God Laughs: A Word With Maxo
Maxo’s melancholic hip-hop elicits a familiar vibrant warmth. In a low drawl much clearer than those of other rappers in his orbit, the Los Angeles rapper spends his new album Even God Has A Sense Of Humor getting introspective over tranquil jazz loops. His voice might not make him a radio host in a second life, but it sounds at home over a Madlib sample. Though far from groundbreaking, it’s an approach that, whether you’re Maxo or Earl Sweatshirt, is bound to inspire critical goodwill.
Unlike Earl, a madcap sense of humor doesn’t rummage through Maxo’s work. His direct ancestor is Blu, the Los Angeles rapper who led an alternative revolution in the city of angels, gangster rap, and commercial behemoths like the Game. Like Blu, Maxo is a rapper of deep patience and common adulthood. The ambivalent God highlight “Nuri” is an exercise in maturity; “Onedayatime” is a neo-soul’s fan dream. Though defined by measured calm, the album is at its best when it cranks up the intensity, as on “Face Of Stone,” a bold and rattling Karriem Riggins production that could soundtrack a movie’s introductory scene. Your heart get cold in a world that get colder/ When ain’t no one lean on,” Maxo spits, tapping into a kinetic and emotional momentum, as if trying to beat a full court press.
Every era of rap needs its alternative scene – it can keep the hypermasculinity at bay and start inviting new bulks of people into what makes hip-hop so masterful. As a critic who tends to prefer street music that dilates the eyelids and brings a tiny tintinnabulation into your small ear hole (see: the snares and claps made by Certified Trapper out of Milwaukee), hearing Maxo talk about God, the nefarious nature of the rap game, his family lineage and what it was like making this album was a fruitful conversation.
Why did you name the album Even God Has A Sense Of Humor?
MAXO: To me, that title is kinda linear, with going through things, and learning through and struggling, and feeling every feeling — like feeling like you’re not gonna make it through, just to get to the other side, and be able to laugh at the lessons taught to you. And not necessarily like, literally laugh, but be able to look at what [that experience] taught you. That’s God’s humor. And then for what is God to me, I remember saying God was love. God is hope. Just like protection. And God is not confusing. I remember saying God is like that voice in my head.
Are you religious at all?
MAXO: I’m spiritual. I grew up with Bible. I didn’t have any family. Been a choice for a lot of funerals. I went to church a couple times. But the last time I actually went to church was almost like a young teenager. My friends got into a fight at church, and it was a big squabble, and it was the last time I’ve searched for religion. But I have like — obviously, I’m a Black person in my family, and we navigated from Mississippi to Los Angeles. God is very prevalent within my family. And I think more so with how religion was forced upon my mom hinders how you develop your own true opinion and stance in this light. I don’t want to just go by the book.
Did you grow up on Madlib stuff?
MAXO: No. I know, I know, but I’ve never met him. That’s the one person I didn’t meet on this album. But I have grown up on his stuff. But to be honest, bro, I get into that shit until a little later. But I always knew about him.
Where in LA did you grow up?
Shout out Suga Free.
MAXO: That is a great fact to know.
As you said, though, your family was part of the Great Migration. How did that affect your lineage?
MAXO: I’m a West Coaster, but I don’t spend my time in it. Let me give you some history. My great-great grandma’s got another six kids from Mississippi, right? Six kids took her from Mississippi to LA because of a bad story – this wasn’t that long ago, right? My grandmother is 80. My great grandma’s other brother got killed in the park, just minding his business, by some white folks who were mad at him just being Black. Just different things were happening out there to where it was like, she was like, “I cannot raise my kids out here. It’d be impossible. They’re gonna die by the time they are 16.”
And so she took all [the family] to LA to set up shop, like basically set up a crib, got everything situated for them. Went back to Mississippi for some time, got a mace, got the rest of the real stuff, got everything she needed to in order, and then came back to LA. And ever since we’ve been in Los Angeles. I’m born and raised here. But in my book, my lineage is traced back to Mississippi, but that’s just because I’m naive as a Black person, and it is probably traced back to, like, Ethiopia. So, no. I don’t really take any influence from the South itself, rather I am just being Black.
What’s your mentality on this record compared to your previous album, 2019’s LIL BIG MAN?
MAXO: I was just eager and naive. Now, we are still eager but less reactionary, less emotional. Just way more observant and knowledgeable.
