“Menace is the crux of his creative existence.” —Shea Serrano
“Menace is the crux of Maxo's real life existence as well.” —Shea Serrano ("Watching the Morph: Houston Rapper Maxo Kream and His Beautiful, Terrifying, and Amazing Video")
When T.I. titled his sophomore album Trap Muzik, there was no specific sound or brand associated with the word. To a degree, he solidified trap’s initiation into mainstream hip-hop consciousness. He translated the rubber band men and Cadillac-riding dope boys, the unlawful lifestyles and harsh living conditions of both sellers and buyers―T.I. represented the trap and trapping as the highway to the destruction that intersected rags and riches.
In 2018, all a rapper has to do in order for their music to be considered trap is talk about Dracos over a Metro Boomin type beat. The sound has taken precedence over the subject matter, with a higher value on style than substance. This has opened up the floodgates of a reimagination of trap into an easily imitated sonic blueprint. As a result of trap’s popularity and booming saturation, the stock for authentic street rappers has risen. There’s a necessary lane for artists who can weave trap’s modern sonic aesthetics with raw legitimacy―the success of 21 Savage exemplifies this growing demand. Lupe Fiasco once asked if we wanted something real, and the answer is yes, now more than ever.
Enter Maxo Kream, the Houston-born middleman who bridges the two traps.
Upon my first listen to Maxo’s “Grannies,” I was stunned by his storytelling abilities. The opening line, “Wake up in the morning, load my pistol, can't leave home without it,” drops the listener into a world where dead bodies are seen but never spoken of, strippers and crackheads coexist in public housing, roaches and ants live rent-free within pantries, and a thieving uncle steals from his grandmother's purse―all of which is woven into the song’s hook. Before you even reach a verse there are vignettes bringing to life an environment far too detailed to be anything but real. There’s no fun in his delivery nor grief in his words, it’s simply the reality he has lived. A family making it together through the tough times.
“Grannies” wasn’t my introduction to Maxo. His feature on Playboi Carti and Da$h’s “Fetti” and the Father-featured “Cell Boomin” impressed me enough to listen to his 2015 mixtape #Maxo187 and 2016's The Persona Tape. Both are good, strong showcases of a hustler with a writer’s prowess and the ambitions of a starving artist. He felt modern enough to break into the current wave of bona fide truth-tellers and entertaining posers while maintaining an old-school influence in his style. His rugged voice paired with strong wordplay caught the ear of the late A$AP Yams, making Maxo another rising name praised by Harlem's forefather of impeccable foresight. Per usual, the world caught on late.
Maxo’s early offerings generated millions of streams, but “Grannies” stood out above his previous releases by presenting a personal narrative that revealed the surroundings that gave birth to the rapper before us. “After this it’s going to be more personal,” Maxo told Pigeons & Planes after the release of The Persona Tape. He always saw it as a mixtape, the nibbler to keep his starving fans content while he completed his debut album.
The long-awaited Punken, released last Friday (January 12), is true to his word as the most personal Maxo project to date. “Work,” the album’s opener, begins with a man speaking in a fervent tone. He speaks of Maxo’s given name, Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah, and how it means “Don't fuck with me.” Knowing Maxo’s persona and physical stature, it’s hard to imagine anyone intentionally pushing his cool. “Work” moves into reminiscent rhymes of his adolescent drug dealing; his narrative never feels focused on telling a linear story, but sprinkling sporadic details to complete incomplete pictures. When he moves into stories of his family, “Work” extends the painting started by "Grannies," a portrait not fitting of Instagram.
Maxo doesn't just glorify, he shines a light on the dark side, showing both the causes and effects that come with living life on the edge. In the final verse of "Work," he recalls stealing his brother’s AK, a decision that indirectly led to him being shot in the face.
Even the harshest lyrics are delivered with calm precision, his voice never stirring underneath the weight. It keeps his jarring candor from interrupting a consistent vibe built on wavy beats. He can admit to his addictive love of drugs and nod to his young shooters with a casualness as if it’s all ordinary, no different than describing a red light turning green.
Punken is a debut focused on highlighting growth, progress, and solidifying Maxo's character. He’s a rapper full of punchlines and hilarious references, who is able to surprise listeners with unexpected bars. The Sonny Digital-produced banger “Beyonce (Interlude)” compares his array of guns to famous celebs, like Beyoncé and Quavo (“Hop out with that Drake like I’m Jas Prince”). “Capeesh,” the Trippie Redd-assisted vibe inducer, finds Maxo bending his flow with a modern suaveness while nodding to his rap predecessors.
“Roaches” is an early favorite, full of reflective nostalgia of days long gone. There are lyrics about Nextel chirps and Limewire viruses, shots at mumble rappers and drug abusers within the rap community, and touching events that have shaped his life. He remembers his dad being shot for a watch in contrast to the Lakers beating the 76ers in the 2001 NBA Finals before the song moves into details of Hurricane Harvey and the horrors of being out of town and worried about loved ones.
Punken doesn’t have the same menacing bite of Maxo's previous releases―the raw life he depicts is delivered without bark, he isn’t portraying a persona but revealing a person who has seen much and survived through even more―but the project is a strong formal debut, with savory production and enthralling lyricism. Maxo Kream understands the climate and is able to sit on the pulse of today’s sound without losing himself. He’s cut from the old trap cloth, a storyteller who would rather tell you about his actual life than fabricate an image.
Maxo Kream is the real deal, and Punken is the autobiography that will bring you a bit closer to Houston, Texas' most promising prospect.
By Yoh, aka Yohxo Kream, aka @Yoh31