Maxwell and Mary J. Blige are finally merging their respective strains of R&B together. Nearly two decades after the titans met at the 1997 Soul Train Awards, they're teaming up for the double-billed King and Queen of Hearts World tour, setting off a dozen European dates on October 13 in Zurich, Switzerland before heading back to the States for an arena and amphitheater trek spanning New York City to Los Angeles.
For the pair, the timing couldn’t be better. In July, Maxwell released his long-awaited fifth studio album blackSUMMERS’night, the sequel to 2009’s BLACKsummers’night that earned him a pair of Grammy awards for Best R&B Album and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Pretty Wings” the next year. It comes in the wake of his recent summer tour, which capped in Jacksonville, Fla. in mid-August, and sets up the tour with Blige, who is prepping the follow up to 2014’s The London Sessions, and is slated to include contributions from Kanye West, Jazmine Sullivan, Hit-Boy and DJ Camper.
With the tour’s recent announcement, they hopped on the phone to discuss how the tour came to be. While sneaker shopping for Blige, Maxwell reflected on their initial meeting and how he’s hoping to get a feature on her upcoming album, while the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul explained about her “uplifting” next record.
Who came up with the name for the tour and how did this come about?
Mary J. Blige: It was me that came up with the name, because I believe that Maxwell is a king at what he does in his career and I'm a queen of what I do in my career, and what we've done throughout our career speaks to the hearts of people. We move people through the heart, and that's why I felt it was appropriate.
Maxwell, what made you agree with Mary for the title?
Maxwell: Because she's the queen. [Laughs] We know in chess, the queen always has moves—moves left, right, anywhere. The king, he can be the pawn. When you think about women in general, every life and every living thing is here because.... We assist in the process as men, but the conduit of all life is women. So for me, not only is she Mary J. Blige and has ushered in a sound that she not only revolutionized, but she's continued to evolve in her career in ways that people can't. Mary's a Capricorn. Hey Mary, 8.5 is the smallest they have.
Blige: Don't get it. Don't worry about it.
Maxwell: I'll try to find it. I'll find it for you, though. Anyway, sorry that was a shopping moment. Basically, she's a Capricorn, she knows the business. They last long, they know what's up, and it just sounded right. It wasn't egotistical. Like, ugh, here we are, the baddest of the baddest. No, we were talking in terms of the heart. Speaking of matters of the heart: broken hearts, fulfilled hearts, hearts all over the world, basically, and it just seemed right.
Are you actually shopping together right now?
Maxwell: No, I'm in the Adidas store and she wanted anything yellow. I'm looking for her, but I'm about to throw her name down. I know this chick can find them from the closet.
How long have you two known each other?
Maxwell: I knew Mary before Mary knew me. I mean, obviously, clearly. But I met Mary at an award show very long ago, young, scared, deer in the headlights, this is the era of Urban Hang Suite. Like, how is this happening? She came up to me, she was closing the show with her new single, and she killed it of course. It's so funny because it's a song you did with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Jimmy had mentioned to me a long time ago how incredible it was working with you. To go back to the real story, I'm sitting there side stage and I think I had won four awards or something, it was out of a movie moment for me. Mary comes up to me as she's leaving the stage after the performance and she goes, "Oh my god, Max!" and I was like, "You know me?" and she goes, "Of course! I love what you're doing, keep rocking with it," and that's where it all began.
Blige: From that point on and just seeing Maxwell, every time I see him, I knew I had a friend. I knew he was going to be someone in my life because he's been so consistent and happy and for you and I feel I really needed that support from him.
Maxwell, in "1990x," you sing, "We're grown and we own it." Is that the theme for this tour?
Maxwell: Good one. I'll say that's really where I am. I'm 43. When I was making music at 23, 21, I only cared about what the 40-year-olds were listening to, and I was crafting my career based on, will I be able to do it at 50? That was always the question I asked myself.
When you listen to music that Mary does, she asks the same question without even knowing she was asking it. All of her work stands up now. It just works. You know, we all live in cycles. When I was coming up in the '90s and of course Mary as well, the '70s and all that beautiful music including Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Bette Davis. All these people, we were loving it. I think Mary was singing progressive soul. They call it hip-hop soul. There's always these labels that make sense for the era so that these magazines and writers can categorize the situation, but when you have 20 years—and for Mary it's 25 or something like that—and the music is still evolving, and at the core of it it's still soul music, I feel like that's what I try to stay true to.
When people least expect it, Mary comes in and goes, bam. You know what I mean? How many times does that happen where it's like, OK, yeah, Mary, Mary, whatever, and then all of a sudden, bam! That hot joint drops! With this album she's about to put out and I'm so excited to listen to when I'm back in New York, she's going to do it again. She's going to remind you what it is and what she does.
At the end of the day, she's an incredible performer and inspires me to do my best and make sure that I sip my tea and pass on the whiskey the night before and get out there and make her proud. This is a tour that's been in the making for, what, four, four and a half years? We're going to do our best to make people happy.
Mary, you've worked with Jazmine Sullivan, Kanye West, and Hit-Boy for the new album. What can we expect from this one?
Blige: All I can tell you is, it's great. It's where I am, who I am, what I represent. There are so many new things, there are so many things that are nostalgic about it that my fans are going to be happy about. It's the whole process of the thing... Working with Jazmine Sullivan was just a dream, because I'm probably one of her biggest fans and I think she's phenomenal as a writer. Collaborating with her was like, wow, thank you god. Worked with Hit-Boy and DJ Camper, just everybody. It's just amazing. There's a lot of love that went into it, a lot of life that went into it. A lot of my life and how I'm living. But it's beautiful, it's fun, it's uplifting. It's everything that it needed to be.
Maxwell: I'm hoping to be down on one record. I can play tambourine. I just think it needs more cowbell, Mary.
Blige: [Laughs.] OK.
In that spirit of collaboration, is there going to be any crossover in the show or is it double-billed as completely separate?
Maxwell: I think we're working on that. I think once we get into rehearsal, right Mary? Anything can happen.
Blige: Yes, exactly.
Maxwell: Anything can go down. That's just the vibe. Mary's very improvisational. She obviously knows her songs, she rehearses her songs, she's always prepared and sounds like the record but even better. You never know what's going to happen. Mary might just break out and be Mahalia Jackson or something. [Laughs.] Like some Billie Holiday mixed with Wu-Tang. That's the beauty of Mary, that's why Mary's still around. All these people come and go, Mary just gives the audience that moment they didn't expect. Anything could go down.
Well, you could take some cues from Mary in the dance department. We've all seen Mary do her thing.
Maxwell: I'll take my cues, because Mary definitely breaks it out. Let me do my splits and I do my little wind thing. But I'm not wearing heels rocking like that.