R&B star Brian McKnight looks back to his hit-making past

Toben Shelby

A veteran of R&B, 16-time Grammy nominee Brian McKnight has more than a dozen albums to his name in about a two-decade span, with a brand new one on the horizon. While it might pale in comparison to the rest of his career accomplishments, a visit to Alaska can soon be added to his resume.

McKnight's new album, "More Than Words," is set to arrive March 5. Despite the length of his career, he remains best known for songs from more than a decade ago, tunes like "Anytime," "I Remember You" or "Back at One." That's something McKnight's aware of, and he kept it in mind while working on the new album.

"This is the first group of songs that, before I wrote them, I went back and listened to my early work," he said in a phone interview last month.

"I wanted to figure out why people kept saying to me 'Oh, your first album' or 'your second album' or 'your third album.' I'm like, 'but I've made 10 albums since then -- why are those albums so special?' " the singer said. "And I think it's because I didn't know what I was doing; I didn't have an idea of what a genre was, so I just made music. And I think that's what I've gotten back to."

While the landscape's changed over the years and album sales aren't what they used to be, McKnight remains an R&B man. He has no plans to change his style.

"I still think there are people out there, and I think it's a testament if you come to my shows and see the people that show up that are people out there that still want to hear the kind of music that I create," McKnight said.

While the focus of the music stays the same, McKnight said he has grown older and wiser. In the music video for the first single from his new album, the singer is seen driving a motorcycle. Turns out he owns the chopper featured in "Sweeter." Years ago, the motorcycle probably would've been a street bike, the kind McKnight used to race before a change of heart.

"I used to stunt and wheelie and endo and all that stuff, but I gave all that up because I had three or four friends die in the space of about 15 months," he said. "And I was like 'You know, it's not as fun as it used to be to go fast and do all sorts of neat tricks.' I got smart."

His lifestyle may have changed, but McKnight's voice remains the same - though he might have made a few fans think otherwise last year. A video online featured McKnight previewing a song called "If You're Ready to Learn." It ramped down the romantic lyrics he's known for and ramped up the raunch. The explicit lyrics ruffled some feathers and had fans online questioning McKnight. According to him, though, it was anything but a serious change in direction.

"It was a song that I released just as a funny gag, because I'm not funny enough to go on 'Saturday Night Live' and do characters, so I put out this song by myself on my YouTube page," McKnight said.

"Some people really thought that that's what I was going to do," he continued. "It was interesting to me that, one, people don't really listen to music, and two, once you've established yourself as something, it's very difficult for people to accept you doing anything (else)."

Regardless of the original intent of the song, a follow-up music video by the Funny or Die website definitely couldn't be interpreted as anything other than a comedic production. The controversy's since died down. McKnight's returned to his passion and is grateful to have an audience for.

"You do what you do and you hope that there are other people in the world that like what you like," the singer said, explaining his motivation for making music. "The creation of something from nothing is one of the greatest things you can do in the world. I love doing it -- I still love doing it."

By Toben Shelby
Daily News correspondent