New York is the kind of place that draws creative types. Some of us relocate from other places, but some of us have been here forever. And the thing about being a creative type anywhere, but especially in New York, is that you usually can’t survive on your art right away — unless, of course, your creativity leads you to forge your own currency, but that could lead to other problems. But usually, if you want to be able to make great art, you kind of have to work your ass off.
Take neo-soul powerhouse Maxwell, for instance. Born and raised in East New York, he worked odd jobs as a teenager to support himself as he attended school, and, somehow, managed to write more than 300 songs before landing a deal with Columbia (and four platinum records). He’s sold out shows all over the world, but next weekend he’ll come home for a show at Coney Island. Maxwell’s fifth album, blackSUMMER’Snight, drops today.
His debut album, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, came out 20 years ago, in 1996. It was a neo-soul R&B masterpiece that rose to No. 8 on the R&B album charts and No. 37 on the Billboard 200, and Maxwell ended up selling out Radio City Music Hall for three consecutive nights. He was said to have defined the “neo-soul” genre, along with other legends Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. And, in more recent news, he just gave this incredible performance at the BET awards last weekend, which included a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (eat your heart out, Sinead O’Connor).
But let’s get back to those humble beginnings: One of his jobs was working as a busboy at Union Square’s The Coffee shop, which, apparently, was a hub of sorts for young creatives in the ’90s.
“I worked [at The Coffee Shop] ’til like 3 in the morning,” he told Okayplayer, “and then I had to get up and be to school by 6. And then I had crazy homework. I was trying to make money to buy instruments by picking up dirty dishes.”
Working a service industry job to support your art? Sounds oddly familiar. Apparently The Coffee Shop was a bit of a hub for young creative types in the ’90s, and Maxwell met one of his collaborators there. It just goes to show that you never know who you’ll meet here: there are creative types everywhere, especially in the service industry.
So as a young man, Maxwell had already progressed by leaps and bounds from a busboy writing an extensive catalogue of secret songs to a Radio City headlining, platinum artist who was described as “the lovechild of Prince and Sade.” He followed Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite with two other platinum albums, 1998’s Embrya and 2001’s Now.
Maxwell has a lot of fans, which is a thing that happens after you’ve been around for 20 years and had four platinum albums. And if you’re one of them, his new album title, blackSUMMER’Snight, might sound eerily familiar: his last album, BLACKsummer’snight, dropped in 2009. blackSUMMER’Snight is the second in a trilogy of albums with the same title, but different capitalization. The Wall Street Journal describes it as:
“Maxwell styled himself as a restless, soul-searching romantic. His trilogy is loosely based on the concept of a night out for a woman named Black Summers, he says. The first installment, steeped in horns, keyboards and kickdrums, followed the push and pull of a relationship. The second album is largely upbeat and influenced by electronic music. At the same time, his voice assumes a rougher edge, departing from his clean falsetto.”
Though there was a seven year gap between BLACKsummer’snight and blackSUMMER’Snight, the next and final installment in Maxwell’s trilogy will hopefully come around sooner rather than later. But Maxwell has gotten wary of his own success, as he told The New York Times of taking time off between albums:
“I couldn’t believe how big [blackSUMMER’Snight] got. It freaked me out.”
Well, regardless of how long it takes the third installment of Maxwell’s trilogy to come out, we’re excited for the second installment. And I’m excited that Maxwell will be hitting the new amphitheater in Coney Island July 9 (tickets start at $50). I’m just trying to decide whether I should get chili cheese fries from Nathan’s before his set or after.
But real quick, can we talk about this song for a minute? I know I’m writing about Maxwell’s new album, and “Til The Cops Come Knockin'” is off of 1996’s Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, but DANG. SO SMOOTH. I’m listening to it as I write this, lighting candles and pouring a glass of wine. Okay, so the wine is for me, and I’m going to immediately blow out the candle lest my cat knock it over, but still. This song is sexy as hell.
Lilly Vanek is the music editor for Brokelyn. For more about local music and thoughts on when is the right time for chili cheese fries (spoiler alert: always. It’s always the right time for chili cheese fries), follow her on Twitter. And to pitch New Music Friday, email Lilly at lilly [at] brokelyn [dot] com.