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Maxwell was born on May 23, 1973, to a Puerto Rican father and Haitian mother. According to Allmusic, after losing his father at the age of three to a plane crash, Maxwell turned strongly toward religion. He played music throughout his childhood, but really started writing and performing music at 17. Shortly thereafter, Maxwell began performing in local clubs. He quickly gained a following and notice among the record labels. According to his website, he signed with Columbia Records in 1994.
Since joining Columbia, Maxwell has released four albums: three studio albums and one live album. His first album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, saw limited success until the release of the first two singles, after which Maxwell gained almost overnight stardom. It has since been certified double platinum, and peaked at number 37 on the U.S. charts and number 39 on the UK charts. In 1997, he released a live album recorded while performing on the MTV program MTV Unplugged. It was not as successful as Maxwell's debut album, but it did achieve gold status.
In 1998, Maxwell released Embrya, which propelled the performer into a whole new level of stardom. The album reached number three on the Billboard 200 and achieved platinum rankings. Maxwell continued this trend with his fourth album, 2001's Now, which brought Maxwell his first number one hit. After releasing Now, Maxwell dropped off the radar for seven years. During that time, Maxwell was working on a trilogy of albums that will be released consecutively over the next several years. The first of these albums, BLACKsummer'snight, was released in July 2009.
Maxwell's style has been compared to that of Marvin Gaye and Prince. He cites these two, along with Stevie Wonder and other artists as his major influences. Maxwell was one of the major pioneers of the neo-soul movement in the mid-1990s, along with Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. These artists were a major force in moving neo-soul into the mainstream where it was previously an almost completely underground sub-genre.