what you would expect it to be. And I was very insecure about that. I didn’t feel like I had the goods.
So that wasn’t something that you necessarily wanted to advertise at that time.
Well, no, I advertised it. West Indian descent, blah blah blah. And then Wikipedia was invented, and so there it was. You know what I mean? But I had familial issues on my mother’s side. She had me very young, so it was a very challenging sort of upbringing for me. There was a little bit of anger with that, but that’s all subsided now. Especially after I’ve gone to Haiti and I’m 43, and I’ve learned that holding anger keeps you from being happy—all that psycho-babble stuff. And I think I’ve sort of exorcised it through these last two records of the trilogy.
Maybe that’s what caused the delay. I had to process this so I could get to the last part of the trilogy. Which is maybe more political, I think. Or maybe not. I’m not sure yet.