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R&B singer Maxwell ends seven-year break

By Mariel Concepcion

NEW YORK (Billboard) - A vanishing act has become practically de rigueur for R&B musicians of a certain caliber. Many make a mega-hit album or two, collect Grammy Awards and critical accolades -- and then disappear.

Lauryn Hill did it. "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" -- six times platinum -- came out 11 years ago. Sade did it. It's been nine years since she released "Lovers Rock." D'Angelo did it. It's been the same amount of time since he put out his platinum-selling set "Voodoo" (both he and Sade will release albums this fall).

Now, after being on hiatus since 2002, Maxwell is stepping back on the public stage. On Tuesday (July 7), the 36-year-old Brooklyn native will release his long-awaited, often-delayed fourth studio album, "BLACKsummer'snight," the first installment of a trilogy, through Columbia Records. Maxwell first announced the trilogy in 2005, saying the releases would be full of heart-pounding melodies and true-to-life love stories.

"The time away gave me a better appreciation of things, so I took the time I needed to live to make this album something of substance," he says. "People tend to be so hell-bent on remaining famous that you become desensitized to the music industry to some level. But my passion is making music and promoting and supporting great musicians."

'A CHANCE TO REALLY LIVE'

At the time he stepped out of the public eye, the R&B singer had released three studio albums: 1996's Grammy-nominated "Urban Hang Suite," which sold 1.8 million copies; 1998's "Embrya" (1.2 million); and 2001's chart-topping "Now" (1.8 million). He also recorded an "MTV Unplugged" session, which was released in 1997 as a seven-song EP

(742,000).

But in 2002, after wrapping up the "Now" tour, Maxwell pulled the plug on his public life. Maxwell says he didn't mean to stay away this long -- he first announced his hiatus as a short break -- and he never stopped making music.

He began living a "pedestrian life, and I liked being regular. It was kind of a recalibration of the system as life experiences caught up with me," he says. "Up to that point I'd been on the road and didn't have a chance to really live. But I write about real-life experiences, so it just felt like I had to sit back and let these experiences happen and inspire me all over again."

Describing the trilogy, Maxwell says that "BLACK" explores a darker, "bluesier side," adding that "it speaks plenty to love lost."

"BlackSUMMER'Snight," eyed for release in 2010, has more of a gospel feel. "It's lighter. It's gospel music for the common person that wouldn't naturally get involved with that type of music. Hopefully they'll get down with it now," he says.

And, finally, "Blacksummer'sNIGHT," with an anticipated 2011 release, is "straight-up slow jam records."

The first single from "BLACK," the lullaby-like "Pretty Wings," is No. 11 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

"I want my music to last forever. I never want my music to be dated," he says of the single. "'Pretty Wings' falls into that. I met this girl who I still respect very much, and although it didn't work out, I got lots of inspiration from it. This track speaks of my time with her."

He describes the second single, the regretful, horn-driven mid-tempo number "Bad Habits," as "the saltiest and most aggressive record I've ever done."

WARM RECEPTION

Times, technology and music have changed since 2002, but the reception Maxwell received during his recent public appearances make it seem as though he never left. On a drizzly Saturday night in June, he performed a seven-song set at the annual conference of the 100 Black Men organization. Women of all ages could barely keep their composure; one even pulled on his leg.

"Fellas," Maxwell joked between songs, "if y'all can't get it together with your lady after you leave this show tonight, you better join the priesthood right quick."

A year ago, he garnered a similar response when he did a surprise performance of "Simply Beautiful" during an Al Green tribute at the BET Awards in Los Angeles.

Last fall he went on his first tour in six years, and although it wasn't supported by any new material, the tour sold out most of its stops.

His performance at the 100 Black Men conference officially launched his new tour, which runs through August 2. An arena trek in September will mark his first stop at New York's Madison Square Garden.

Although back in the spotlight, Maxwell still plans to live his life as he chooses -- like an ordinary person. "I know this sounds crazy, but, at the end of the day, I just want to have a house on the hill, some kids and a wife I will never divorce," he says. "It's that simple."

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

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