Maxwell was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father was Pentecostal and raised in Vieques, Puerto Rico. His mother grew up in a devout Baptist household in Haiti.
Maxwell began working with songwriter Leon Ware and noted guitarist Wah Wah Watson to record his debut Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite in the early 1990s. When the album was finished Columbia had doubts about its potential and shelved it for two years. The album was finally issued in 1996.
Heavily inspired by the sound of classic soul music, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite did not catch on with audiences until the release of its second single, "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)", which became a hit. Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite sold over 2,000,000 copies, earning 2X platinum status, and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
On June 15, 1997, Maxwell taped an episode of the MTV concert series MTV Unplugged in New York City, performing his own songs as well as covers of songs by Kate Bush ("This Woman's Work) and Nine Inch Nails ("Closer"). Maxwell clashed with his label about the release of an album of his unplugged session, so only an EP containing seven songs was released for sale.
Maxwell's second studio album, Embrya, was released in 1998. The following year, Maxwell released "Fortunate", a single written by R. Kelly and featured on the soundtrack for the 1999 film Life. The single peaked at number one on Billboard magazine's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks chart. To date, "Fortunate" is Maxwell's most successful single and was Billboard's number one R&B single of 1999.
Maxwell's third album, was released in 2001, becoming his first No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 album chart and Billboard's R&B album chart. It featured the hit singles "Lifetime" and a studio version of "This Woman's Work"; the Kate Bush song Maxwell covered during his 1997 MTV Unplugged set.
After taking several years off, Maxwell released his latest album BLACKsummers'night on July 7, 2009. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Albums Top 200 chart, his second album to receive that ranking. He performed his hit single "Pretty Wings" at the 2009 BET Awards. An audio clip of the song "Pretty Wings" from BLACK was featured on Maxwell's myspace page in spring 2008. The full single made its world premier on the Tom Joyner Morning Show on April 28, 2009, after the New School/Old School Remix by Steve "Silk" Hurley. "Pretty Wings" is also sold as a digital download on iTunes. In October 2009 - to coincide with Maxwell's autumn European tour, which included dates in London and Manchester - "Bad Habits" became the album's first UK single.
Maxwell received 6 nominations for the 2010 Grammy Awards, including "Best R&B Album" for BLACKsummers' night" and "Best Male R&B Vocal Performance" for "Pretty Wings. In Addition to this, "Pretty Wings" was nominated for the "Song of the Year" Grammy, which is a nomination for the songwriters' of the song, himself & Musze.