Maxwell: Towards a New Definition of the Elegant Soulman

Maxwell talks slow grooves, soul and sexuality

maxwell 1996 london
Mark Baker/Sony Music Archive/Getty Images
Maxwell performs in London.
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Throughout the ages, they have had a name for this place, Jimi Hendrix called it Electric Ladyland. Prince called it Paisley Park. Maxwell calls it the Urban Hang Suite. In all cases, it is the very model of modern cool, and there are women everywhere, and no one wears much. Since his debut album, two years ago, Maxwell's name has been synonymous with slow grooves, soul and sex. The Brooklyn-born twenty-five-year-old calls his new album Embrya. In case you didn't get it from the title, it's more baby-making music.

So you threw people a change-up on last year's MTV Unplugged album when you covered Nine Inch Nails' Closer.
I just love the song, and I said, "Someday I'm gonna do this." I knew I couldn't rock it the way Trent [Reznor] did it. But it was about taking it to church, about taking something that was really weird, almost sadistic, and making it God motivated. That eroticism is really dope – the fact that God and eroticism can be the same thing.

Do you ever go to church?
I used to go five days a week. It was a Baptist church. I didn't sing in the choir or do any of that stuff. I'd fiddle around on the piano, but I was really shy. I didn't like the attention. My mother can't even believe what I do now: "As shy as you were! I can't believe you are in a video in a bathtub with some girl. Do you know how many people have your records?!"

You were pretty secretive about this new one.
I wanted to do this record that was not unendingly compared to my first record, and to do it without any kind of hoopla or any of that. I don't make music to make records. You know, whatever I have to do, I'm always going to keep my first love. If I'm flippin' burgers, I'm flippin' burgers, but I'm going home to make a song after work.

Do you want me to introduce you to someone at Burger King?
You may need to. Who knows? I used to do it. I worked at Pizza Hut when I was fourteen. I had my first really amazing sexual experience with this freaky, spacey girl I worked with. It was like, ''Yo, I love to go to work. Please.'' It was my first freedom moment.

That's a good work environment. . . .
Oh, yeah, B. Work was banging . . . literally. It was, like, a trip because, you know, everybody has that first girl. You know, you mess around in the beginning – "You show me your thing, I'll show you mine" – but this was me finding out what it was all about.

What's the one article of clothing of yours that you wouldn't let a girl wear?
Oh, I don't mind that. That's kind of cool, you know?

Even that straw cowboy hat?
Well, yeah! There are specific situations where that hat would really work, you know what I mean?

Yippee-yi-yay?
There you have it.

Photos: Maxwell

What's on your disc player?
I've got, like, a compilation that I put together: some Tito Puente, some Massive Attack, some old Deee-lite. I like spacey kind of mood joints. It's funny – I think I'm in a stage right now where I don't feel like music needs to be my life. I feel like so many people want their music to be more in the foreground, really right up there. And I don't feel that. It can just be an amazing backdrop for what I'm experiencing.

Like if you're experiencing, say, making out with your girl?
[Laughs] Word. I've got to be honest with you – that's what I try to do. I mean, not necessarily always making out, but I want it to be the stuff you listen to when you're with your girl or when you're washing the dishes or cleaning the car on Sunday afternoon. To me, that's the best stuff.

Do you hang with your fellow soul revivalists – Erykah Badu or D'Angelo?
We don't really hang because somebody's, like, doing a record, or they're promoting one, or they're taking a break. But I like both of them. I mean, heavily. I think they've done an amazing thing, coming into the R&B market and taking such control of their careers and business. That's dope, man. You know? That's artist-type stuff right there.

In a lot of ways, Erykah has a musical power. A lot of R&B women rely on their sexuality and not on their femininity, which is basically more powerful. And I'm very appreciative. Obviously the initial thing is seeing a pair of breasts that you like and a pair of legs that really work, but when someone has a deep sensuality, that feminine power, that's the thing that draws you to them.

There must be a lot of pressure on you to be this smooth, knowing guy.
But you know what's funny is that my lyrics, everything, is about how I don't know. I find it ironic that people think it's about getting down, but it's just about nerves.

You're not shy about showing your vulnerability.
I gotta be honest: Sometimes I hate all the mushy things that I sing about. It's really hypersensitive stuff for a man, you know what I mean? Because for the guy side of me – the Brooklyn, Puerto Rican, West Indian guy side of me – that's some weak shit. That side of me really hates that I go there, but I know that that's the art side, that it's the sacrificing side. I need to do that because that's what the people I like do. Martin Luther King – he was right there. Marvin Gaye? Everything about his life, his sensitivity, was right there for you.

The vulnerable side could be the strong side.
You know, it's so much easier to be real macho. The world likes that stuff. It's expected. But what's even more fucked up is that that vulnerable side is all out there on my records. It's like everybody knows I'm a pussy [laughs]!

The ladies like it.
It's not like I'm going to run around and act like that with my friends. But I think those are the best times I have had with a woman – when I could admit, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing, baby. I don't know what's going on." You know? But, still, they want you to be their man; they want to be spanked and all that sort of shit.

This story is from the September 3, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 794: September 3, 1998