R & B music artist
Born May 23, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY.
Singer and songwriter; signed with Columbia Records, 1994; released debut LP, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, 1996; appeared on MTV's Unplugged, 1997; released Embrya, 1998.
The classic show-biz cliche of the shy, awkward, and sometimes taunted adolescent who grows up to become a successful sex symbol and entertainment personality describes the life of the soul singer Maxwell. The Brooklyn native, who has been compared to soulful crooners such as Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass, emerged in 1996 as part of a new genre of African American artists known as the "neo soul," "vintage soul," or "New Soul Clan" movement. Along with artists such as the Fugees, D'Angelo, and Tony Rich, Maxwell exhibited the identifying characteristics of this new breed of R&B artists: lyrics that give voice to intense personal expression, creative control over the music, and a unexpectedly successful debut.
Maxwell, who uses only his middle name in order to protect the privacy of his family, was born in New York City in 1973. His parents' marriage was a fusion of two cultures, Puerto Rican and West Indian, and he spent much of his life in a rough section of Brooklyn called East New York. Maxwell's world fell apart at the age of three when his father died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. This tragedy forced him to confront the reality of death at a very early age and he often obsessively prepared for the future. He would line up his school clothes for the entire week ahead, carry cereal in his pockets in case he got hungry, and rubbed soap on himself so would be prepared for his next bath. Maxwell also became a very devout Baptist. "I wanted to find out where my father went," he told Essence writer Jeannine Amber. "Everyone was like, 'He went to heaven,' and I wanted to know where that was."
Maxwell's mother also had a difficult time dealing with his father's death and, for a time, he was raised by his grandmother. Church became an integral part of his life and he learned many of the Scriptures by heart. Since his mother greatly feared for his safety, Maxwell rarely went outside or played with other kids. He often spent his days reading, watching television, studying the Bible, and attending church services. Although he sang during services, Maxwell didn't sense that his voice was unique or unusual. He rarely even talked, let along sang--"I just didn't feel as though I had anything to say until music came into my life," he said in an interview with Michael George for American Visions.
When Maxwell was in high school, a friend gave him a used Casio keyboard. He brought it home and played for several hours without even taking off his coat. Already a fan of what he called "jheri curl soul," which was the trademark of early 1980s acts such as Patrice Rushen, S.O.S. Band, and Rose Royce, Maxwell began to teach himself how to play a host of instruments. He practiced tirelessly and soon emerged as a promising rap artist, a difficult transition for someone with a strait-laced reputation. "It's not like stepping onto the scene was the easiest thing for me," he told Mark Coleman in Rolling Stone years later. "I got laughed at initially."
In 1991 Maxwell gave his first live performance at Nell's, a Manhattan nightclub. During the next two years, he wrote and recorded over 300 songs and played frequently at small venues throughout New York. In 1994, Maxwell signed with Columbia Records and recorded his debut album Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite in 1995. However, due to an extensive reorganization at Columbia Records, the album was not released until March of 1996.
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was a homage to romance and commitment. Maxwell wrote many of the songs on the album following a brief relationship with a woman. Although he never saw her again, Maxwell still had deep feelings for her. As he confessed to Essence, "To this day, when, in my mind, I'm begging, in my heart and soul I'm begging, Please be down with me, I never walk over [to her]. The rejection thing is too much for me." Maxwell produced and wrote all of the songs on Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, exhibiting a level of artistic control uncommon in the recording industry.
Sales of Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite climbed steadily and, in 1997, the album went double platinum. Two tracks, "Whenever, Whereever, Whatever," and "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)," received extensive play on radio stations. Maxwell also attracted legions of swooning female fans. While writing a profile of Maxwell for Essence, Jeannine Amber attended one of his concerts and noted that Maxwell's female fans were uninhibited about demonstrating their devotion to "this suit-wearing, crazy-haired, looking-like-he- walked-out-of-1974 young thing.... [allegedly] the first one since Teddy Pendergrass to whip women into such a frenzy," she wrote. Maxwell's appeal to female fans can be traced, in part, to the fact that he writes respectful songs about them as objects of desire. "It bothers me how women are treated in pop songs," Maxwell told Coleman of Rolling Stone. "I'm doing my best to pay some long- overdue respect to African-American women."
Maxwell successfully "crossed over" to white audiences in 1997 when he appeared on MTV's Unplugged artist showcase. That same year, he released an album entitled Maxwell Unplugged. This album expressed Maxwell's appreciation for the music of other artists and included his renditions of songs by Nine Inch Nails and British singer Kate Bush.
In 1998, Maxwell released an album entitled Embrya. Embrya offered a wide range of musical styles that segued effortlessly into one another, from ballads to the classic soul to Latinesque funk. Anita M. Samuels noted in Billboard that "the lyrics read much like poetry, evolving into themes that encompass sensuality, unity, and a profound respect of womanhood." The album included songs such as "Luxury: Cococure," and "I'm You: You Are Me and We Are You," in which Maxwell pays homage to his Latin roots by singing two verses in Spanish. Time writer Christopher John Farley called Embrya "subtle.... he [Maxwell] forces listeners to really listen, to confront the emotions in his songs rather than avoid them through the cathartic escape hatch of volume."
Maxwell is a sensitive, idealistic soul. In an interview with Michael George in American Visions, Maxwell described himself as "a big sucker for the cheesy, mushy stuff.... I think that comes from my grandmother and the other West Indian women I know. And most of them are the foundation of society in the islands. There is such a respect for commitment and sacrifice. I think women represent the ultimate sacrifice in their daily lives, and I go crazy when I see them."
Despite his role as a singer and sex symbol, Maxwell still craves privacy and focuses his attention on his music. Although he would love to get married and have a family, he admits that it will be difficult to find a woman who can accept his lifestyle. "What I do is so difficult for most women to deal with sometimes," Maxwell remarked in a press release accompanying Embrya. "I immerse myself in my work to such a degree that there's no time. But I've learned a lot from women. I've learned about subtlety, and that intimacy is also about the spiritual and mental connection that occurs. It applies to everything, to how you view art and listen to music and deal with your friends and make business decisions."