One of the hallmarks of a true artist is creative longevity. In the case of Maxwell, that’s an undoubtable facet of his rich career.
This year finds him embarking on a “50 Intimate Nights Live” tour—a 50-date trek across North America. In addition, Sony Music’s hip hop and R&B catalogue is reissuing his groundbreaking 1998 Embrya as a two-LP white vinyl package with a 12-page booklet featuring unseen photos from the original Embrya photo shoot by storied photographer Mario Sorrenti.
It’s quite an accomplishment, given the album’s reception upon release, something the artist wasn’t really surprised by. “I just remember when we turned the record in, it was very similar to Urban Hang Suite,” says Maxwell, referring to his1996 debut album.
Photo by Horatio Hamlet
“When that was turned in, it wasn’t what was happening. Music was so different at that time. So, of course, I wanted to up the ante with Embrya. The best way to put it is that a lot of people wanted me to do “Urban Hang Suite, Part II” and go down that road.
“I thought that I had completely failed and didn’t do the right thing, even though, as I was making it, I felt like I was making something from the heart. Fast-forward 20 years and now there are all these Afrobeats and Latin-inspired beats, which are clearly on Embrya.
“It’s funny, because I had no idea how big Embrya was in Africa. I didn’t know. I was in New York City—a Brooklyn-born kid. The great thing about the album was that apart from me just going with my gut, I had these amazing people at Columbia [Records] who trusted me. Especially the Urban Department—which they now call the Culture Department, but, basically, the Black Department—had my back, and they decided that even if I wanted to do something new, they were going to support it.”
The man born Gerald Maxwell Rivera was part of a 1990s era of neo-soul whose sound was defined by artists like D’Angelo, Tony Rich, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, and Macy Gray. For the half-Puerto Rican/half-Haitian crooner, his blend of sensitive introspection and smooth sound drew immediate comparisons to Marvin Gaye—an influence he readily acknowledges. “That’s always been my focus—timelessness.
Sometimes timelessness is a little bit ahead of its time. But I’ve always been a fan of people like Marvin. Marvin Gaye put out an album called Here, My Dear. It was panned by the critics, but now when you listen back to it, it’s probably his best work alongside of I Want You, Let’s Get It On, and What’s Going On?
“Truly in the end, you can have number one hits and 10 million streams or records sold, but if it doesn’t really make an impact and going to hit people and stay with them forever, it’s almost like I didn’t really do anything. For those who do that—and, believe me, I have my friends who started with me at Columbia and are huge—it’s a question of what you want to do. What makes you satisfied as a creative person? If it’s getting as many awards as you can get and getting as many number ones as you can get, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just never been my thing.”
For now, Maxwell is focused on the upcoming tour, and while that will include plenty of his best-loved songs, he’ll also trot out new material for a 2019 project about which he is very tight-lipped.
This next album is titled Night, and its first single, “Shame,” has already been released. The album will complete a trilogy Maxwell began with BLACKsummer’snight in 2009, followed in 2016 by BlackSUMMER’Snight. Both acclaimed albums thoughtfully explore the complexities of love and relationships.
But Maxwell isn’t offering many clues about what to expect with Night. “In these days and times, where we used to have press outlets that would control the pace of things, now if you say something, it’s instant, viral, and it’s almost as if people feel like they’ve heard it and know about it. [For this tour], we’re just going to give them what they love. The songs from the past and a couple of new songs from the upcoming album. It’s pretty much a history lesson of all that we’ve been through with them and their support throughout the years.
“You get to a point where you’re 20 to 25 years into your career and basically what you’re doing is nostalgia, a bit of the new and also just letting people know who you are and who you truly are in your life as you stand right now. That’s the goal for the show. But at the very least and at the very most of it is to get people up and dancing and having a good time.”
Maxwell will perform November 21 at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. Tickets are available at HennepinTheatreTrust.org or call 800-982-2787.