On “Mama’s Purse,” one of the last songs on his new album Weight Of The World, the Houston rapper Maxo Kream starts out flossy. He doesn’t remain that way for long. The “Mama’s Purse” beat is lush and warm and opulent; it’s the kind of track that plenty of rappers would use to brag about material things. But Maxo’s approach is a fake-out. As the track begins, Maxo uses the cadence from Three 6 Mafia’s 2006 hit “Poppin’ My Collar”: “Ever since I can remember, I been poppin’ my collar/ Jordans, spendin’ top dollar/ Fendi, Gucci, Balenciaga.” But immediately, Maxo twists things up, and things get dark: “Ever since I made some figures, I been splurgin’ on my mama/ And that’s the motherfuckin’ problem/ It don’t help her with her trauma.”
This is what Maxo Kream does. Maxo might be the single greatest rap storyteller to come along in the past decade, and every one of his songs is loaded down with context and tragedy. The context: Maxo comes from a large extended family where just about everyone, it seems, has made a living by breaking the law. Maxo has lost his brother to murder and his father to prison, and he’s got plenty of history himself. In signing a major-label rap deal and making legal money, Maxo has beat the odds and become the exception. But money and fame won’t heal Maxo’s family, and that has become his single greatest subject.
On “Mama’s Purse,” Maxo digs deep into that context. Maxo talks about his brother, buried just after that brother’s daughter was born. Maxo talks about buying his mother fancy clothes to help her feel better, and he talks about knowing that it won’t really help: “I was tryna buy her love, but it really made it worse.” And then Maxo talks about where he developed his taste for expensive clothes as a kid. Maxo reveals that backstory with a beautiful writerly flourish, talking about how his mother used to shoplift designer clothes from Macy’s: “Cuttin’ them sensors with scissors, switchin’ up price tag on denim/ She steal with her sisters, on point and accurate/ Used to go home and practice it, they so cold, ain’t no catchin’ it.”
Within one verse and one chorus, Maxo weaves a whole tapestry of tragedy and heartbreak and materialism and the things that people will do for the people they love. It’s crushingly sad, and it’s beautiful, too. Maxo drops all these jewels with an offhand, conversational wistfulness. As the song goes on, he widens his focus to describe an entire criminal underworld. He talks about all the people so commonly regarded as demons, as super-predators, and he says that are just the people he’s used to seeing around him everyday: “You see a pimp and prostitute/ Well, me, I see a happy couple/ Sellin’ ass for that cash, they think it’s a honest hustle… Credit fraud, judge scamming/ Fuck the cops, and free my daddy/ I can take our mugshots and make a portrait of the family.” Maxo brings it all home hard. He does that again and again.
Maxo Kream started out in the underground, and I still see him popping up in WorldStar-level rap videos surprisingly often. But he’s also a rare, special talent, and people have come to realize that. Over the years, Maxo has collaborated with a lot of stars, and people are definitely invested in his career. Weight Of The World has contributions from some big names. Tyler, The Creator produced and rapped on Maxo’s recent single “Big Persona,” and the album also has appearances from people like A$AP Rocky, Don Toliver, and Freddie Gibbs. On the album, Maxo brags about never paying for features, and if that’s true, then it means that all these people just want to work with Maxo. I don’t blame them.
Maxo himself seems like an unlikely major-label artist, and he’s never made an actual hit. Maybe he’s more character actor than movie star. But if that’s true, he’s Joe Pesci. He’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the character actor who commands all the attention whenever he walks into a room. That’s what happens on Weight Of The World. Even the singles don’t sound like singles. Instead, Maxo tells his story, confident that he’s a compelling enough figure that he doesn’t need to do too much to amp his stats up.
