Photo courtesy of Shorefire Media
For many R&B artists, a seven-year gap in between albums can be a death sentence. But then there are measured R&B songwriters like Maxwell, whose recent BlackSUMMERS'night
LP arrives seven years after the similarly-titled BLACKsummers’night
, which gave us the life-affirming ballads “Pretty Wings”
and “Fistful of Tears.”
The record is the second installment in a planned trilogy (the third is rumored to be released in February), and it captures Maxwell retracing a twenty-year lifeline of svelte seduction and survival. The breezy “Lake by the Ocean,”
the lead single BlackSUMMERS’night
, embodies all of those hallmarks, then sails into some of those same humble and aware waters that has kept the Brooklyn-born singer beloved and afloat for all these years.
It’s why his musical involvement in the highly-anticipated upcoming film about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion, The Birth of a Nation
, makes total sense. It’s why he took part in Alicia Keys’ recent #23WAYS video campaign,
in which he and a handful of other celebrities highlighted twenty-three ways that black people have died as a result of police brutality. And it’s why Maxwell looks forward to performing at community uplift events like Steve Harvey’s fourteenth annual Neighborhood Awards
, which took place last weekend in Las Vegas. Immediately following his soundcheck for the awards show performance, Maxwell talked to INDY Week
about recording songs without writing lyrics, Michelle Obama, black elegance, and the prospect of him being the first black James Bond—that is, if Idris Elba doesn’t get the job first.
INDY Week: It’s been seven years since your last album, but songs from that album such as “Pretty Wings” and “Fistful of Tears” were powerful placeholders. Did the gap feel as long to you as it may have seemed to your fans?
: Yes, it did. The anxiety made a minute feel like an eternity for me. I didn’t expect my hiatus to yield such a successful response. I was actually preparing myself for the total opposite. I was not only inspired that people out there still remembered me, but that new people were interested—younger people who grew up listening to my music because their parents forced them to. They’re enthusiastic about what I’m doing now. For me, it’s about trying to keep the storyline going. Also, with each album, I like to sonically change things. I don’t want to rest on my laurels and be some paint-by-numbers, formulaic artist. I know you can listen to most of my records and be like, “OK, I know that this is Maxwell…” Hopefully, you grow from there. All of the records that I’ve loved, from Marvin Gaye to Prince, have been like books or like a TV series. You have to really get into them. In the months to come, we’ll see how people absorb this new album
You returned with a single like “Lake By The Ocean,” which you said you had been sitting on for a few years. The label liked it, you and your collaborators liked it, but was there any anxiety as far as wondering if your fans would latch on to the song.
It just felt like the right thing to do. A lot of the decision-making in regards to the song didn’t really have anything to do with us. Other people gravitated toward the song and said, “Yeah, this is it.” “Pretty Wings,” wasn’t necessarily orchestrated, but it was the only song that the label had, so we went with it. I’m pleased that people are cool with it [“Lake by the Ocean”]. Time also adds to the factor. People don’t remember that with Urban Hang Suite
we barely touched the Top 200. It wasn’t an overnight success. It was like, “Who is this guy with this hair? What’s going on?” Then, you had D’Angelo out there who was setting the tone for what was happening. He did it so brilliantly. Him, and people like Omar, and The Brand New Heavies all gave us the opportunities and showed us that you could do other kinds of records that didn’t need to have a new jack swing sound or whatever else was going on at the time. People don’t realize that sometimes certain things snowball into what they become.
You’ve said that if a song is good enough now, it’ll be good enough in five years. That has pretty much always been the case with your music. Do you think that statement rings true for all genres?
It depends on the song. Especially when you look at what Nas and Jay Z have done—in my opinion, they’re both like the Frank Sinatras of hip-hop. Listening to Reasonable Doubt
now is just as viable as listening to anything that’s happening with French Montana or Drake. But that’s just a reflection in the choices that they’ve all made as artists. For me, the way that I gauge a lot of what I do is that I’m not trying to just do songs that I can do when I’m twenty-two, but I want to be able to do those songs with I’m sixty-two. That was how we looked at it from day one. I’m just glad that I can do “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder),"
and “Pretty Wings,” and they all seem to work together. And they span over fifteen years. It’s an incredible gift and I’m so grateful for it.
You mentioned Drake, and forgive the comparison, but your longtime collaboration and chemistry with Hod David kind of reminds me of the musical relationship that Drake has had with his longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib. Twenty years ago, did you think that you’d be making songs with the same person today, or did you have this idea of working with a variety of R&B super-producers.
