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Maxwell has been gone for a spell. There was a whole eight-year gap, in fact, between his third album, 2001's Now, and his fourth album, BLACKsummers'night, released last year. Still, during that relative absence, his music never entirely went away. Chalk it up to the timelessness of his style from the beginning. From the get-go, Maxwell has delivered the kind of song that has never gone wrong.
By now, his story has become legend. In 1994, he went into a New York studio and recorded Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite. "Neo-soul" wasn't even a genre tag then, let alone a cliché, and his label wasn't sure about the record. So they shelved it, and for two years Maxwell was put on hold.
But finally, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite saw the light of day, and the world got to hear a whole new sound. Sure, the back-to-basics R&B sounded like something they might have heard before, back when songs were songs and singers had guts enough to sing them. But this was updated with the sound of now — so now that the disc would go on to sell more than 2 million units and earn a Grammy nomination.
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From there came his 1998 disc, Embrya, which duly climbed to number three on the Billboard 200 and also scored another Grammy nomination. Three years later, he followed that with Now, which again put him back at number one on that chart, thanks in part to the strength of a definitive cover version of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work."
Maxwell had first sung the song on an episode of MTV's Unplugged, but his label was again reluctant to release it. When he made it a centerpiece of his third LP, though, they had no choice. The song held steady on the Billboard Top 100 and remains a Maxwell live staple to this day.
"'This Woman's Worth' could never not be a part of the set list," he says now. "People would be waiting for me and going, 'Um, hello. You know you missed something.' There would be protests, I think."
It's not the only cover in his live arsenal, though. He has also covered Nine Inch Nails and Al Green, to name a couple, expectations be damned. It's exactly that kind of convention-defying that attracts him to a song in the first place.
"As long as it's something that people don't expect, or an arrangement that is unlike what people would think that the original song would be," he says. "I love to convey music to people that would have never seen or heard it. How many people in my genre or in my world would have known Kate Bush? I know a few who would, but after we did the cover, so many people were aware of how great she was. That's why you do it."
His latest effort, last year's critically lauded BLACKsummers'night, alas, has no covers. But that doesn't stop it from sounding duly inspired or from entering the charts at number one. That's no easy feat for someone who's been out of the limelight for nearly a decade, and the phenomenon doesn't escape Maxwell.
"It's not lost on me how precious and rare that gift is," he says. "I can't describe how gratifying it felt to see that kind of response and that kind of acceptance again, with no need to look or be how I was."
He says that, during his hiatus, he also found it kind of funny to be walking around as a so-called has-been. "There was something fun about being the guy that used to be 'that guy,' especially when I would go out and be in clubs and people would have sorrow or compassion or pity on some levels," he recalls with amusement. "Especially when I cut my hair, it was like, 'Oh, you cut your hair. I guess it's over then.'"
Maxwell can easily laugh about it all now. After all, with another number one LP and a sold-out tour with Jill Scott, it's clear his career is far from over. Got doubts? Hit the American Airlines Arena this Monday and see and hear for yourself.