Will they be the same band? That’s something we used to worry about. From the post-Nirvana early-’90s grunge boom all the way through to the mid-’00s, some of us would bellyache every time one of our favorite bands signed a major-label deal. We would want these bands to succeed and thrive, but we would always fixate on the idea that these labels could take away all the things that made these bands special — that they’d streamline these bands, dumb them down, in the hopes of getting radio play. Those worries were not unfounded. But now, those worries are obsolete. If a major label even bothers to sign an indie rock band, they’re absolutely not going to attempt to change that band’s voice. There’s not enough money in it, and there’s no hope of that band getting airplay anyway. Instead, these days, we have to ask a new question: Will they be the same rappers?
Right now, America’s rap underground is thriving. Or, more accurately, there are dozens of different interlinked American rap undergrounds, and a whole lot of them are thriving. In the streaming world, rappers can find huge audiences thanks to the lightspeed spread of internet word of mouth. Rappers are blowing up without needing to sign major-label deals, so of course labels are going all-out to sign all the promising young rappers they can find, throwing around vast sums of money in the process. And because there’s still money in it, plenty of newly minted major-label rappers are seeing their records get A&R’ed to death. It’s the same thing that happened to rock bands 20 years ago. Anytime a new rapper’s major-label debut comes out, it arrives with a hint of trepidation. Have the labels been fucking around with these rappers’ styles? Are we losing another exciting young voice to the machine? Are we going to hear another obligatory Travis Scott collab? So it gives me great pleasure to report that Maxo Kream is still Maxo Kream.
Maxo Kream, a Houston underground paragon who’s been sharpening his voice and his style with astonishing speed over the past few years, made the big announcement on “Still,” a single he released at the beginning of May: “Still making deals, just signed me a deal / Signed to RCA, 1.5 mil.” Helmet money. And yet “Still” itself was a sparse, breathless, masterful track. With one song, Maxo crowed about his come-up while reassuring the rest of us that he hadn’t changed. If anything, he remained dangerously entwined with the street life that has led to things like a 2016 organized-crime arrest: “Still sellin’ dope, label like I need to chill / Still reppin’ 10110 Murder Blocc still.” The rest of Brandon Banks pays off on that promise.
There’s an overarching theme to Brandon Banks. The album is named after Maxo’s father, but it’s not Maxo’s father’s actual name. Maxo’s father is a Nigerian immigrant named Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah. (Maxo himself is Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah, Jr.) Brandon Banks is an alter-ego, a name that Maxo’s father used when he was doing dirt. Maxo’s father was not a constant presence when he was growing up; he spent too much time in prison to be there for all the big milestones. But Maxo’s father is a big presence in his music. His father’s voice shows up again and again, dispensing advice and encouragement. And all through Brandon Banks, Maxo reflects on his own upbringing, on the hardships that he and his family faced. But Brandon Banks — like Punken, the underground album that Maxo released last year — does all this self-interrogation in the context of a hard, nasty rap record. It’s not a ponderous memoir. Even when Maxo is at his most thoughtful, his shit slaps.
If anything, Brandon Banks shows that the major-label jump was the right one for Maxo. Because there is a Travis Scott collab on Brandon Banks, and it absolutely works. Scott’s amniotic mutter-croon makes a nice contrast with Maxo’s hard, fast precision. And after all, Travis Scott is from Houston, just like Maxo. So is Megan Thee Stallion, who teams up with Maxo for some enjoyable nasty sex-raps on “She Live.” But more importantly, the music on Brandon Banks is richer and fuller than on any previous Maxo record. He’s not exactly working with a ton of big-name producers, though Mike Dean and Zaytoven do show up in the album credits. Maxo has resisted the temptation of making Migos-style yammer-trap, a tendency that’s tripped up a whole lot of promising young rappers in recent years. But there’s a sleekness to the tracks on Brandon Banks that’s new for Maxo. It’s easily the most end-to-end listenable record that Maxo has yet made. And Maxo managed to put it together without compromising his own uniquely bleak and granular worldview.
On Brandon Banks, Maxo is still telling stories about what it’s like to grow up as a criminal in a whole family full of criminals: “Every time I stashed it in the house, my brother stole from it / I was down bad and on my ass, nobody rode for me.” He’s still telling drug-dealing tales so specific and lived-in that they could only be real: “I had a job at Panera Bread, I took that work to work / I was selling niggas bagels, I was selling niggas Percs.” He still veers between bloodthirsty gun-threats and devastating bursts of empathy like “Meet Again,” the album opener that’s constructed as a letter to an incarcerated friend. And he’s still just rapping his ass off every time he touches a microphone. Maxo is a rap natural, both fundamentally sound and stylistically distinct. It’s a pleasure to hear him do what he does throughout Brandon Banks.
There probably aren’t any hits on Brandon Banks, though I’m wrong on that kind of thing all the time. Instead of focusing on singles, Maxo has taken the longview. He’s made a rich, urgent, impeccable piece of album-oriented rap. On Brandon Banks, Maxo digs deep into his fucked-up personal history and his vast reserves of creative shit-talk, and he effectively makes the case that he’s one of the best rappers working today. And he gets to get rich while making it. That’s a win for him, and it’s a win for us.
Brandon Banks is out 7/19 on Big Persona/88 Classic/RCA Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• UV-TV’s monstrous punk rock hookfest Happy.
• The Beyoncé-curated quasi-soundtrack The Lion King: The Gift.
• The Flaming Lips’ relatively restrained King’s Mouth.
• Goon’s psych-rocking full-length debut Heaven Is Humming.
• Thanks For Coming’s sprawling, ambitious indie opus No Problem.
• HUNNY’s energetic new wave debut Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
• Ass Ponys/Wussy leader Chuck Cleaver’s solo debut Send Aid.
• Generationals’ indie-pop tinkerfest Reader As Detective.
• Kool Keith’s reliably bugged-out KEITH.
• Davina and The Vagabonds’ Americana meditation Sugar Drops.
• Wormed’s death metal onslaught Metaportal.
• Tomb Mold’s death metal wallow Planetary Clairvoyance.
• Fall Of Rauros’ atmospheric black metal dirge-out Patterns In Mythology.
• Nas’ archival collection The Lost Tapes II.