“We can never go back. I know that now. We can go forward. We can find the love our hearts long for, but not until we let go grief about the love we lost long ago, when we were little and had no voice to speak the heart’s longing.” —bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions
There’s a moment when you sit back and reflect on everything you’ve seen and experienced in life. When you’re sitting with a friend and recounting the scars and bruises you picked up along the way. It comes once you get to a place where age has distanced you from the meek voice you had years ago, before anyone really cared what you had to say, and before you felt any real power to seek your heart’s desires.
Los Angeles-based rapper Maxo’s Def Jam debut LIL BIG MAN is the soundtrack to this space. In equal measures, a meditation on the accumulated grief of life and reclamation of his voice.
Thanks to the work of producers Swarvy, lastnamedavid, and Roper Williams, Maxo is provided with a fleet of records featuring lifting jazz guitar licks and saxophone runs. Maxo’s own vocals are clear, incisive stabs of reflective clairvoyance. He recalls memories of hunger (“niggas really selfish eating while your ribs showing”) and dwindling romances (“I was fucking so and so but you ain’t have to jump the boat / can we talk can we smoke?”) in what feels like the same breath.
Maxo raps with an endearing relatability. There is never too much distance between the ground and his raps; a mark most evident in the balance he strikes between universality and specificity. There’s a jarring difference between the artwork for pre-release singles “Time” and “In My Penny’s” and the album cover for LIL BIG MAN. Whereas the two single covers are portraits of different members of Maxo’s family, the album cover trades that intimacy for the back of a child’s head, signifying the faceless anonymity Maxo breathes into the album. “This is for all the niggas like me that’s nameless,” he raps on “Kinfolk,” “it seem like ain’t nobody real no more.”
The entire project sounds like the product of a childhood positioned next to stacks of jazz records, with the pop and hiss of vinyl recalling meals at the dining room table and filling space on the outro to “Crown Heights.” The record, which is cut with loops and quick hitting drum breaks, is the latest addition to the modern canon of “lo-fi” being made by featured artists Pink Siifu, liv.E, and loji, as well as non-guests MIKE and Earl Sweatshirt.
LIL BIG MAN isn’t gaudy self-aggrandizing rap: it’s voicemails from your grandma and counting cracks on the sidewalk. Maxo isn’t a seer prophesying with the wisdom from a long life, he’s just a kid who has been told he’s big now, navigating a world that has given him heartbreak to deal with and murdered people who look like him. He has been rewarded for his survival with a record deal from Def Jam and some peers to help him process all of these feelings.
Maxo is choosing to move forward, but his debut sits in the pocket between childhood and adulthood. It is a chance to consider the lost loves and hurt while he finds the voice to consider his heart’s longings.
What’s a Lil’ Big Man if not just a kid looking at his world trying to reconcile and relinquish all the hurt he’s experienced?
Standout Track: “Strongside”
Best Bar: “my momma told me dream till those street lights hit / cause when you grow into a man you can’t dream like this”
Favorite Moment: The way liv.E and Pink Siifu come in on the second round through the chorus of “Quicktoldme” to sing some DJ Quik.