Maxwell's Return Marks A Romantic Breath Of Fresh Air For R&B
Maxwell talks new music, the death of his cousin, the inspiration behind his haircut and why he was so surprised a fellow Brooklynite actually liked his music.
If we're to fairly parcel out responsibility for the current state of music, then the fans need to own up to this insatiable desire of now. The demand we've placed on artists to crank out an EP, mixtape or album has primed us for tasting--not savoring--a body of work. We expect singers and entertainers to deliver high-quality records in commercial breaks, and then throw titty tantrums when they take longer than what we deem sufficient.
Singer-songwriter Maxwell doesn't--or maybe doesn't know how --to subscribe to the theory of now. Despite his third album bearing the name, the Brooklyn-born, Puerto Rican and Haitian hybrid has never been an instant kind of dude. Listen to his discography and you'll hear him toy with deeper subject matters that morphs into different meanings as you mature. He understands there's nothing more potent, consistent, confusing or alluring then love, pain, jealousy or betrayal, which is why he takes his time. So seven years ago, when Barack was still young in the face, and had a full head of black hair, Maxwell returned to music after an eight year hiatus with BLACKsummer'snight.
After realizing his trademark 'fro was gone, many wondered if R&B's Samson would be able to woo us without his mane. Maxwell calmed our fears and reassured us all with his delicate yet breathtaking performance of "Pretty Wings" at the 2009 BET Awards. The album was released shortly after providing a romantic soundtrack to anyone in need, and for a while we thought Maxwell would take his coat off, have a drink and stay a while. But this is Max, and other than Helen Folasade Adu (Sade for those who don't know the Wi-Fi password) we've accepted that his experiences infuse his art, so we must let him experience so we can indulge in the art, and true to form, he quietly slipped out of the public eye and for the next seven years simply...lived.
Now he's back. A little older, and still handsome. On the heels of the 20 year anniversary of his debut Urban Hang Suite, Maxwell returns to rhythm and blues, an undeniable young man's game, with "Lake By The Ocean," the first single from the second installment to the BLACKsummer's trilogy. The mid-tempo track finds the R&B crooner in a place of peace and gratitude. "For me, it’s about being able to be satisfied with even the smallest body of water with the great body of water across from you. You can feel happy and you can feel secure and alive, and you can feel love with the least amount next to the most around."
With an interview time constraint I was adamant about not abiding by, Maxwell spoke candidly about the death of his cousin, meeting Harry Belafonte and that VIBE cover he shot with Lauryn Hill that never made it to the stands. Maxwell has returned ladies and gentlemen, savor it while it lasts.
VIBE: What content--like books you’re reading or travels or different flavors in food that you tasted--during this time between your last album and what will be your future album?
Maxwell: Good question. I’ve been all over Africa. I’ve been to Dubai; I’ve been traveling to all these different places, Angola, a little bit of Miami. I went to Kazakhstan, ate there, which is in Russia. So I’ve been running around, you know, and at the same time, I’ve been trying to make sure that I stay grounded and that I write for the common, for the all, not just for a certain lifestyle living type of person. So I basically have always believed that you should just stick to the rules. Talk about love, pain, and desire, and suffering, and the hopes that people have for love and for family, and for security because those things never change.
I read you unfortunately lost your cousin. How did the loss effect how you now live your life?
I’ve learned forgiveness more and understanding. More so because my cousin was always such a big big champion of just let things go more. I used to have to fight his bullies for him and I taught him how to ride a bike. And he was definitely cross-mixed as well. So we kind of dealt with the whole having two different kinds of people and types of cultures kind of clashing, yet we’re Brooklyn people. So we had those similarities. And it definitely changed me. He always looked at me, like a hero type of thing, and then he came back into my life later on after the music was going down. And he kind of did the same for me in an incredible way. It’s amazing because our last conversation was so powerful because it was almost as if I knew that his final days were there. That conversation was like magic. It was almost like I got to say everything that I’m saying to you right now, I got to say to him a couple days before his passing. So he left knowing how much I felt about him.
So I heard your knew single, “Lake by the Ocean.” And whenever I’m near any body of water, whether it be a lake or an ocean, I always feel very small. Complaining about not being able to post a photo to Instagram because I don’t have any service, just always feels really useless. I realize just how small my problems are compared to how big the world is. Is the record about feeling small in the wake or true love, or am I completely wrong?
You know what? This is about the music for me: I want your interpretation to be the most important interpretation of the song. It’s like if I tell you what you’re supposed to think about something, it takes the fun out of it for you. But at the same time, for me, it’s about being able to be satisfied with even the smallest body of water with the great body of water across from you. You can feel happy and you can feel secure and alive, and you can feel love with the least amount next to the most around.
As you know Urban Hang is 20 years old. Your debut album –
You’re absolutely not old. Your debut album stood the test of time, and now in essence you’re competing against time, not so much talent. How do you creatively digest that?
