Chasing the Eternal, With No Timetable

The first time Maxwell disappeared, he was gone about eight years. After starting his career in the mid-90s with three platinum albums in a row, each delivered punctually, this soul and R&B singer all but vanished. He opted not to tour and didn’t release the expected follow-up to “Now,” from 2001. Instead, he faded into near anonymity.

But his fans waited: “BLACKsummers’night” debuted at No. 1 in 2009 with his best sales week ever and won two Grammys. Maxwell assured his faithful listeners that such a gap wouldn’t happen again, explaining that his fourth album was part of trilogy he’d already written and, in large part, recorded, with the next installments to follow in consecutive years.

 Maxwell has a new album out, “BlackSUMMERS’night,”
a long-awaited sequel to “BLACKsummers’night” (2009).
Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

 

Then another seven years went by.

“I couldn’t believe how big it got — it freaked me out,” Maxwell, 43, said of his first comeback. The long break that again followed, he said, was the result of an intensive creative process, which is dependent on “living a life” — romantic relationships remain Maxwell’s muse — and escaping expectations. “I like to forget who I am as much as I possibly can,” he said. “The problem is that I’m constantly being reminded that I’m supposed to be this way, this thing that everyone knows as a product.

“Can you imagine the anxiety?”

Maxwell back in 2001.
Paul Drinkwater/NBC, via NBCU Photo Bank and Getty Images

So he retreated for a second time, filling his days with “a lot of Netflix, listening to music, traveling, days on the beach,” Maxwell said. “Sex is awesome, too, when you throw it in here and there.” All served as fuel for songwriting.

“BlackSUMMERS’night,” out Friday, July 1, is his lovelorn trilogy’s long-delayed Part 2, more upbeat and groove-oriented than its predecessor. Citing disco, gospel and rock undercurrents, and the influence of Tame Impala’s psychedelic pop, Maxwell called the music “progressive soul.”

While he has always resisted trend-hopping, having initially emerged from the so-called neo-soul movement, which rejected the flash of the ’90s for earthier ’70s throwbacks, Maxwell is returning yet again to an altered musical landscape, this one almost unrecognizable: R&B has been subsumed even further into hip-hop, with rappers doing a lot of the singing themselves, while music sales have cratered in favor of online streaming, which rewards the brand-name artist and instant gratification.

If Maxwell’s last return was a triumph of quality in a changing but still-receptive market, this one is more of a tossup, though the ingredients remain the same. His dense new album — free of the songwriters, producers and guest rappers of the moment — will count once again on a patient audience seeking a more intricate, lyrically mature alternative to modern R&B, a genre often less reliant on vocal strength and range than attitude and delivery.

“We’re trying to be rappers now,” Maxwell said of his younger cohort. “I’m a big Chris Brown fan — I know all his records. But when it comes to what I write, I know that in 15 years, if I’m still alive and able to do it, I don’t want to look like an idiot singing the stuff that I wrote when I was 22. I’m lucky that most of what I’ve done holds up for a 55-year-old.”

Maxwell performing at Barclays Center this past Valentine’s Day.
Christian Hansen for The New York Times

He added, “You want it to sound like you don’t really know when it came out.”

Commercially, although the radio format known as urban adult contemporary — Maxwell’s bread and butter — remains a force, audiences have also turned in droves since his previous album to services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, where artists with a fire hose of fresh content, such as Drake and the Weeknd, tend to thrive.

“The biggest challenge is that the last record came out when there was physical retail,” said Rob Stringer, the chairman of Columbia Records, Maxwell’s label since his debut in 1996. “A streaming audience will not be as easy to find.”

Yet Maxwell’s target demographic — adult women — makes him one of the few artists (like Adele) who can still potentially succeed in selling CDs at big-box stores like Walmart. “There are five records a year now that will be able to find that physical audience,” Mr. Stringer said. “You’ve just gotta hope that Maxwell is one of those.”

Along with the consistent musical quality — “The body of work he put out in his formative years justifies why the fan base is so loyal and fervent,” Mr. Stringer said — the wait between releases might also heighten demand. “Mystique has as much to do with why an artist remains special as exposure.”

Maxwell, who speaks in an intimate, low murmur and maintains a movie-star aura, has come to terms with his drawn-out process, including playing hard to get with fame and renown.

