Maxwell spoke to us about social media’s effects on fame, politics in R&B, evolution after cutting his afro, and why his second album, Embrya, was so misunderstood.
“It’s almost like you’re going back in time a little bit,” Maxwell says on the phone, gushing over his trip to Lagos, Nigeria. It’s a Monday afternoon in October, and it’s Fela Kuti’s birthday.
“What an incredible place. I loved every minute of being there. In some ways, it’s a little bit like Haiti,” he explains. Maxwell is a first-generation American. “I was born in Brooklyn,” he says, “but my mom was born in Haiti, and my dad was born in Puerto Rico.”
The 45-year-old musician, née Gerald Maxwell Rivera, intimated to these connecting cultures on his second album, 1998’s Embrya, where he submerged afrobeat-adjacent horns into the lyricless groove on “Arroz Con Pollo” and sang in Spanish on “I’m You: You Are Me And We Are You (Pt. Me & You).” In September, Sony Music’s Legacy Recording division re-released the album, accompanied by an upcoming documentary about its making.
His 1996 debut, Urban Hang Suite, helped form and define the neo-soul movement of the late 1990s. The shapelessness of his sophomore effort chipped away at the sonic structure he built with his first. Embrya was mostly panned by critics, many dismissing the project as one that besmirched Maxwell’s then newly-minted status as the successor to Marvin Gaye’s musical majesty. The album forwent the more traditional jazz, soul, and R&B fusion that characterized his debut, and instead sated listeners with more groove than melody, more ambiance than memorable tracks. Critics largely pegged it as incomplete, self-indulgent, and unfocused.
Though the project was thought to have succumbed to the dreaded “sophomore slump,” as it didn’t garner the same type of uniform acclaim his debut did, it would still go platinum and reach number two on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It would also earn him a GRAMMY nomination for best R&B album. And though he’d lose to Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, he’d still be heralded as a harbinger of the new sound they both lent a hand in pushing towards commercial viability. Despite his immense success, presumed fall from critic’s grace, and hiatus from releasing albums, he wouldn’t go on to win his first Grammy until 2009, when his single “Pretty Wings” earned an award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
Maybe he couldn’t be fully capsulized at that time. It’s a new day for Maxwell, and he’s rediscovering ways to sing about love— love for a lover, for spirituality, for heritage, for self— and how the ways of the world inform the emotion. Tinctures of this materialize in his new music. On “Shame,” the lead single from his upcoming album NIGHT, he sings about the daunting duality of social media and how to love under its regime of modernity and miscommunication. In the song’s video, a striking majority of the male and female models are African. And, according to Maxwell, the continent’s cultures and arts have served as a paramount creative source for him throughout his career.
Maxwell recently sat down with Okayplayer to talk taking risks, social media’s effects on fame, politics in R&B, evolution after cutting his afro, the cost of paying homage, and finding inspiration in Africa.
It’s Embrya’s 20th anniversary. What did that album mean to you back then, and what does it mean to you now?
It means the same that it meant for me when I was releasing it. I was trying to create a new lane in terms of this neo-soul movement that had become very commercial and very expected. After Urban Hang Suite and Unplugged, everyone was like, “you’re just going to give us what we always expect.” Me being the rebel that I am, I’m going to always try to push the boundaries, even at my own expense. I definitely experienced a lot of mixed reviews and had people not understanding what I was doing.
I had such a good thing going. I just wanted to kind of do my art thing — things that weren’t necessarily even happening at the time. A lot of people in Africa got it, which I was blown away by. But a lot of people in the states didn’t really get it.
For me, it’s an amazing validation to see that Columbia, or the “legacy people,” saw it as an album that should be reissued. It makes me feel really good. Twenty years later… my instincts weren’t so far off.
Do you think the album was ahead of its time? You said it had better reception internationally in terms of understanding.
