Maxo Kream has a prodigious skill to tell a story while dismissing the tired and often coded expectations of gang culture in rap. It can be a double-edged sword though, navigating the music industry while being transparent about your criminal endeavors. Nipsey Hussle was murdered in cold blood this year and the soaring career of Tay-K was stamped on after pleading guilty to murder and aggravated robbery, so for fans of Maxo, we want to see him win and not fall prey to the fractured American justice system or the heat of a bullet.
Maxo now joins the hegemony of rappers who recoiled from those expectations with either sardonic humour (Vince Staples, ScHoolboy Q) or with candor (Mobb Deep, IDK, Jay Rock). He feels like a love child of those two qualities. When Maxo is cocky, it feels like you’re eavesdropping on The Wire’s Avon Barksdale, and when he gets frank, it feels like you’re listening to advice from The Wire’s Omar Little; the harsh truths, the arrogant boasting, the lack of repentance and its devotion towards a code of authenticity. The same way Omar abides by that code in the streets of Baltimore, Maxo follows through in his raps. However, that code is tested by the crooked relationship of his father, and the Houston now-to-be stalwart makes sure that Brandon Banks (the alias Maxo’s father used to scam people) is drawn in the context of Houston Rap and the upbringing that turned Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah, Jr into Maxo Kream.
The lyrical content reveals the uneven edges of Maxo, who reflects on his family and the father figure (or lack thereof). Familial ties, either by blood or gang affiliation, has underpinned his discography, but in Brandon Banks, it’s the main attraction. Throughout the album, we hear his father praise, berate, lecture and comfort his son, and it holds no punches.
“Bisonnet” opens up with his father cursing out a presumably younger Maxo for getting involved with the Crips. Maxo dismisses the curt heart-to-heart and opens up about his father’s absence: “I have my pops inside my life, but right now that shit don’t matter/ He’d locked up most of my life, so I just feel like a bastard.” The imagery of being a bastard and being adopted by the streets is vivid, and Maxo gives us a slight second before basking in the blistering streets with Balenciagas gracing his feet, hitting licks, and selling grannies at his Grannies. The sincere father-to-son conversations are the blood that rushes through the veins of the album while the reminiscences on being a trapper is the skeleton, providing structure for Maxo to assuage his conflicted feelings.
The brute realism of Brandon Banks pulls back the curtains of his upbringing in a manner that feels striking. “Change” gives room for Maxo to voice his lamentations over looping guitar chords, hard-hitting hi-hats and muted snares, picturing the vices and systems that seep the life of those around him. With realism comes the responsibility to represent content truthfully, and Maxo’s pride as a gang member shines in songs like “Drizzy Draco,” “Murda Blocc,” and “3AM,” gang-banging anthems that tote braggadocious and sneering personality.
Maxo handles his complicated feelings towards his father with tact, he doesn’t point his finger sourly for 47 minutes. Brandon Banks serves as an ode to Houston, tagging Houstonians Megan Thee Stallion, KCG Josh, and Travis Scott. In “She Live,” Maxo and Meg trade bars, listing off their lusts like needing a “Nicki like a Safaree” and having a boss “just like Nino.” In “The Relays,” Maxo slows it down a beat or two, sampling Pimp C in the process, enveloping himself into the codeine-laced and atmospheric feng shui that is a tenet in his previous works. On “Brothers,” Maxo reflects on camaraderie and community, bumping member of KreamClicc KCG Josh. Pride intersects with innovation; homages to the slowed-down sonics of 1990’s Houston rap and location references in “Bisonnet,” “Spice Ln.,” and “Dairy Ashford Bastard” collide with the unworldly energy of Travis Scott and the tempting persona of Megan Thee Stallion.
The album swells in its uncompromising sentimentality and humor, but that comes to an intense head in “Dairy Ashford Bastard,” an autobiographical vignette reflecting on his relationship with his father with naked truth and precision. His voice is still menacing as he reflects on the physical and emotional abuse his father inflicted on his mother and reaffirms the life lessons he taught him. Brandon Banks is Maxo’s most vulnerable and victorious piece of work, and it can hit home for everyone; composed of radio-friendly yet animated anthems, tunes for the pushers, scammers, gang-bangers, the bad B’s, and young African-Americans struggling to stay grounded.
The album settles us down for the magnetic closer “Still.” His father comes back on again, and we hear where Maxo gets his confidence from. After all, it’s rewarding to see Maxo’s woes gone. A snippet of “Still” was posted on his Instagram where we see Maxo and his father in the studio flaunting their money, throwing up gang signs, and his father dancing like your uncle at a BBQ as he tries to hit the Woah. It feels appropriate to have “Still” as the closer; it’s rewarding to see him win one more time, and we leave the album with the conclusion that just as Brandon Banks is a compelling self-portrait of Maxo Kream, it’s also an unflinching portrait of his father and familial duties (and trauma) as well.
- Words: Ethan H-L