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Maxwell Is Finally Free

With the arrival of new single “Off,” the singer looks ahead to a future where he finishes his blacksummers’NIGHT trilogy — and owns his music for the very first time

Maxwell released a new single, "Off," on Tuesday. He's planning an arena tour in 2022.

Cliff Watts*

Back in 2016, as the snappy, swooping “Lake by the Ocean” was blanketing R&B radio, Maxwell was already thinking about the end of a long-gestating album trilogy that started in 2009. He had just released the second part, blackSUMMERS’night, and he was daydreaming aloud about following it quickly with part three, blacksummers’NIGHT. “Then I’ll be free,” he joked. Free to start a new trilogy, perhaps. “I can have PURPLEwinterafternoon!”

That vision is now hardening into a reality — with the possible exception of PURPLEwinterafternoon — in more ways than one. On Tuesday, Maxwell released “Off,” a probing ballad full of bass slink and Prince-like vocal flourishes, which serves as the opening single from blacksummers’NIGHT. The singer’s freedom is also quite literal this time, as he’s finally out from under a major-label deal he signed back in the mid-1990s, allowing him to finally own his masters moving forward. His upcoming albums will be released through a partnership with the company BMG, which has become an increasingly popular home for R&B singers.

“There’s so much happening,” Maxwell says. “The end of the trilogy; the opening of a new chapter. When I started out I didn’t know the power dynamics, the ins and outs of the record industry. I was just happy to be on the rise. Later I would hear from Prince, like, ‘You should own your masters and understand the business.’ I was signed back in 1994. Things are different now, and gatekeepers have changed.”

He plans to release blacksummers’NIGHT next spring, after which he’ll return to the stage, where few can match his prowess, hitting 25 arenas in 2022 along with the singers Anthony Hamilton and Joe. And later this month, the singer will also be anointed with a Legend honor at the Soul Train Music Awards, where he’ll perform “Off.” 

Maxwell sees symmetry between the opening to this “new chapter” and his very first, likening “Off” to his 1996 debut single, “… Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” a wake-the-neighbors-with-our-sexcapade ballad that lasts around seven minutes. “It feels full circle a little,” he notes. 

But that’s not to say that he could have predicted that “Off” would start his latest album cycle. “I didn’t think this would be a debut single at all,” he says cheerfully. “I had a whole other idea, a whole ‘nother song that I thought would be better.” 


Unconventional choices have worked out for Maxwell in the past: He led off the album trilogy with “Pretty Wings,” which starts with a series of eerie plinks — the track went on to become one of his most beloved releases. Fans may think of that opening when they queue up “Off,” which begins with a quivering metallic curtain that sounds like a guitar but actually comes from a synth patch. “I’m a James Bond fanatic,” Maxwell explains. “When things feel epic, they feel Bond-like. That patch, that keyboard sound, gave me that feeling.”

As those metallic shards shimmy across the top of the track, the bass also starts to throw its weight around — Maxwell envisioned the low-end in “Off” as a nod to Parliament and Funkadelic. “Some people forget how much P-Funk had to do with experimentation of music, but I don’t,” the singer says. “I wanted to put that into something that’s ballad-y.”

In addition, Maxwell aimed to pay tribute to Heatwave’s “Always and Forever,” a 1977 classic written by Rod Temperton. (Temperton would go on to write George Benson’s “Love x Love” and Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” which are about as close as music gets to walking on water.) “Always and Forever “is one of those songs that achieves every vocal possibility in one song,” Maxwell says. “It’s very silky. That was the goal.”

In the past, the singer has often started songs by wowing listeners with falsetto; this time, he flicks through micro-shades in lower registers. “I wanted to do something toned down melodically,” he says. And when Maxwell sings, “Let’s drink lemonade” in the second verse, he adds a playful shudder to the end of the word. “I realized I could do this bizarre, sheep-y bah-ah-ah kind of thing,” he says. “I did it and I wanted to keep it. ‘This is kind of odd!’ ” His longtime touring backup singer LaTina Webb adds ethereal harmonies.

Among modern performers, Maxwell is unusually open about the angst that surrounds his creative process. In 2016, the trilogy’s second installment was barely out the door, but the singer was already fretting about the follow-up. “I still gotta make another record that’s just as good,” he said. “It’s back to anxiety land.” As he’s about to launch “Off,” Maxwell says, “It’s weird for me to see something that was just mine on the precipice of becoming the world’s.” 

He circles back to this theme as the conversation continues. “Fingers crossed,” he adds. “We don’t know what will come of it. I’m freaked out and scared and hopeful and grateful.” 

And a few minutes later: “There’s so much music in the world now that you never know what will happen or why,” pointing to a recent statistic about how many new songs are uploaded to Spotify daily. “There are no sure bets out here anymore.”

Even as Maxwell crosses his fingers that “Off” will be well received, he also admits that, “I’m not big on trying to be famous.” Looking back on a 25-year career, he sees a discography that wasn’t put together based on decisions about “how much of an audience I want to get.” If he worked that way, Maxwell adds, “I would have made so many different choices. I would have a lot more features in my catalog than I do.”

Of course, he’s not immune to the perks of popularity. “You get into the creative thing because it makes you feel awesome to be part of that tradition, and you want to be liked,” Maxwell acknowledges. But over time, desires change, and new priorities emerge. “After a while you need more challenging things,” he adds. “Then there’s a point where it’s like, what are you leaving behind?”

Maxwell Night Tour Dates
March 2  – Dallas, TX @ Texas Trust CU Theater
March 4 – Houston, TX @ Toyota Center
March 5 – New Orleans, LA @ Smoothie King Center
March 9 – Columbia, SC @ Colonial Life Arena
March 11 – Newark, NJ @ Prudential Center
March 12 – Hampton, VA @ Hampton Coliseum
March 16 – Columbus, GA @ Columbus Civic Center
March 17 – Charlotte, NC @ Spectrum Center
March 19 – Atlanta, GA @ State Farm Arena
March 20 – Greensboro, NC @ Greensboro Coliseum Complex
March 23 – St. Louis, MO @ Chaifetz Center
March 25 – Memphis, TN @ FedExForum
March 26 – Birmingham, AL @ Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex
March 27 – Louisville, KY @ KFC Yum! Center
March 30 – Brooklyn, NY @ Barclays Center
April 1 – Atlantic City, NJ @ Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall
April 2 – Washington, DC @ Capital One Arena
April 6 – Nashville, TN @ Bridgestone Arena
April 7 – Indianapolis, IN @ Gainbridge Fieldhouse
April 9 – Chicago , IL @ Wintrust Arena
April 10 – Detroit, MI @ Little Caesars Arena
April 15 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Forum
April 16 – Oakland, CA @ Oakland Arena
May 7 – Tampa, FL @ Amelie Arena
May 8 – Miami, FL @ FTX Arena

From Rolling Stone US