Like a sixth grader who didn’t finish his homework, R&B singer Maxwell has several explanations as to where he’s been for the last eight years. First, he blames himself. “I never saw myself as being a power machine mega star,” he says. “A person who every year they have a movie, they have an album, they have a book, they have a movie, another album, a this, a that.”

Next, he blames his lifestyle. As a performer on the road, “everyone knows where you are every day of every second of every hour. In this time [off] I was totally free with great wanderlust around.”

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

And finally, he blames others. Love songs don’t write themselves, so he needed to get involved with “some really amazing women that didn’t know [me].” (Model Doutzen Kroes is rumored to have been one of them.) “I got to write really good songs from that,” he says.

Whatever the case, Maxwell is back and releasing “BLACKsummers’night,” the first CD of a planned trilogy, on July 7.

In preparation, the 36-year-old has been quietly reacquainting himself with his audience. Last June, he sang a tribute to Al Green at the BET Awards, his first live performance in seven years. Though his voice was unmistakable, fans almost didn’t recognize the singer without his trademark afro, now buzzed into a tame, short ’do.

Shortly after that, Maxwell tested out music from “BLACKsummers’night” on the road, selling out 33 venues, including Radio City Music Hall. He fine-tuned the first of the trilogy — a collection of dark, reflective tracks with a variety of fast and smooth beats — and in April released a single, “Pretty Wings.” An up-tempo second song, “Bad Habits,” debuted on iTunes last Tuesday.

Maxwell’s return comes at a time of shifting tastes in music. In the late Nineties, his sound helped define the neo-soul category with contemporaries D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill. But with the new Millennium, tastes turned toward the pop tunes of Usher and Britney Spears.

“In some ways, I was waiting for that cyclical swing back,” Maxwell says. “Everything has a time and a space. I feel like something’s changing. Especially when Amy Winehouse came out, I’m talking to 17-year-olds that I know, and they’re freaking out about her. That’s when I thought, things are getting fresh.”

Sartorially, too, Maxwell has evolved, trading his soul hippie persona replete with jeans and distressed leather jackets for a smoother, Sam Cooke-inspired look. “When you look at him in pictures, that’s, like, iconic sh-t right there,” says Maxwell. “He’s a black man with elegance. He could make all the girls go crazy, and guys wanted to be him.”

Maxwell’s new grown-up sensibility means eschewing more adventurous choices, like the custom sneakers he once cleaned with a toothbrush and Clorox. “When you’re in your 20s you can wear pink and shiny sh-t, because you’re young and it doesn’t matter,” he says. “But when you’re in the 30s you have to make sure you stay male, stay strong and stay fashionable.”

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