Maxwell's lineage is a mixture of Puerto Rican and black Caribbean. He was born and raised in New York, and when he was just three years old, his father died in a plane crash. As a result, Maxwell grew up shy and turned to religion. He first began singing in his Baptist church and became serious about music in the early '90s when he was 17. It was at this time that he began writing his own songs using an inexpensive Casio keyboard that a friend gave him. Among his first non-spiritual musical influences was early-'80s R&B like Patrice Rushen, SOS Band and Rose Royce. By 1991, he was performing on New York's club scene.
A perfomer by night, Maxwell waited tables by day. Eventually he recorded a demo tape and in 1994 he was signed by Columbia Records and began working on his debut release. The album, which was eventually named Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, is a concept album that follows an adult romance from first encounter to its last. After it was finished, however, Columbia had doubts about the album's potential and shelved it for over a year. It was finally released in February 1996, but was initially slow to gain interest. Eventually though, the album's songs caught on and Urban Hang Suite went on to sell over two million copies.
The follow-up to Urban Hang Suite, the live, seven-song EP MTV Unplugged, was released in July 1997. The album sold over half a million copies and his next two albums, 1998's Embrya and 2001's Now, both sold over a million copies each. But after Now, Maxwell took a six-year break from the music business before starting to record new music. When asked about the long hiatus during interviews, he's said he just needed a break from the music business. His fourth studio release, which came out in July 2009, is part of a planned trilogy of albums called BLACKsummers'night.