Oh wow, it’s interesting that you talk about time and how you’re very philosophical. I really appreciate your frequency. I would say that the best way to compete with time is to be in the moment because you can’t know the future, the past already left, but that moment is where you know what you feel. And that moment is when you can actually change everything before the end or done or whatever. Does that make sense?
It does make sense.
I just live in the moment. I just live in the moment.
When you smile, I can kind of see that.
I’m just lucky. I came from some seriously bizarre stuff. I had cross panels experiences with regards to family and culture. And for me to have been given this blessing of being able to make music… I know what real work is. I know what a person has to do and what they have to try. I was a busboy at a restaurant. My mom used to clean homes. This is not work; this is a joy to do. The only work part for me, about what I do, is being able to stay true to the situation, remember where I started, remember what the codes are for what I’m trying to do, timelessness, you know, trying to make music that lives to the test of time, that stands the test of time. And in that regard, I guess that’s why I stay in the moment with every experience.
My editor-in-chief, Datwon Thomas said that Biggie was a huge fan of your music. Is that true?
You know, it was maybe 1992. It was like when all those records were popping. Like when Faith Evans was “I Remember.” I was just starting my move through labels and all the publishing people. I was just getting my feet wet. I was working at restaurants and then folks were hearing about me, and the word was kind of about that this guy is doing this type of music and none of it made sense because of what was really popular at the time. It was like Mary J. Blige and their whole Bad Boy era, and the whole Dre era. So it was weird. We shot the cover of VIBE, me and Lauryn Hill for that month. And then [Biggie] passed a way. And of course there was no denying that he had to be on that cover.
So you never physically met Biggie?
Yes, you know, we said hello in passing at awards shows, but to say that I know him like how I know Beyonce or Jay or even Nas, is a little bit- it’s not like that. I just was shocked that he loved my music. I couldn’t believe it.
Why were you shocked?
Just because at the time, I was so bizarre looking and I was so left of center. You have to know, I was not rocking Tims and baggy clothes. I was in suits and nobody was really doing that. So when people looked at me, I thought I’m going to keep rocking what I’m rocking and I’m going to keep being what I’m being, but I hope the people that – because I loved their music so much – I hoped they could connect with me and support what I’m trying to do.
You recently met, and he's my husband in my head, Mr. Harry Belafonte. What was that like?
What can I say about him? He’s the man. I got a call from a good friend of mine who works in connection with him and then I got invited to his house. I brought him some really good Japanese Whiskey because you know, you can’t go to somebody’s house without bringing something. It’s just manners, especially if it’s someone like him. And we just sat down and we talked about his experiences, what he had been and gone through. It was pretty incredible walking through those hallways and seeing those pictures of him sitting with Martin Luther King, pictures of him protesting, pictures of him being. It was like being in a museum, and it was a person’s home. And then he was sharp, I mean he’s so sharp and so lucid. I can’t even express it because at times, I don’t know how to put it in words. I saw the future in his eyes when I looked at him. I saw the potential of what I could be as a man by being there. And I think people know, but I think this generation, they don’t realize that a lot of what I do visually, is totally inspired by him.
Yea. Cutting my hair, the whole thing…
Wait, wait, wait. So you’re saying you cut your Afro because of Mr. Belafonte?
I could say yeah, him and Sam Cooke and people like [Sidney] Portier. It was like, I didn’t want to be a hair cut and I kind of looked at those people and thought to myself, well it’s time to shift. I’m 35 and you don’t want to be a look really; you want to be what you do creatively. And so in some ways, when I started looking at all these old photos and things, and thought to myself, yeah, you know, this is going to work. It’s going to piss a couple people off for sure, because I got some crazy messages from people at the time about how my career is over because I changed the most definable thing about who I was, but you know it’s just hair, who cares really?
Yeah, it’s just hair. It’ll grow. One last question and then you can go, if that’s okay?
Sure, sure of course.
You take your time between albums and yet your fan base is still super loyal to you. The only other counterpart I could think that can make music and go and live and come back is Sade. Why do you think your fans still hang around? And I don’t ask that pretentiously, I ask honestly.
I don’t know. Again, it’s not me. I’ve worked with Stuart Matthewman, who is part of Sade, which is weird. So there’s obviously maybe something about the kind of choices that we make musically that connect with people in a way where they feel like it’s alright to wait. I want things to be classic. I’m just grateful that people can sort of sense that with each album and with each song, that we really put love and time into. And we really want you to be able to play it and get married to it, and conceive children to it. We really put that level of care into it. We hope that this is what will happen. So that’s why I take time with it because at the end of the day, you only have one time to save something musically, and once it’s out there, it’s out there. It’s out there forever. I could’ve went ham and just every year had something out, but I write a lot of this stuff, and it’s not the easiest thing for me to do to come up with a lot of this stuff because you can’t just fake it and write whatever just to appease the situation, and I don’t want to carbon-copy myself. So I have to wait for real experience to really really infuse the records with that feeling that hopefully you get when you see yourself.