After a three-decade career as a prolific recording artist, singer-songwriter Brian McKnight is taking a break of sorts. To be accurate, it’s not a retirement from performing or writing songs—the musician behind such classic R&B and pop hits as “One More Cry,” “Anytime” and “Back at One” still plans on being active on those fronts. But his latest work, Exodus, will be the last album containing original material from him.
“Since I met my wife Leilani,” McKnight explains, “the way I think about things changed. It’s not just about me and my career, it’s not about staying on the charts as long as I possibly can. I am excited about what the next chapter for us will entail.”
Released two weeks ago, Exodus has all the hallmarks of a Brian McKnight record: the uptempo hip-hop-influenced numbers and the seductive slow jams, with the balladeer’s velvety voice as the thread. A majority of the new album’s romantic songs were inspired by his wife, as indicated on a track like “Hula Girl (Leilani).” “Every song I have written since Leilani and I met had been about her or our relationship,” he says. “Eleven of these songs are exactly that. It’s basically our lives.”
Amid the funk and groove-oriented tracks such as “Neva Get Enuf of U,” “Sexy” and “Bad” are some tender ballads on Exodus, particularly “Nobody,” which McKnight considers the greatest song he has ever written. “The lyrics just came to me because everything that I do is Leilani-centric: when I wake up in the morning [or] making her happy. We’re all so focused on the individual of ourselves. It’s not until you give yourself completely to someone else that you realize why we’re really here. I live that every single day.”
Outside of the romantic tracks are two serious and timely ones that round out Exodus. The moving “Can’t Say Goodbye” was written in tribute to basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, both of whom were killed along with seven others in a helicopter crash this past January; McKnight had collaborated with Bryant on the singer’s 1997 song “Hold Me.”
“It was crazy emotional,” McKnight recalls about that song. “I remember I was 8 when Elvis [Presley] died. I didn’t really realize at that moment how many people loved him, and year after year, how many people went to Graceland still mourning Elvis. That’s exactly the same way it felt with Kobe Bryant. It seemed like the whole world stopped. Eventually I found that I wrote what was on everybody’s minds: death is something that nobody ever talks about, something that people put out of their heads until somebody close to them passes. The few times I’ve gotten to play that [song] in concert, it’s completely emotional.”
The album ends with McKnight’s cover of Sting’s “Fragile,” a fitting choice given the state of society today with the pandemic and civil unrest. The track prominently features McKnight on voice and piano. “I wanted to remind people that we are fragile in how we treat one another,” he says. “It’s probably the most important thing that we do. It’s really how we as human beings treat one another that we understand how fragile that is.”
Of how Exodus ranks up there with McKnight’s previous 16 studio albums, including 1999’s commercially successful Back at One, the singer says: “I think the last three albums [Better, Genesis and Exodus] for me are the best records of my life, because they’re completely based on my wife. Every single song is a point in my life I look back to and say, ‘I didn’t start living until I met Leilani.’ It may not be as commercially successful, but to me it’s the greatest collection of songs I’ve done in my life.”
The pandemic has certainly affected McKnight’s concert dates for this year, although the pause gave him time to take a break and rest his voice after years of touring; he has posted live streams of his recent performances on his Facebook page. “My wife and I love being at home. The time we’re spending together, we’re enjoying it. Not working sucks, but we’re coping. The kids have been okay. With everything shut down, it’s a very strange time because there’s so much uncertainty about everything. This is the first time I’ve gone this long without doing a show in 25 years. What people don’t really realize is that for most of us, touring is the biggest part of our incomes.”
Exodus was released by the SoNo Recording Group, an independent artist-oriented label based in Connecticut and whose roster includes such acts as Take 6, After 7 and Gino Vannelli. “Hopefully when some of this music that I have written will revert back to me,” says McKnight, “it will allow me to have the financial freedom to be able to not live my life based on whether or not this next song I write is going to top the charts.” He adds: “Finally for the first time in my career, I’m actually an owner of the thing I create.”
For McKnight, that career included a successful run of hits going back to his 1992 self-titled debut album and his breakout song “Love Is,” a duet with Vanessa Williams—not to mention numerous Grammy nominations and collaborations with Boyz II Men, Justin Timberlake, Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick, Josh Groban and others. It all culminated with McKnight’s smash Back at One album and its classic title song from 20 years ago.
“Very rarely when you write a song can you say to yourself this is a hit song. I kind of felt when I wrote it that it was something special. But what most people don’t understand is how many hands it has to go through to get it to be a hit. There was a meeting that we had with MTV and Francis Lawrence had shot the video. When I saw the reaction of the MTV executives, I knew we had something special. Coming on the heels of “Anytime” and the success we had there, and then with “Back at One” — I’m not sure if we could’ve had a more perfect storm. It takes about 10 years to get to the point where you start to kind of have the success at the height of what you are trying to do. And that was that 10-year period right there, at the end of it.”
While Exodus closes one chapter of McKnight’s life as far as future releases of original material go, it’s opening up another one for the singer. “Every morning my wife and I figure out what’s going to make us happy. She found a quote not so long ago that said: ‘I don’t want to be defined by what I do. I want to be defined by what makes me happy.’ And that’s what we’re doing every day. We’re going to figure that out as we move along day after day.”