blackSUMMERS'night, out now, is Maxwell's first album in 7 years, and the second installment in a trilogy series. Its reach is vast: there are love songs, vividly introspective lyrics, and impressive falsettos. The result feels both contemporary and timeless, and it’s apparent that Maxwell, now 43, didn’t rush on this project. While working on it, he experienced loss and took time to process all that he'd been through to make a heartfelt album for the fourth time.
While he was in New York, Maxwell talked to The FADER about blackSUMMERS'night, the importance of taking time to live life while working on music, and what he’s working on with Melo-X and Nate Parker.
What experiences inspired this album's sound, and its content?
This album is the continuation of the first BLACKsummers'night record [from 2009] a little bit. I’m not really a trend guy. So I was just wrestling with trying to make something that was upbeat, but didn’t have that element of what was current for the time. It’s all cyclical at the end of the day. You don't want to hear yourself sound like more of just the "new" thing. You know, I like “Panda” and all the stuff that everybody listens to. But I know my lane. You want to feel hot to people and progressive. It's progressive soul — I get inspired by the newest things in life, then I gotta go back to who I’m supposed to be. We stick to the basics and things that will make you move emotionally.
Apart from that, I’d get on my bike and ride through the city streets with my headphones on and jam to records that I like. Some of them would usually be records that you wouldn’t think I would like.
You wanted this record to sound contemporary, but also sustain in the future.
Yeah. That’s why it’s kind of like an anxiety attack to put out a record. I had a seven-year break. Coming back, and the pressure of that, created anxiety. Like, “What am I gonna do now?” I’m so anti-formula. I want you to know it’s me but I don’t want to sound like, “Oh here he goes again. Doing that thing again.”
I work with a very small team that I’ve known since my early twenties. I’m not running around with a producer or songwriter. I’m writing songs. I'm making the decision to collaborate with Nas, and Alicia, and of course the great honor to be able to do a song with R. Kelly who is one of the most prolific “write from the heart” and “sing from the heart” songwriters. Everything takes a little more time for me because I want to have experiences that’ll infuse the spark in the performance in a way that people are like, “Wow, okay. We believe him.” Even for the entire night, emotions sort’ve cut through glass. That’s kind of what the struggle is. I like to have down time.
What makes a song everlasting?
I don’t know! Even with the most modern sounding people — like when I think about Prince, it was always rooted in soul. He did have his pop flair and he got everybody to be excited about that rock & roll in his sound. But when you hear,“Beautiful Ones,” “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” — you can sit down and play them on the piano and it’s so full of energy and gospel. That’s what made me happy about what he did.
I stay away from trying to be a pop guy because I feel like it’s this downward spiral at the end of the day. It's so easy to get played out when you go there. At the same time, soul music can become popular. I prefer to be soulful and popular.
Some of my favorites on the album are “Lost” and “Of All Kind.” How personal are those songs?
So personal that it’s like, “Oh my God, I'm going to regret writing this song.”
There are artists who are geniuses at selecting the right song for themselves. They don’t necessarily have to be writing the songs. But for the songwriters out there, you really need to have gone through something to fully gauge the energy that you can create when people hear that song. I'm just trying to speak from the truth of my life and come from a perspective of, “What did I go through today? How much did it hurt? How broken was this heart?”
My cousin became involved with the soul of the album when he passed away. Then other family members passed away. "Of All Kind" started out as this ode to expressing yourself to someone. Now there’s a bit of, “You’re gone” or “If I should die,” type of thing in it. Those real-life topics.
What are you working on with Melo-X?
He's doing a remix of "Lake By The Ocean." It's the number one Urban record of the week this week, so it’s like, “Okay guys here’s another version that you can have some fun with to keep this thing at No.1 for a while please."
Melo-X is amazing. He did a tribute to the first the first BLACKsummers'night a long time ago and it blew my mind that he did that. He did a version of “Bad Habits” that was just so sick. So we developed a relationship and I had to get him involved. Also now we have Kaytranada and Ashton Shuffle involved [to do remixes]. We’re working with Michael Brun too. This new remix we did is so, so, so island. It's insane. People are going to say, "Max is going a little hard now, I see."
I’m just trying to speak from the truth of my life and come from a perspective of, ‘What did I go through today?’ and ‘How much did it hurt?’ ‘How broken was this heart?’
Recently, you tweeted, “Music is the vagina.”
[Laughs] Oh yes. It comes back to haunt me.
What were you thinking?
It was a few whiskies later. But, I do believe that it’s the center of all creation and everyone comes out of one. I think all creativity is pretty feminine. True creativity is coming into connection with a part of you that we all come from: “This Woman’s Work.” So, I don’t know why I wrote it. But I did and thank God all my sponsors weren’t upset.
You wrote a song for Nate Parker’s new film, Birth of a Nation. What is it about?
I wrote the song, "Rose," based on a particular scene in the movie where Nat Turner gives his wife, who he calls Queen, a rose. To me that was a pivotal point in his movement, as someone who was going to stand up and resist. I think it was all about love at the end of the day. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he was moved by that experience, I feel, to then eventually do what happened in the film.
“Rose” is a love song, in the context of a character that’s widely known for being the guy that led one of the first revolts in slavery. I have different opinions in how he did it. I’m being very real about this. Was it about him? Was it about the love affair that he had? Was it about ego? Did he consider all the other people who would die because of his standing? I look at things in more of a Martin Luther King Jr. and Marvin Gaye way. I believe the best way to destroy your oppressor is to hold the mirror up and let them see who they are. But, resistance is also very central. It all works how it works in the grand scheme.
I don’t know how it’s all going to work out [with the song's release] because it’s Hollywood and there are a lot of moving parts. The movie is graphic but necessary to watch and hopefully there will be some involvement. It seems like I’m getting into more of a political thing.
How do you feel about that, becoming more political?
I think that it might be time for me, at 43. I’ve been doing this whole love man thing, but I think it’s maybe going to go down that road. Sometimes I wonder what [my next album], NIGHT is going to be about. I write all of these songs and then I get into these moments in my life where things shift, and I have to rethink the perspective.