My modest nature just operates from knowing that I’m just the vessel. But a lot of what I’ve heard recently is that it is, because when you look at [what’s happening] now, Afrobeats is becoming the most expansive thing to do. Embrya was that, but it was too early. Maybe I should have waited 20 years later. I don’t know.
“I’m going to always try to push the boundaries, even at my own expense.”
You talk about evolution a lot. In what ways do you think you’ve evolved professionally and personally?
For me, it was going to Africa — going to the place that I have to say inspired Embrya for me. In my home at the time, I had Senegalese art. I was always inspired by Africa because I knew that Africa was where everything came from, all the drums, all the beats, everything. We came to America and the adversity of that, the trauma of that, yielded soul music. And so that’s why Embrya came to me and said, “Make me.”
You had politically charged music in the past. How do you reflect all of that in R&B music without it being so heavy-handed?
I feel like it’s our duty — just as Nina Simone pointed out so eloquently — as creative people to lend our voices to the causes that affect the marginalized individuals all around the world.
The great Aretha Franklin exemplified that to its fullest with her song “Respect,” and what she wanted to feel like as a feminist at the time. And even her song “Think,” where she speaks of freedom. You can take those songs and apply them in so many places: to civil rights era, to apartheid, to the LGBTQ community, to so many things. I think the beauty and, the nuance that you have to play is that you make them songs, but you secretly have this hidden Trojan horse message that subliminally affects the masses to a point, where even without knowing it, they’re dancing to what you’re doing… they are woke.
I want you to be able to listen to the music and come to your own conclusion sometimes, instead of spoon-feeding an audience that is a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for.
“I’m not saying that I’m always ahead of my time; sometimes I’m a little bit behind the times, too.”
You brought up Nina Simone. One interesting part of Nina Simone’s persona and legacy is how important her image was. With your afro, was there any semblance of a political message, or was it just an organic, natural choice?
I just got tired of getting haircuts. I had a flat top, I had a baldy… I figured, “let me just changed up as much as I can.” I didn’t know that once I became an artist, something that I just did that I thought was cool to do, could be connected to some sort of a political message. When I cut it, it was because I didn’t want to be a haircut. I didn’t want my music to be associated with a certain look. I think people play a very dangerous game with their creativity when they make a lot of their music about their image. I was particularly fascinated by Mr. Barack Obama, and I think my short hair was my Obama phase.
A lot of people were like,” I can’t believe you cut your hair off; it’s the worst thing you could ever do for your career.” And then “Pretty Wings” comes out — the biggest song I’ve ever had in my career. It won a Grammy. Even though I was nominated 16 times, I was shocked that, all those years later, people realized I existed. [Editors notes: according to Grammy.com, Maxwell has 13 nominations.] This is what my career has always been; I do something, and it’s not really understood, then later it is. I’m not saying that I’m always ahead of my time; sometimes I’m a little bit behind the times, too.
How do you think the advent of social media has affected how we engage with fame— audiences and celebrities? How do you deal with it?
It’s a necessary evil. It’s another progression in the way of the world. You can’t stop progress. We were riding on horses, then we got cars. We used to go to plays, then we got black and white movies Now we have smart TVs. Pigeons used to have the fly out and give a message, now we have cell phones. It’s not about the technology; it’s about the user.
I’m very tech savvy, but not many people from my generation are like that. I have 300 some odd pages that get created on me all the time, who solicit fans about fake VIP meet and greets. Sometimes they solicit fans to things I don’t even really want to mention here. What tends to happen is something salacious is written and all these pages that live off of controversy and perpetuating controversy take it, and all of a sudden you’re all over Google. I leave it to the viewer and for the user to say, “Is this real?”
This social media stuff all plays into the song “Shame.” People actually think they are having real relationships with people who are only pictures. My real friends — when they want to talk to me and meet me — they call me and we meet. We don’t live virtual lives online. And I feel a lot of the things that women go through with body image issues, stem from the images that they see. And most of the time those images aren’t even real images. They’re filtered out, got the perfect angle. They’ve Facetuned everything that’s real about them, off.
