It’s one thing for a rapper to tell you he had a fucked-up childhood. It’s entirely another for a rapper to describe, in minute and granular detail, exactly why his childhood was so fucked-up. That’s what the Houston rapper Maxo Kream does on his 2017 single “Grannies.” On “Grannies,” Maxo raps about a period in his life when his parents kicked him out of the house and he had to move in with his grandmother. And rather than offering vague plaudits about struggle and redemption, Maxo economically sketches out the kinds of situations he was facing. For instance: “My brother Ju moved in, he fresh up out the penitentiary / Whooped my ass, he made me to a man, I slanged his crack in vacants.” Or: “My Granny oldest son is Alvin Jr., call him Uncle Main / That’s my favorite uncle; on occasion, he smoke crack cocaine / Petty thief and junkie but he always had my most respect / When I was six, I seen him stab a nigga, and he bled to death.” There’s a whole narrative sketch about Maxo stealing his aunt’s car and using it to commit a robbery, and about his aunt refusing to turn him in even when the police threatened to charge her. Maxo delivers all this information and imagery with a conversational blitheness, his syllables just rushing by, leaving you to sort through it all.
That’s the approach that Maxo uses all through Punken, his excellent new album. Punken has songs about fucking and partying and getting high, but all of that is suffused with the paranoid, damaged perspective of a kid who grew up involved in street life and suffered all the traumas that come with that. Again and again on the album, Maxo raps about his family, to the point where you might start to pick out favorite characters if you listen long enough. There’s the uncle who keeps stealing Maxo’s weed, the older brother who introduced him to illegal endeavors, and the father who would call from prison: “My dad was locked up, doing time for cracking cars for revenue / Twice a week, he call my line to preach and tell me what to do / Told me follow mama rules, read my book, go to school / But instead, I bought a tool, hit the trap with Janky Ju.” But, crucially, these aren’t characters; they’re real people. Or in many cases, they were real people; Maxo raps with that same detachment about how they met their ends.
Punken isn’t an after-school special. Maxo is a lively, slippery rapper, and there’s no sentimentality to the way he tells those stories. Some of the album’s best moments don’t have anything to do with living a crime life. He mixes in relatively normal childhood memories nearly as much: “I was hella young, watching Triple H and Ric Flair / Bust my head open play-fighting with a steel chair / Tryna be a wrestler almost put me in a wheelchair / Thankful for that Medicare, welfare, hell yeah.” And there’s never any judgment in the stuff he talks about. He implicates himself at least as much as his family members, even rapping about robbing his own friend: “Niggas ain’t solid, fake like cut dope / Down since toddlers, daycare, jumprope / Had to rob my partner, had to get cutthroat / Trap got slow, me and Juice sold soap.”
Even Maxo’s present-day boasts are a little uncomfortable: “My shooters so young, they was born in the millennium.” It gets even cloudier when you realize that Maxo and a seven members of his Kream Clicc crew were arrested in 2016 for moving “85 pounds of marijuana, 2,000 pills of Xanax, 13 guns and other contraband” from California to Texas. On Punken, he raps about all the money he has to pay lawyers and all the years that he’s facing. But the point on Punken where Maxo gets most uncomfortable isn’t about the dark past or the uncertain future. It’s about the things that his family is facing right now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, where his mother was stranded for days: “She worked her whole life to move her family out the hood / Just to lose everything she had in the flood / Donald Trump and Red Cross acting like some hoes / People drowning in their homes cuz they couldn’t get a boat.”
Maxo has been at this for a few years now, developing an internet-borne cult stardom on the strength of 2016’s The Persona Tape. He doesn’t sound much like the stereotypical Texas rapper. There’s not a lot of drawl in his voice, and he raps quickly, with clear elocution. He favors beats that are simple and synthy and compressed; a lot of the tracks on Punken and The Persona Tape are closer to UK grime than to Houston screw. Last week, the Stereogum commenter MC Donalds called Maxo “what A$AP Ferg should’ve been,” and now I can’t unhear that. It’s true that their deliveries are similar, and it’s also true that Ferg hasn’t released anything with the purpose or perspective of Punken, the first truly great rap album of 2018.
1. Jay Rock – “King’s Dead” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar, Future, & James Blake)
A glorious mess. Future, in the middle of one of his best verses in ages, suddenly starts screeching like an enraged eight-year-old. The beat sputters out and reconstitutes itself to announce the arrival of Kendrick Lamar. James Blake gets a “featuring” credit for literally singing eight words. Jay Rock, rock-solid as ever, manages to hold everything together. The Black Panther soundtrack is going to be some shit.
2. Payroll Giovanni & Cardo – “Mail Long” (Feat. E-40)
In which a producer from Texas and a rapper from Detroit make a shiny, efficient, note-perfect West Coast anthem, while a Bay Area legend shows up to shout out half-forgotten names from his era. I need it to be summer already so that I can hear this song properly.
3. Your Old Droog – “Cement 4’s” (Feat. Conway)
Conway: “I bust heads / The shit in the clip that cut vests and tear up flesh.” Droog: “These smooth hands weren’t made for a scuffle / I ain’t gon’ duff you, won’t be no kerfuffle.” All over a beat that sounds like a cinderblock shattering in cinematic slow-motion.
4. Busdriver – “Gush”
Dizzy breakneck art-rap from one of the greatest ever to do it. You can draw a straight line from Freestyle Fellowship to Kendrick Lamar, and a guy like Busdriver is a crucial part of that lineage. To hear him still operating on this level is inspiring.
5. Creek Boyz – “Trap Digits”
Last year, this Baltimore crew had a slow-building word-of-mouth hit with “With My Team,” an all-for-one street-gospel slapper. Seems like there’s more where that came from. The harmonies on this just kill me.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
if Bruno really wanted to evoke the new jack swing era he should have had Cardi rap the plot of Ghostbusters 2
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) January 11, 2018