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Wednesday, October 21, 2020 — Houston, TX °

Forgotten Gems: #Maxo187 is Mandatory Houston Listening

Courtesy TSO Records

By Jacob Tate     9/29/20 8:04pm

Release Date: 2015

Best Track: Thirteen

The advent of smartphones during my middle school years led to a variety of viral hype rap being blasted in the back of the school bus. Most of it was standard mid-2010s rap fare (“Mercy,” “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” etc.) but one song stood out in particular. In it, a husky voice nimbly rapped over a harsh drum loop about gang executions and used a recently deceased celebrity as a cocaine euphemism. Like many young Houstonians, “Whitney Houston” was my introduction to the legend of Maxo Kream. 

But before the local hits, the Pitchfork reviews, the arrests and the floodwaters, there was a 13-year-old Emekwanem Biosah Jr. trapping his young heart out. Despite it being Kream’s third mixtape,”#Maxo187” is an origin story, beginning with the heart chilling “Thirteen” that coldly details “whipping with the fork,” “[getting] down with the set” and “running up the spots with the Glock on Bissonnet” all at the cusp of teenagerdom. A low quality but hard-hitting beat straight from the DatPiff era anchors Kream’s laundry list of exploits, swirling around him before exploding with synth bass and plucks to accentuate key moments. To this day, I think “Thirteen” is a flawless song, full of different memorable flows, quotable lines and crystal clear articulation. 

Despite the intense subject matter, there is neither glorification of the gang life or judgment aimed at his past self —simply facts. In this phase of his career, Maxo Kream wasn’t yet a storyteller, but rather a documentarian providing his own facts to counter common societal narratives. In fact, when “Paranoia” begins with a local news clip mentioning a “particularly violent gang,” Kream’s rapid-fire rhymes show how ridiculous the commentary is. He doesn’t do this by denying the viciousness of his gang, but instead by doubling down on their brutal acts to show how reporting resorts to euphemism and assumption, refusing to tell the real stories of Houston, Texas. 

The rest of “#Maxo187” follows the classic trope of “fuck hoes, get money” but approaches the mantra in fresh, creative ways that make the mixtape electrifying instead of exhausting. The nostalgic “1998” features a witty Maxo one-upping a prime Joey Bada$$ with lines “Gettin’ money / Imma Baghdad / These bitches they Kuwait” or “My boys goin’ pop I ain’t talkin’ backstreet / My guns goin’ pop and the bullets in sync.” The follow-up “Astrodome” sees Kream take a classic Houstonesque slowed-down, pitched-down vocal to list his women in various local neighborhoods over a destructive 808 loop. The subject material allows Maxo to show off his genuine humor with lines like “Make you cum like torpedos / suck dick for Hot Cheetos” and “Got a bitch in Montrose / she trappin’ out the thrift store.”

I could honestly write an entire paragraph about every track on this album, from the harsh two-parter “Trap Mami/Flippin” to the borderline soulful Le$-assisted “Endzone,” but there are still two massive bangers to acknowledge: “Cell Boomin’” and “Trigga Maxo.” The song that let Maxo Kream get a name outside of Houston, “Cell Boomin” features a beat solely composed of a ringtone and an 808 combined with raps that detail how to use a trap phone and chide buyers who can’t pony up (“Stupid lil bitch wanna front on five grams?”). Combined with a fantastic slurred verse from Atlanta favorite Father, “Cell Boomin” is a true downer banger that charted a new path for Houston music as the slow, syrupy sound of DJ Screw meshed with modern trap sensibilities. Meanwhile, “Trigga Maxo” is all up and no down. Featuring Maxo’s most inspired “Kream Clicc Gang” ad-lib to this day, the track feels like an aggressive banger despite the general lack of clipping kicks or 808s. It’s a true testament to Kream’s voice that his flow, lyrics and repetitive “motherfucker”s can create a hard-hitting track with little production assistance. 

The final track to highlight is simultaneously the album’s most impressive, most terrifying and most tragic moment. At first glance, “Murder” is another Maxo Kream track telling the story of his SWAT (South West Alief Texas) hood where “every day it’s a fucking murder.” However, as I digested this album more over the next few years, two things stood out to me. First of all, it is fucking insane that Maxo Kream is able to list four friends in jail for murder and three friends who were murdered on the hook. Especially when the beat cuts at the end, leaving Kream listing names a cappella, it’s a clear indicator of how twisted his life has become (or perhaps always was).

However, the most startling part of the song is the story told throughout the three verses. A microcosm of Maxo Kream’s life, “Murder” tells a story rife with gangbanging, family obligations, snitching and unfair justice systems. Maxo recounts a young man, referred to only as “cuz” who “took aim and let the burner flame” while “posted by the park.” Kream encourages “cuz” to think of his son and skip town after ditching the murder weapon. However, the murderer is set up by his baby mama and discovers it was her cousin that he killed. When the court-appointed lawyer fails to settle, the charge is “capital murder” and Maxo’s “bro [is on] death row.” The cycles of violence turn, as young men hurt their own community, only to be sentenced by the power structures that created the preconditions for their plight. 

Writing an epic in 4:48, Maxo Kream shows just how essential his singular voice is. While Travis Scott pioneered an autotune-drenched celebration of Houston debauchery and Megan Thee Stallion began developing her hottie mantras, both preparing to go global, Maxo Kream kept himself laser-focused on the day-to-day of his communities. Any catchiness in Kream’s music is accidental or incidental; his music is therapy, reporting and storytelling, even as rap becomes the new pop. This eschewing of mainstream success and dedication to his hood will keep Kream’s appeal centered in Houston, even as his more recent, more mature projects rack up accolades and record deals

When I showed Maxo Kream to an old friend recently, she took the track in silence. Afterward, she told me stories of the murders she saw growing up in Alief and how Kream’s music resonated with her lived experiences. This is why “#Maxo187” is mandatory Houston listening. It doesn’t matter how far you insulate your experience within university hedges or white-collar parts of town, you will encounter Houstonians living out what Maxo Kream describes over the dark beats whether you know it or not. This city is immense, filled with stories and worlds you may never know but are worth listening to.

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