The beats on Weight Of The World tend toward lush elegance: soul samples, burbling basslines, splashy drums. That style, combined with Maxo’s gruff precision, makes him sound like a throwback to a different time. On the hook from “Greener Knots,” Maxo paints a dizzy panorama about being a kid, watching everything around him — Monday Night Raw, Rap City, his uncle smoking crack on the couch. The namecheck of Jadakiss and Styles P isn’t the important part of that hook, but it made me think about how Maxo would’ve absolutely destroyed if he’d ever been let into the Booth with Big Tigger.
Much of Weight Of The World is about Maxo grappling with newfound success and with the terrible things in his family’s past. Sometimes, he’s triumphant: “Talk my shit, I boast and brag ’cause it was not supposed to last/ Not even talkin’ about rap/ I’m talkin bullets, dracos, straps.” Sometimes, he’s heartbreakingly bitter, as when he talks about his cousin’s death: “He told me he gon’ ride, put my brother’s killers in the grave/ Man, he committed suicide, took his life the other day.” Other times, Maxo just finds a perfect in-the-pocket bounce-flow, and his revelations about his past come out almost offhandedly: “I was knuckin’, I was buckin’, servin’, duckin’ from the undos/ Buncha flunkies serving junkies, Uncle Bo was my first custo.”
You can put on Weight Of The World while you’re driving, and if you’re not digging into the lyrics, it just sounds like a tough, swaggering, technically precise rap record. Maxo isn’t dramatic, and his touch stays light. But if you’re listening actively, his stories just become harrowing. “Trips To California,” the second-to-last song on Weight Of The World, might be the heaviest thing that Maxo has ever made. It’s a jarring, harrowing account of his brother’s death, and it gets into granular detail about every last heart-wrecking, avoidable detail: “More than half an hour waitin’ on the paramedics/ Spent another half a hour answering questions for detectives.” This is Maxo’s great, terrible gift. He tells the stories of the most dehumanized people in America, and he makes goddamn sure you know that these are just people, the same as you or me.
Weight Of The World is out now on Big Persona/88 Classic/RCA.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lana Del Rey’s Blue Banisters
• Parquet Courts’ Sympathy For Life
• Grouper’s Shade
• JPEGMAFIA’s LP!
• Jarvis Cocker’s Chansons D’Ennui
• Angel Du$t’s YAK: A Collection Of Truck Songs
• My Morning Jacket’s self-titled LP
• Strange Ranger’s No Light In Heaven
• Hand Habits’ Fun House
• Every Time I Die’s Radical
• La Luz’s self-titled LP
• Conway The Machine’s God Don’t Make Mistakes
• Helado Negro’s Far In
• Circuit Des Yeux’s -io
• Tonstartssbandht’s Petunia
• Guided By Voices’ It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!
• Elton John’s The Lockdown Sessions
• Duran Duran’s Future Past
• Spirit Was’ Heaven’s Just A Cloud
• Pouya’s Blood Was Never Thick As Water
• Clinic’s Fantasy Island
• Deerhoof’s Actually, You Can
• Herbert’s Musca
• Wet’s Letter Blue
• Ross From Friends’ Tread
• Worm’s Foreverglade
• Honne’s Let’s Just Say The World Ended A Week From Now, What Would You Do?
• Trace Mountains’ House Of Confusion
• Majid Jordan’s Wildest Dreams
• Lonely Guest’s self-titled LP
• Together Pangea’s DYE
• Good Morning’s Barnyard
• Black Marble’s Fast Idol
• KIRA’s self-titled LP
• John Forté’s Vessels, Angels & Ancestors
• Dinner’s Dream Work
• Ouri’s Frame Of A Fauna
• Wale’s Folarin II
• Rufus Du Sol’s Surrender
• Bullet For My Valentine’s self-titled LP
• Kristin Chenoweth’s Happiness Is…Christmas!
• Seventeen’s Attacca EP
• Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ B-Sides & Rarities Part II
• Wye Oak’s Cut All The Wires: 2009-2011
• The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You 40th-anniversary reissue
• Jacques Greene’s Anth01