I’m a loyalist to the hilt. There’s no price tag on a person that knew you before you are who you became. There’s no reason why I need to venture out even though I worked with R. Kelly on “Fortunate,” did a cover of the Kate Bush song [“This Woman’s Work”]
, and did the duet with Alicia Keys
. I don’t need to be the person that writes the song. I just would like the song to be classic and touch people in ways that they wouldn’t expect. It’s just the way I like to roll. But I do appreciate people like Drake, Desiigner, and Future. It’s interesting to watch them creating their own versions of a sound. But I know my lane. I just know what I’m supposed to do. It’s interesting to me when I go to award shows and I see the most insane trap rappers and they’re quite aware of what I’ve done. They’re just like “Keep doing you, brother. You don’t have to chase a trend and a genre that you didn’t even start out doing.”
People have been notorious for misinterpreting the actual message behind “Pretty Wings.” As the Black Lives Matter movement continues on, a song like “Gods,” could also take on an entirely different meaning. Explain, “the game of gods.”
It’s about people playing gods. For me, it was more so in the context of a relationship. “Gods” was about the power of loving someone more than they love you. In some ways, it was about being God and having this patience and hoping that they’re not going to play with your soul and heart. That’s what the song is about. But being in the state that we’re in in the world, it plays into something else. It’s interesting that you should even bring this up because the guy that I co-wrote and produced the song with, Hod David, said that we really needed to start performing “Gods.” We’re just doing a new song here and a new song there. I like to let the record marinate a bit. I want people to live with it so that when we come back in the fall, there will be enough understanding of the album. But that’s a really good observation—”Gods” does play into Black Lives Matter. It plays into the 23 Ways initiative that Alicia Keys has put forth. It’s a very very complicated situation. It’s systemic. It began with the penal code system. It began with so many things in our communities. I’m not happy with the state of things, but I’m happy that things are being exposed.
In some places on the album, especially on “III,” you put a certain gruffness on your vocals that you previously had not. Why was that?
Yeah. That was my little moment. My favorite part about that song is name-checking Michelle Obama and putting light to the fact that she’s a very powerful force. She’s the First Lady standing beside this incredible man that has graced us as our president, and has been able to weather the storms in The White House, on a personal level, for him, so elegantly over the last eight years. I was glad that I was able to find a word that would rhyme with her name properly. It was my way of tipping my hat to their years of service.
You did something new on this album by essentially improvising the words to “Lost” and “Listen Hear” while recording the songs. Does being a fan of hip hop inform how you can pull off things like that in the studio?
I think so. It’s been twenty years and I’ve worked with these people for so long. The chemistry is so powerful that we’re moved by a greater force to make these records beyond our own understanding. But I’ve always been able to do it that way. A lot of other songs have that but it just took more time. It’s just my nature. I started out rapping. I wasn’t really that great at it. I was good, but I was just a little too sensitive for that genre.
But “Lost” is such an intense ballad. How hard was it to both think on the spot and maintain the emotionality of a song like that?
It was easy because it was kind of like part two of “Pretty Wings,” and I also just loved the epic movie feel of it. But I didn’t know that it would be that because I had yet to hear the music. I just walked in and said, “OK, let’s go.” Then I just left it alone. This is what’s so exciting about this album—it’s a lot to take in. I just finished the video for “1990x.” All I can say is that it’s so incredible. I never say that about my music. I just do my music. But I worked with Philip Andelman, who directed “Pretty Wings,” “Fistful of Tears,” and “Lake by the Ocean.” He’s an absolute genius.
I’ve never seen African-Americans be represented so elegantly, as a culture, in a video like this. It’s very opposite of the first video where I’m on the island, in Haiti. You can’t get more island and sweaty and rootsy. “1990x” is completely different. I can only harken it to a black James Bond kind of thing. That was a big inspiration for it—the ultimate cool. People like Marvin Gaye and James Belafonte were like the black James Bonds: powerful, strong, intelligent, cool, and elegant. It’s just as much as I love seeing Travis Scott or Future do what they do. It’s great to see another perspective on what it means to be black in America.
Well, if Idris Elba doesn’t end up getting the role of the first black James Bond, maybe you can. You down?
I wish I was as good of an actor as he is. You can check all the way back on my Twitter feed. Years ago, I was like, “If there’s a black James Bond, it better be him.” He’s got a thing. He represents something so powerful. I hope that he does get that role. He’ll be fine either way.