Along with fellow founders D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, Maxwell was enormously important in defining and shaping the neo-soul movement that rose to prominence over the latter half of the ’90s. Drawing his greatest inspiration from the concept of the R&B auteur (looking to artists like Prince, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc.), Maxwell recorded some of the most ambitious R&B of his time, becoming wildly popular and often earning critical raves in the process. What was more, his recurring theme of romantic monogamy set him apart from the vast majority of his bump’n’grind lover-man contemporaries.
Maxwell was born May 23, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY; he adopted his middle name as his stage moniker, keeping his real identity a closely guarded secret out of concern for his family’s privacy. Born of Puerto Rican and black Caribbean stock, Maxwell suffered the loss of his father (in a plane crash) when he was just three years old. The experience made him a deeply religious child, and he first began singing in his Baptist church. Still, he didn’t really get serious about music until age 17, when he began writing his own songs using a cheap Casio keyboard given to him by a friend. Initially influenced by early-’80s urban R&B, he progressed rapidly, and by 1991 he was performing on the New York club scene, despite ridicule from classmates who couldn’t imagine the shy, awkward teenager doing anything of the sort. After making a name for himself, he signed a recording contract with Columbia in 1994. Maxwell recorded his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite that year, working extensively with several collaborators: songwriter Leon Ware (who’d co-written much of the material on Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album in 1976), guitarist Wah Wah Watson (who’d also worked with Gaye), and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Matthewman (a longtime cohort of Sade).
Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was a romantic concept album in the vein of Gaye’s greatest ’70s work, with a more modern flavor courtesy of Prince’s influence; inspired by a brief but intense affair, the record’s giddy celebration of committed monogamy could have come off as old-fashioned as its classic influences, given the marketplace dominance of hip-hop soul at the time. Partly for those fears, it wasn’t released right away, although a series of shake-ups in Columbia’s management played a bigger role in the delay. It wasn’t until the spring of 1996 that Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite finally appeared. Sales were slow to take off at first, even though Maxwell scored some airplay with “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’.” The gold-selling second single “Ascension (Never Wonder)” lit the fuse, however, and Urban Hang Suite went platinum before a year had passed, also earning a Grammy nomination.
Now elevated to sex-symbol status, Maxwell capitalized on his breakthrough with the MTV Unplugged EP, taken from his live MTV performance. It attracted attention and acclaim outside the R&B community with the left-field cover choices “This Woman’s Work” (by art rocker Kate Bush) and “Closer” (the Nine Inch Nails hit). Additionally, the Unplugged version of “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever” earned him another Grammy nomination (for Best Male Pop Vocal). Anticipation for his second full-length album was high, and when Embrya was released in 1998, it entered the charts at number three. Reviews were more mixed this time around, with some critics charging that Maxwell’s ambition had crossed the line into indulgence; still, the record duplicated its predecessor’s platinum sales. In 1999, Maxwell scored his biggest hit to date with the single “Fortunate,” an R. Kelly composition he recorded for the soundtrack of the film Life; it was a mammoth success, ranking as the number one R&B hit of the year in Billboard magazine. Later that year, he also cut two songs for the soundtrack of The Best Man.
Now In August 2001, Maxwell returned with his third full-length album, Now, which was touted as a return to the more straightforwardly romantic atmosphere of his debut. It entered the album charts at number one and quickly launched a hit single in “Lifetime.” Maxwell didn’t resurface until 2008, when he performed Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” as part of the 2008 BET Awards. A handful of intimate performances prefaced his fourth studio album, BLACKsummers’night (the first installment in a promised trilogy of albums), released in July 2009. “Pretty Wings,” its lead single, was in the Top 20 of the R&B/Hip-Hop chart within three weeks of its May release.