What kind of knowledge are you knocking?
MAXO: I think just how to be a man, bro, like in these past years leading up to now from LIL BIG MAN. So now I think I just learned how to make a decision for myself. And I really re-defined — like, I really just am teaching myself what it is to like to be a man. I guess just golf from so many angles. Just, like, just reclaiming my power. And like really reminding myself, like almost rearranging, realigning my foundation, and recognizing my foundation. I had to be confused about where my foundation was. A big lesson was just like, I’ve always been somebody to attract rather than be outwardly reaching for things… Dealing with pain that I haven’t dealt with, and dealing with loss, and honestly just learning to control what you can, that’s been a big thing for me.
What was some of the pain you had to deal with?
MAXO: Growing pains, just like growing apart from things, growing apart from people, or ways that I was tired of myself or — just growing pains, bro, in so many ways. Like recognizing how I was dependent on ways to where I didn’t need to be. Right? Like, just really breaking myself down. Really, really like trying to just figure out how I feel. God is going to be loud somewhere to the point. So we’re gonna go crazy if I don’t listen to him. But I think I’ve just learned how to stay, like, my focus is just staying linear with my intuition and not having things enter my life that block that. You know? I don’t know, I feel like when your intuition is blocked, that’s because you’re not listening to you. So yeah, I think in these past four years that’s one lesson too, I’ve learned how to listen to myself regardless of anything, which has been very helpful.
Why did you think you had issues listening to yourself before?
MAXO: I think I had issues listening to myself before because it’s like, I live for a lot of other things than myself.
Sometimes in the past, and still now, it was hard for me to let all my opinions, strong or sensitive, out, because it was hard to know how I would be perceived, particularly as a tall and masculine Black man. This country and its people will judge us.
MAXO: I feel your thoughts, but then it’s like, when I die, I need about 20 people at my funeral that I know that loved me, and I know I loved too, and I know we’re gonna be there. I really can’t spend too much time caring about what anyone else thinks, because once we bounced up off this earth what’s gonna be left is what you left there.
Yeah, I think that there’s theory and then there’s real life.
MAXO: I just personally distance myself from this life. All this artist, like, Hollywood shit… At the end of the day, I think I’m just trying to solidify some things for my family, bro. Like, I don’t give a fuck about none of this other other bullshit. Real, when I wake up, and I think about what I’m doing today. And I think about retiring, but my brother… he’s mentally fragile. I’ll be trying to just think about how I’m gonna solidify the next generation and generations to come. And also bring a new example in my bloodline of what you can do. That’s a nine-to-five people. My little brother, I see him thinking different, almost because, like, I let him know what’s possible. Yeah. But it’s like he’d been creative the whole time. You’ve been thinking like this. I’m just trying to set different examples…
A lot of people aren’t privy with the privilege to dream. They realize that later, once they have fucked up, went to jail, did this, did that. I didn’t set out with what a lot of people have grown up with, right? In that I fell off that. And maybe I’ve been struck by dealing with the systematic issue. It really has stood out to me, just how much of a privilege it is to dream. Yeah, that’s why I thank my mom because Lord knows, if sacrifices wasn’t made for me to be able to have time to dream, I think I would have got swallowed up by what [people around me want] me to be like. No, I don’t even think people realize how the city pigeonholes you.
What is your favorite song on this record?
MAXO: “Nuri” and “One Day At A Time.” It speaks the most to me.
MAXO: I wrote that in a teetering phase. I was in a relationship, but I was mentally out of it. Shout out my nigga Reaper Mook. I was pulling up on him in Long Beach a lot. And I swear, we will just be out there so faded, sipping bottles, a click, often vaporizers smoking weed, just like regular degular shit… It’s almost like that song traces back on the last four years.
When it’s all said and done, what do you want this record to convey about yourself?
MAXO: Just my presence. I noticed I don’t really like the public world. I don’t really offer myself too much other than if it’s through the music career. So I really just want to provide a new offering for the people of how my mind works, because I feel like I don’t really do too much explaining for myself in real life. I just keep it in the music literally. So I just want the music to speak. And I want to just speak so loud that you can’t ignore me. Yeah, it’s like I put out and it’s like none of this matters and anything tangible is up to God. Like, I believe in the universe stuff.
Even God Has A Sense Of Humor is out now on Def Jam.