Maxwell brings neo-soul hits and viral dance moves to MGM National Harbor
Maxwell talks with WTOP’s Jason Fraley about his neo-soul hits and viral dance moves to the MGM National Harbor.
Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”
WTOP’s Jason Fraley previews Maxwell at MGM National Harbor (Part 1)
A quarter century after he changed music forever with neo-soul, Maxwell is suddenly going viral for a new generation with dance moves that inspired “The Maxwell Challenge.”
“My background is the Caribbean, my mom is from Haiti, my dad is Puerto Rican, everyone goes low!” Maxwell told WTOP. “I hear people say I’m twerking and various things, but the funniest part is that I’m unbothered by it. I think it’s hilarious that people have created all these different versions. This girl wrote, ‘There’s no Maxwell song that calls for this!’”
You can see those moves in person at MGM National Harbor on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 12-13.
“I love D.C.,” Maxwell said. “It was the first time that I played five or six Constitution Halls in my early 20s. It was when I really felt like I made it when I’d go to D.C. and be there for two weeks performing. I just want to thank everyone. Thanks for coming to the shows and playing the music for your children, who play the music too. It’s like a second wave.”
He’ll share the stage with Alex Isley, daughter of Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers.
“I’ve been playing her music just nonstop,” Maxwell said. “When they say it’s in the genes, they mean it. Her voice is absolutely the most beautiful thing. The only way I can describe it is if multiple doves were flying in unison in the sky, that’s how Alex Isley’s voice sounds to me.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1973, he says the initial spark of music came from his grandmother. “The first thing she ever gave me was a Bible … the second was a harmonica and the third was a radio,” Maxwell said. “There were so many channels on the dial, but for some reason I just loved the R&B stuff. People like Anita Baker, New Edition, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson.”
He began performing on the New York club scene as Vibe magazine called him “the next Prince,” before signing with Columbia Records in 1994. “Someone, Mitchell Cohen being that someone, an amazing writer, an amazing A&R, he said, ‘We want to sign you.’ I was like, ‘Oh, no. It’s happening!’ I had to think about it because I was scared. Fame is very crazy.”
His breakthrough album “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite” (1996), included hits like “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” and “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.” It earned him two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Whenever Wherever Whatever.”
“[Cohen] said, ‘You don’t have to make an R&B record, just make the record you want to make,’” Maxwell said. “That’s why it was so unique, because we weren’t restricted to focus on what would get on radio, because what was on radio was completely different from what ‘Urban Hang Suite’ was. It was discovered mainly by people and the label had to catch up.”
The album marked a seismic shift toward neo-soul, along with D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” (1995) and Erykah Badu’s “Baduizm” (1997). “For me to be associated with those two incredible artists, at the time I had no idea what the magnitude of that would be,” Maxwell said. “Music was changing drastically. The neo-soul movement was quite a renaissance moment.”
After the live EP “MTV Unplugged” (1997), including covers of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” his second studio album “Embrya” (1998) earned Grammy nods for Best R&B Album and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Matrimony: Maybe You.”
“You have your whole life to write your first album, then everyone wants another one six months after,” Maxwell said. “I went more trance, more Björk-like, I wanted to go in a different direction. Some critics were not kind. The beauty of ‘Embrya’ 20 years later is it yielded a whole new subgenre that I hear now in current R&B. You can be too ahead of your time!”
His third album “Now” (2001) earned another Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Lifetime” and also featured the studio recorded version of “This Woman’s Work,” the proceeds of which were donated to the Make a Wish Foundation.
Around the same time, he also recorded songs for beloved movie soundtracks with the “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” remix “Mellosmoothe” for “Love Jones” (1997), “Fortunate” for “Life” (1999) and “Let’s Not Play the Game” for “The Best Man” (1999). By the turn of the millennium, he took a break to let the music landscape settle before he felt ready to release another album.
“Hip-hop elements were about to really take over with artists like Jay-Z and 50 Cent and Eminem, and then you had the pop element of Britney Spears,” Maxwell said. “So, I just had to pull away a bit after ‘Now’ and wait for an incredible artist named Amy Winehouse to be released. When I heard that album, I thought that ‘I think I can start making music again.’”
He came back with a vengeance in his fourth album “BLACKsummers’night” (2009) with tracks like “Bad Habits,” “Cold,” “Fistful of Tears” and “Pretty Wings.” The album won Best R&B Album and Best Male R&B Performance for “Pretty Wings,” which was nominated for Song of the Year.
“After the 16th nomination, that was when I finally [won],” Maxwell said. “I don’t make the music for the accolades. I wrote ‘Pretty Wings’ because I was in a relationship at the time, it had gone a certain way and I had a lot to do with why it had not gone the right way. I just wanted to honestly speak about my misstep and that song ended up putting me back on the map.”
His fifth album was similarly titled with different capitalization: “blackSUMMERS’night” (2016), winning another Grammy for Best R&B Song for “Lake by the Ocean.” The song has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to that aforementioned viral video.
“At the end of the day, I was locked up for two years just like everyone else, I was able to come out on tour and I was feeling a little hyped, that’s why you have your viral video,” Maxwell said. “You have a man who was trapped in a cage who was released in front of an audience and he’s happy people have come. That’s what imbued the spirit of what you saw in the viral video.”
All joking aside, his stature as an artist was cemented right before the pandemic when he received the Life Achievement Award from the Congressional Black Caucus in 2019.
“I’m serious about being a creative person, and whether you like what I’m doing or not, I hope you are patient with me with that process of my own personal evolution as an artist,” Maxwell said. “I’m grateful. I know many people don’t get these chances. There’s so many people signed in 1994 … that are not even talking to you, don’t have records or options like I have.”
WTOP’s Jason Fraley previews Maxwell at MGM National Harbor (Part 2)
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