Maxwell sure knows how to make us wait: First he disappeared after his third album, 2001’s Now, not releasing its follow-up, BLACKsummers’night, until 2009. Seven years after that Grammy-winning LP, the O.G. neo-soul man is finally back with today’s new single, the smooth-flowing “Lake by the Ocean,” from blackSUMMERS’night—the second installment of a trilogy—due July 1. Which means that album will drop the same weekend as Max’s headlining appearance at ESSENCE Festival June 30-July 3 in New Orleans. Now that will be a summer night that is truly worth waiting for.
You weren’t supposed to make us wait so long for blackSUMMERS’night, so what happened?
I don’t know. I got gun-shy, I guess. I just know that life hit me in certain ways, and songs developed and evolved in another way. I’m not the best at wanting to experience certain things in terms of fame and stuff. And then of course with me it’s about breathing new life with real-life experiences. You just wait for that relationship or that thing to make you go, “Wow!” You also want to sonically be on point. You don’t want to play yourself musically. It’s like, “Is it good enough? Is it right?”
But you got so much love after BLACKsummers’night, didn’t you feel confident?
I felt confident, but I’m kind of a weird person in this regard. I always feel like when you’re winning the game you should always feel like you’re losing it to keep winning. If you start walking around like you’re winning, that’s the moment when you might lose. And for me, if it’s not coming from a place of love where I know that I feel good about it, then what’s the point?
So what went down while you were away living life?
I lost two really close family members of mine. I fell in love, fell out of love. All those things kind of hit you. Of course turning 40 [in 2013], it’s kind of, “Wow, I’m a grown man.” Once you get to that place, you’re in a different zone.
What is the story behind your new single, “Lake by the Ocean”?
That song has been written for a while. It was [originally] a lot slower than what we have now. This record’s got more of a get-up-and-dance kind of situation. For me, it’s a weird spot in love yet again, that being able to be all right with the little that you have as opposed to needing more.
How will this album be different from the first part of the trilogy?
To me, it’s always about sonics. With the last record, we had that very live sort of sound. This time it’s got this sort of electronic feel at times. I’m working with the same people who worked on Urban Hang Suite—all of my albums, pretty much. That’s why we are always very sensitive to making sure that we are evolving.
Any particular highlights that you can tell me about?
Well I’m finishing up “III” right now. The coolest thing for me is for the first time name-checking a certain person, and it’s Michelle Obama. I feel like she’s probably one of the strongest women in the world. I wanted to pay homage to her because she’s a very special person.
You’re playing ESSENCE Fest again the weekend that your album drops. What does performing at the Festival mean to you?
It’s the ultimate African-American soul experience. It’s the Lollapalooza of soul music and black culture. All the people that I looked at growing up, you saw them there. It was tailor-made for us. And it spans my career. So it’s an exciting thing.
You just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite on April 2. Did you ever imagine that album would have such a legacy?
Never. Who knew? No one understood what that would be, and I’m just so grateful that I was signed to a label that had a great group of people who were out there hustling making sure that it became what it became.
You still love doing those songs?
Yeah, absolutely! When I’m on stage, I always want to make people feel great and feel happy. That’s kind of why I take my time to live my life on my own terms, because when it comes [time] to get out there and reconnect with the world, then I’m a servant at that point.