Maxwell refuses to play it safe

Embrya,” as a 2-LP white vinyl package topped off by a new 12-page booklet featuring unseen photos from the original “Embrya” photo shoot by storied photographer Mario Sorrenti. It’s quite an accomplishment, given the reception the album received upon its release, something the artist wasn’t really surprised by.

“I just remember when we turned the record in, it was very similar to ‘Urban Hang Suite’ (Maxwell’s 1996 debut album),” he says. “When that was turned in, it wasn’t what was happening. Music was so different at that time. So of course, I wanted to up the ante with ‘Embrya.’ The best way to put it is that a lot of people wanted me to do ‘Urban Hang Suite, Part II’ and go down that road. For me, I always have to push the boundaries, even at the risk of my own career and my standing.

“I thought that I had completely failed and didn’t do the right thing, even though, as I was making it, I felt like I was making something from the heart,” Maxwell says. “Fast-forward 20 years and now there are all these Afrobeats and Latin-inspired beats, which are clearly on ‘Embrya.’ It’s funny, because I had no idea how big ‘Embrya’ was in Africa. I didn’t know. I was in New York City — a Brooklyn-born kid. The great thing about the album was that apart from me just going with my gut, I had these amazing people at Columbia (Records) who trusted me. Especially the Urban Department, which they now call the Culture Department. But basically, the ‘Black Department’ had my back and they decided that even if I wanted to do something new, they were going to support it. And radio supported it the best they could with all they were getting, alongside all the records that were being released at the time by artists like Erykah Badu.”

Along with Badu, the man born Gerald Maxwell Rivera was part of a 1990s era of neo-soul whose sound was defined by the likes of artists like D’Angelo, Tony Rich, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill and Macy Gray. For the half-Puerto Rican/half-Haitian crooner, his blend of sensitive introspection and smooth croon found on ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’ drew immediate comparisons to Marvin Gaye. It’s an influence he readily acknowledges.

“That’s always been my focus — timelessness. Sometimes timelessness is a little bit ahead of its time to be timeless. But I’ve always been a fan of people like Marvin. Marvin Gaye put out an album called ‘Here, My Dear.’ It was panned by the critics. But now, when you listen back to it, it’s probably his best work alongside of ‘I Want You,’ ‘Let’s Get It On’ and ‘What’s Going On?’ He’s always been an artist and that’s always been a thing that’s driven me,” Maxwell says. “I try to be as much of that as possible. Truly in the end, you can have No. 1 hits and 10 million streams or records sold, but if it doesn’t really make an impact and isn’t going to hit people and stay with them forever, it’s almost like I didn’t really do anything. For those who do that — and believe me, I have my friends who started with me at Columbia and are huge — it’s a question of what you want to do. What’s your point of view? What makes you satisfied as a creative person? If it’s getting as many awards as you can get and getting as many No. 1s as you can get — there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just never been my thing.”

For now, Maxwell is focusing on his tour, and giving the people what they want. And while that will include plenty of his best-loved songs, he’ll also trot out new material for a forthcoming 2019 project about which he is very tight-lipped.

“We used to have press outlets that would control the pace of things. These days if you say something, it’s instant, viral and it’s almost as if people feel like they’ve heard it and know about it,” he says. “For this tour, we’re just going to give them what they love. The songs from the past and a couple of new songs from the upcoming album. It’s pretty much a history lesson of all that we’ve been through with them and their support throughout the years.

“You get to a point where you’re 20 to 25 years into your career and basically what you’re doing is nostalgia, a bit of the new and also, just letting people know who you are and who you truly are in your life as you stand right now,” Maxwell elaborates. “That’s the goal for the show. But at the very least and at the very most of it is to get people up and dancing and having a good time.”

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