Earlier this year, R&B/soul singers Maxwell and Mary J. Blige announced they would tour together for the first time on the King and Queen of Hearts World Tour, a 24-show run of dates that comes on the heels of a dozen European dates.
Talking via phone from New York where he had just been the surprise guest at Harry Belafonte’s Many Rivers To Cross fest, Maxwell speaks enthusiastically about the pairing.
“[Mary J. Blige] came up at a time when young kids were buying old records and making new things with them,” says Maxwell. “There was Biggie and Puff. It was such a ’90s thing. She blossomed and was able to sing with Bono and Andrea Bocelli and is known and respected. I think people thought she’d be around for a few months or maybe a year or two, but she has staying power. She’s definitely iconic, and her voice is a national treasure. We’ve been friends for a while, and we’ve been trying to make this happen. I bow to Mary. The queen has all the moves in chess anyway. I think she’s special.”
Both have new albums to support. Maxwell released the second installment of his musical trilogy, blackSUMMERS’night
, earlier this year, and Blige has nearly completed her fourteenth studio album. Maxwell says the timing for the tour is “interesting.”
“R&B is currently popular within the boy band world,” he says. “I’m a fan of everybody, by the way, and I have no beef with anyone, especially if you’re under 22. There’s no way I could be mad at you. They love R&B, but I feel like it got lost in the shuffle with pop and house, and all those things that have taken over. This is a way to reintroduce R&B to people. Mary and I are about keeping soul alive and getting people through their pain. She’s badass, and I’m grateful to be doing this thing. I’m glad we put this together after four years of trying to make this happen.”
Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian mother and a Puerto Rican father, Maxwell says he never really sang in the church, though he did go to church several times a week.
“I was very devout,” he says. “I’m still Christian, but I have Jewish friends, and I have Muslim friends, so it’s hard for me to think that they’d all be going to hell if they don’t believe what I believe. I come from a different state of spirituality now and have the idea that everyone can have their own idea of God. I love soul music and gospel and funk. It spoke to me as a kid. It’s never been a thing that I don’t care about. I kept working away trying to convince people that I have a little bit of that going on.”
When he started writing songs in his late teens, he took inspiration from a variety of secular sources.
“I would definitely say Prince and, of course, Marvin Gaye and Sade and Anita Baker, for some reason,” he says when asked about his influences. “I just loved [Baker's] music. I feel like Mary [J. Blige] was the offspring of Anita Baker’s success because she was so jazzy.”
By the early 2000s, Maxwell had established himself as a major star in the R&B world. At that time, he also realized he had only three records left on his contract with Columbia, so he launched a trilogy that began with 2009’s BLACKsummers'night
. He’s just issued the follow-up, blackSUMMERS'night
. With songs such as the atmospheric “All the Ways Love Can Feel,” the album features old school soul and funk tunes that make it sound like it a product of the '70s, even if the themes are quite contemporary.
“It was all spawned by deep psychological issues based on my issues with women and my mom,” says Maxwell when asked about the album. “It’s very cathartic to me. I’ve realized that I’ve healed through the songs.
I think sonically we wanted to have more space with blackSUMMERS'night
. It’s subtle. I don’t like to beat you over the head and guide the audience in that way. I have too much respect for intelligence of those who listen to what I do with the meanings of things. I think good songs tell you what they are and become what they’re supposed to be for the people who listen to them. The third album will close this entire scenario in a very cool way I think. You’ll go, ‘Aha!’ I at least hope you’ll go, ‘Ah.’”
While Maxwell’s career includes Grammy and Soul Train Music Award wins, the singer says he’s most proud of the upcoming tour with Blige.
“For me, this tour is the highlight of my career,” he says. “I was shopping deals when Mary on the radio every day. If she wasn’t on her own songs, she was coming up on a Wu-Tang song or a song by Biggie or Puff. Now, I get to go back in time, and I get to reintroduce our era not only to the people who are now reviving it — I look at fashion and I can’t believe what people are wearing again. The ’90s are very hot right now, and I feel like this is a good look right now. It’s great. It’s music-based and love-based. There’s no negativity. That’s what we’re here to express to the world."
Maxwell and Mary J. Blige: King and Queen of Hearts Tour, Ro James, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, Quicken Loans Arena, 1 Center Ct., 216-420-2200. Tickets: $39.50-$129.50, theqarena.com.