And there are many instances where I’ve been hacked; where someone has got into my account and written something crazy. The world goes nuts thinking that I’m writing this.
Is that one thing about the past that you miss? That not being able to happen?
I miss that, but the past had its drawbacks as well. If you look at something like Embrya — there were, what, 10 real-deal critics? And if six of those critics said that your record wasn’t good, then everyone would believe that your record wasn’t good. A lot of them did that with Embrya. A lot of them have sent me apologies about it, actually — about what they wrote, what they felt and what they wish they would have taken time to understand. They had all these different records on their desk and they all wanted to be cool and like what everyone was thinking was cool at the time.
When you personalize a situation, as most journalists in the latter part of the ‘90s had a tendency to do, because journalists became people who could be famous, they started to get a vested interest in promoting certain artists or not promoting certain artists.
In some ways with social media, that’s what happened with followers. People look at followers and they think, “Now all these people are following this thing, it must be good, so I’m just going to think it’s good, too.” But I think the Generation Z — they’re a little different. They kind of know that a lot of their data is being collected and a lot of their habits are being monitored so that they can be marketed to a certain way. They’re pretty clear about things that I think the millennials didn’t really figure out soon enough.
I’m Generation X. But we have to understand what’s going on in the world. At the same time, we have to use our intuition and our better judgment.
“You can’t stop progress.”
What was the last thing that inspired you?
I’m on tour now… it’s been grueling. But I’m well aware of how blessed I am to be able to be on stage 26 years after the fact. I met a couple who I had to shout out during a show — they met in Iraq. Two amazing African American soldiers; a woman and a man, and they told me this story about how they were deployed to Iraq during the time, when all that stuff was going on in America, and that they would play my songs. When they returned, they got married. It blew my mind.
I also met another couple — two women — who had been together for a very long time. One of the ladies said to me, “I’ve been serving in the Armed Forces for 20 years and this is the first time that I get to come see you. I’ve been watching and listening to your work for so long.”
This is what inspires me; how people in their real lives are affected by the work that I have been blessed to do. They get me through my worst times. They get me up in the morning. It’s not easy to sing in a falsetto after four hours of sleep. But when you hear stories like that, it’s almost like they are the fuel that lets the show go on.
How do you define legacy?
When you truthfully point out your mentors. When you unabashedly let the world know who inspired you. Donald Glover is a millennial, and he’s very clear he likes Earth, Wind & Fire and [Parliament-Funkadelic]. That’s why he’s such an amazing artist to me. But there’s some artists who just won’t give it up. They won’t tell you that Michael Jackson is the reason why they sound like they do.
“Black is black, everywhere.”
I have no problem telling you that Marvin Gaye is the man. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even know what to be. If it weren’t for Harry Belafonte, I wouldn’t know who to be. I find that with the new generation ahead, they’re very clear on this. I just hope that all artists who have been inspired and have had heroes and mentors pay homage. Speak up about it. It doesn’t make you look any less of a star to point out that this person was a very pivotal reason why you decided to make music — even if they were about eight years apart from you in age or eight minutes.
I look at D’Angelo and I have so much respect for him because were it not for him, my record probably wouldn’t have gotten off the shelf. We’re one year apart. I’ve always had love and respect for him, and for the people that inspire him, like Al Green.
I just have respect for people in general who get up there and do something a little different — who shake it up and say, “Hey, you know, there are other ways to be black.” Sometimes black can be black in the whitest person, too. As we can see in so many of the pop stars that tend to get Grammys a lot sooner than us.
Black is very multifaceted to me. Marsha Ambrosius is from England, and she was black to me as anybody who’s out here in the south. And when you look at like Glennis— that wonderful singer from Amsterdam who has a crazy range— she’s almost like Whitney Houston to me. She’s not from, Newark, New Jersey, but she sure feels like it. And those amazing [African] artists out there— Skepta and Tekno and all those people— for me, define black excellence.
I like to say “Black excellence without borders.” Black is black, everywhere.