Neo-Soul Singer Maxwell Returns With a New Album After Eight Years

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

RICHMOND -- Wednesday afternoon. Six hours till showtime. Maxwell is lounging in the cheap seats of the Richmond Coliseum, watching his road crew assemble the stage as if it were giant, real-life game of Tetris.

Just a year ago, the resurgent superstar would have been able to attend a concert here -- even sit in this very seat -- without garnering a squeal, a smile or a second glance. But when the lights go down later in the night, a packed house will greet the singer with grown-woman shrieks usually reserved for the likes of Al Green.

Call it a comeback that no one saw coming -- including Maxwell. His latest album, "BLACKsummers'night," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart in July, officially ending a multiyear hiatus from the stage, the radio and the ever-bourgeoning blogosphere. Now the prodigiously gifted, intensely private 36-year-old is enjoying the biggest tour of his career.

"BLACKsummers'night" has sold 779,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- 55,000 of which were snatched up in Washington. The singer says the District is his strongest market -- a fact evidenced by lead single "Pretty Wings," which has taken up permanent residence on local airwaves since early summer. It's a resplendent slow jam adorned with haunting gamelan chimes -- and he'll surely be crooning it when the BLACKsummers'night Tour lands at Verizon Center on Friday night. (Remaining tickets are expected to sell out before showtime, according to a Verizon Center spokesperson.)

So where's he been? Maxwell smiles at the question and says his exile was entirely self-imposed -- an attempt to reclaim his anonymity and the regular-dude love life that went with it. He recounts his time away in fond tones and a sandpapery rasp that belies his gravity-defying falsetto.

"I think by taking that break and living a life and meeting girls who actually didn't know who I was, where I didn't have to rest on those laurels and actually had to work for it instead of just having it fall in my lap -- that actually made ["BLACKsummers'night"] appealing to the masses," he says. "It made them sort of believe me more."

It also reaffirmed the faith of older fans who had been following Maxwell since the glory days of neo-soul -- the late-'90s movement that adopted a heady, old-school ethos in hopes of vanquishing the bling-encrusted hip-hop of the day.

Some of neo-soul's biggest stars were venerated too fast, too soon, and disappeared into the shadows of their own success. After watching Lauryn Hill and D'Angelo derail, fans wondered if Maxwell's premature exit was something beyond his control.

"I think people just assumed something had to be wrong," he says. "'Why wouldn't he want to be famous?'"

Well, why?

"Fame . . . it kind of kills the humanity and the humility of music for some reason," he says. "You're like this product all of a sudden and you have to stay in this Superman costume with people telling you that if you cut your hair, your career is over."

The iconic, blown-out Afro that he's referring to wasn't the only thing that made Maxwell famous -- but it helped. He first emerged in 1996 with "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" -- a stunning debut album that would eventually go double platinum. His reputation grew through 1998's "Embrya" and 2001's "Now," and his myth solidified when he vanished soon after. When the world finally tugged him back toward music, he heard the call coming from the speakers of a drug store.

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