“I don’t want to be forgotten, but then at the same time I want to be forgotten, and then I want to remind you: ‘Hey, remember this?’” he said on the penthouse balcony of a Manhattan hotel, pulling intently on a golden tobacco vape pen. Remixes of his lush recent single, “Lake By the Ocean,” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s adult R&B airplay chart, blasted from a speaker nearby.

“I’m so happy that my success has never been like 15 or 25 million records,” he said, as if he were sharing a deep secret. “That’s everybody in the world liking you. Justin Bieber, being as famous as he is, where do you go? It’s hard to say it’s tough — the guy put himself out there, and he’s making millions of dollars — but can he just not be bothered? You’re not seen as a person.”

Still, Maxwell is knowing about the optics of his “champagne problems” and enjoys the comforts his success has afforded him, including the relatively low-key, jet-set lifestyle that took him to Miami, Dubai and a few islands between albums.

For a traditionalist, he is also active on social media, especially Snapchat, which he uses constantly, and he gets a rush of energy — but always remains diplomatic — when gossiping about the unnamed Hollywood actor he shared romantic drama with, or the career arcs of artists hungrier for the spotlight than he claims to be.

Aside from concern about his public profile, there is Maxwell’s artistic diligence, an intense allergy to repeating himself and others. He eschews the studio trickery of Auto-Tune and will wait — sometimes years — until the right mood strikes him to lay down vocals. When the feeling hits, it works: He recorded the new songs “Listen Hear” and “Lost” in one take each.

Starting out, “I didn’t expect to have ideals about ‘this is how things have to sound,’” Maxwell said. “Most people are business people. They’re like, ‘O.K. cool, I’ll go work with Fetty Wap and Rihanna,’ and they buy their little penthouses, and they’re feeling sexy like that.

“I don’t do it like that.”

Instead, Maxwell has kept the same small team of collaborators and business associates since he first hit it big alongside neo-soul artists including Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.

“They were really down with the black managers and the black producers,” Maxwell said of his peers. “I was a little bit of a surprise to everyone. I walked alone with the odd guys,” he said, playfully referring to his Jewish songwriting partner, Hod David, and white manager, John Dee Hammond.

That outsider status was compounded by rough memories of his upbringing in Brooklyn as the half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican son of a teenage mother. “I just never felt like I had the D’Angelo story” — Southern, raised singing in churches — “which is so perfect,” Maxwell said.

So he worked meticulously for two decades to prove himself as a Caribbean soul singer with undeniable chops. Speaking of that drive to succeed, Maxwell said, “Michael Jackson had it because he had all those brothers that he had to rock. Prince had it because he was very small in stature. I would think that mine came from the feeling of: ‘You’re not going to be successful at this.’” (Maxwell paid tribute to Prince, one of his heroes, at the BET Awards, ending his performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” on his knees.)

D’Angelo, another songcraft and studio obsessive, also retreated inward after finding early success. When he returned in 2014 with “Black Messiah,” his first album in nearly 15 years, it was with a sharper political and racial edge.

Maxwell, though, has stuck to songs of love and heartbreak. He says he keeps up with current events and even watches C-Span for fun. “But I’m not a guy who’s caught up in color and race and creed and gender and sexuality,” he said. “I’m not a fight-the-power guy.

“If Trump doesn’t get elected, I’ll probably make a ballad album of love songs. But if he gets elected, I’m going to have to be a political guy all of a sudden.”

The closest Maxwell comes to politics on “BlackSUMMERS’night” is on the funky “III,” when he sings, “I just want a Michelle Obama lady/To hold me down when the world’s crazy.”

The reference — a rare topical mention in Maxwell’s lyrics — came from the same place as most of his writing: an intense longing, and lingering anxiety, about finding that forever love. Such unions have long been on his mind: His debut album, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” climaxes with “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam),” in which he implores a partner, “I only wanna understand you baby/So will you marry me?” He was 20 when he wrote the lyrics.

Unmarried, Maxwell said he struggles to “know how to receive love,” which is complicated by the adoration (and thrown lingerie) he receives from female fans.

“I feel really good when I’m by the water, reading a pretty good book and when I’m really sure of the love that I have in my life,” he said, adding that such bliss can be “very difficult to find because I’m a little screwed up, because I’m supposed to be, because then I write good songs.

“But then at the same time, the music is so overwhelming that nothing beats it. It wakes you up in the morning and says: ‘Write this.’”

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