An elderly woman and what looks like her granddaughter are striding slowly across the street to a bus stop. Two blocks back a Maserati zooms by as if it owns the street. This juxtaposition is stirring; residents humbly walking around while outsiders patrol the streets in the comfort of luxury cars. Highland Park wasn’t always like this, but the Los Angeles neighborhood has undergone quite a bit of gentrification over the past few years.
I park my car and start walking to one of two coffee shops in the vicinity, looking for a spot to post up and prepare for my interview. A short time later, a tall, lanky man, wearing a blue hat and clean white tee with a “C” embossed on its front, crosses the street in front of me. He has a cool confidence. That’s Maxo, I thought.
He looks up, waves. Seconds later, we are dapping up in the street.
The first coffee shop is a bust, I tell him. We'll probably have better luck at the second spot.
“How you doin’ man?” I ask, trying to break the awkwardness of introductions. “I’m good,” he responds. “I’mma get a drink, you want one?”
We wander to the counter, observing the building's big windows and decor of the room, the menu, and the list of drinks and their prices. We share a distrusting laugh when we both read “Fried Chicken and Waffles.” I hear Maxo murmur in thought. I order a cold brew. He an iced tea.
“Highland Park is so different,” I say.
Instinctively, Maxo knows what I mean. “I don’t really be out here. I know the Mexicans gotta be mad tho,” he replies, an understatement if I ever heard one.
For the next few hours, this gentrifiers' Paradise is our home.
On March 15, 2019, Maxo, 24, released his major label debut, LIL BIG MAN. His journey, from Inland Empire native to Def Jam recording artist, begins with his older brother, Myles (aka Sharp).
“I started rapping because of him,” Maxo says, pensively. “He was rapping and he fell off a bit tryna get his mind right and that shit just kind of sparked my inspiration for it in a sense.”
Listening to Maxo talk about mental health and how gravely it is mishandled in the Black community reminded me of my adolescence. I remember hearing about how mental health was some kind of spiritual imbalance, one that could be studied or prayed away. In his brother, Maxo could acknowledge the depths of the illness.
“That’s why that shit is so important to me, bro,” he begins, “because I was with him through those moments. But to hear his verse on [Smile]—he hadn’t rapped in like three or four years.”
“It’s interesting,” he continues, “how we all think about things differently. Life can open you up to whole new shit.”
Credit openness with the growth Maxo has displayed in his music over the past four years; his first two projects, 2015’s After Hours and the aforementioned Smile, both released independently, were both rooted in specific feelings. On LIL BIG MAN, Maxo moved on from this approach, adopting a more reflective tone. When prodded about this difference in viewpoint, Maxo chalks it up to being a student of life.
“I just turned 24, niggas is far from all the way grown,” he says. “I need niggas to understand, I’m learning myself through my music. I’m not tryna give off the ‘I’m up here, look at me.’ I’m learning.”
With every sentence spoken, the dusty jazz loops and flipped samples in his songs come to life, thankfully, replacing the monotonous drawl of coffee shop music playing in the background. I envision Maxo being held in his grannie’s arms just long enough for his mom to snap a picture—the image that would become the single art for “Time.”
“It’s just what I feel,“ says Maxo, when I ask him about his specific writing style. “I be making sure to speak on what I feel, it’s a lot of ‘I… I… I’ but it really is. It’s just gotta be my shit.”
For Maxo, music is therapy, a promise he knew he had to keep for himself. “Since that whole shit with my brother and how I started this music shit,” he says, “no matter how far I get in this shit, no matter what happens, I just always need to keep this therapeutic. That’s important to me.”
As the clouds start to shift overhead, the shade begins to pull back on Maxo. There is a glint of sweat peeking under the lining of his cap as the sun sits squarely on its bill. I ask Maxo about signing a recording contract with Def Jam, a deal that took months to negotiate and was the result of “the internet and good A&R’s.”
“The first time I went to New York [to make connections and record music] was two years ago in September of 2017 and then I came back home and then they hit me when I was back home,” Maxo begins. “Then me and my mom went to Senegal for like three weeks and we was [still] negotiating. It was a process, so like two years, lowkey.”
Signing to a major label is a new set of circumstances to navigate, but more than that, Maxo believes the deal is an opportunity to impart guidance on his closest friends—some of whom are also pursuing careers in music.
“We gotta realize we are inspiration’s inspiration,” Maxo says, almost defiantly. “We can’t lose sight of the root of this shit… the wave is us and everyone else is coming in like ‘What y’all doin?’ I need niggas to realize that we making others better.”
He’s right, and for proof look no further than Slauson Malone's newly-released album, A Quiet Farwell, which features a guest appearance by Maxo on “Smile #2,” one of four “Smiles” on the album.
Noticing a motif in the recurrence of the word "smile," I ask Maxo to explain what the word means to him. He repeats his mantra: “Smile through it, smile through the pain.”
As I engage Maxo in a new line of questioning about what he must do to take the next step in his career, a man steps out the backdoor of the coffee shop, surveying the back patio for a spot in the withering shade. For a moment, the only sound is the door’s creaking.
“Ima keep it honest with you,” he says. “To me, it feels like I already won. My momma done cried on the phone and my mom is not a crier. My uncle done cried on the phone, talking about my [music]. Just that alone, that is worth everything. It’s so many times that it’s been the opposite because I’ve been on bullshit. [For them] to be proud of me putting [my music] out into the world, that’s what I'm proud of. That’s it.”
“I just want niggas to know,” he continues, “that as a Black man we have power.”
In desperate need of shade, Maxo and I move our seats. This time our transition is accompanied by a more comfortable pause. Maybe it was moving out of the heat, or maybe it was the time that passed, but more than enough words were exchanged for familiarity to take hold. I open up a bit.
“I wanted to make the theme of our conversation growth,” I told Maxo, “but the more we talk, it almost seems like the wrong word. Growth implies looking back and moving forward, and this conversation has been almost a redefinition of growth to be more present. When people hear that word they think of past to future but our conversation proves growth is very much a now thing.”
Maxo's eyes widen; I piqued something. “It is,” he replies. “If you aren’t fixing it or working on it right now you never gone be ready. I’m doing it right now, this is part of it.”
It took two hours, but we finally reach a conclusion: growth isn’t something that simply happens, nor does it exist on a continuum; it is a conscious choice that is made every second of every day—like deciding to wear a smile.
I didn’t fully appreciate the brilliance of the above statement until Maxo and I parted ways and I was on the 210 freeway, driving home through the same hills that just two years ago were covered in brown after being ravaged by fires. Today, green covered hills glimmer under the mundane radiance of grass reflecting sunlight; the arc of life.
Maxo was right, I thought to myself. Today is beautiful.