Fathers and fatherhood have always been pretty contentious subjects in hip-hop. Where mothers are forever having lyrical praise heaped upon them, songs about fathers are rarely positive unless the rapper is the father in question. On his latest album, Brandon Banks, Maxo Kream once again draws upon his family history this time acutely honing in on his father’s influence on his life. Maxo’s feelings for his father are complicated. He is critical of his father endangering their family’s stability with his scams but in the same breath he praises him for providing for them. Even when Maxo curses his father for neglect or abuse he does so without completely condemning him.
Much of Maxo’s appeal comes from his authenticity to self and Brandon Banks (even more so than last year’s Punken) does a good job of expanding on the idea that a person is not monolithic. A person can be in possession of several selves, names, or personas and there’s truth in all of them. The role of identity and naming are an important factor, especially considering that Maxo’s birth name is Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah, Jr and that he is named after his father. Maxo’s rap name developed from a series of permutations starting back in elementary school with children being unable (or unwilling) to pronounce Emekwanem. Emekwanem became Emaks, which eventually became Maxo. Emekwanem Sr. took on the moniker Brandon Banks because it was more relatable as an alias for committing fraud. Despite the difference in their situations this kind of westernization of names is commonplace in immigrant stories and it’s no wonder that Emekwanem Jr sees Maxo Kream analogous to his father’s identity as Brandon Banks.
The streets Maxo inhabits are plagued by a never-ending cycle of robbery, revenge and the inevitability of either death or penitentiary. Packs are stolen and resold, opps are combatted, friends are lost, and through it all Maxo marches forward spitting with an almost weary matter-of-factness. The trials and tribulations of trapping are so everyday to Maxo and lines are delivered so nonchalantly that sometimes it takes a couple of listens to consider the gravity of situations like getting kicked out of the house as a teenager and moving in with the plug. The line between hopelessness and prosperity are forever razor thin. Despite his newfound wealth and success Kream still faces many of the same obstacles he has his entire life. Money can’t fix being separated from friends and family by prison or the grave. Not to mention that he can hardly trust some of the people he’s loyal to so he puts his faith in the work and the drugs. “Momma told me chill cause I’m fighting all these felonies. Still making deals. Vacuum seals whatchu telling me?” The fast money is both the poison and the polluce and Maxo spends the album teetering back and forth between the idea of changing for the better and remaining true to his roots. These issues of loyalty are made even more difficult by the nebulous nature of relationships formed on the streets. On “Meet Again” he raps, “Different day, the same shit, nothing changed on Murda Blocc / Couple homies hit a lick and got the other homies popped / They got shot up with a K, I got good and bad news / They say Redro gon’ be straight, but Sto Groove ain’t make it through.” Some of the album’s best moments come from this tension between recognizing and trying to break these negative cycles while still being fully immersed within them.
For the most part the album is incredibly vulnerable but at other times, it’s full-on braggadocious Trigga Maxo mode. On “Drizzy Draco” he says things like, “Frank Lucas in chinchilla with a ski mask like Mick Foley / You can’t cross me I’m like AI / Chopper shoot just like Kobe.” On tracks like “She Live” and “Relays” he’s just having fun, showing off, and flexing. Even on “8 Figures” where he contemplates fiscal responsibility he eventually admits that he’d rather just ice out his necklace. These portions of the album and Maxo’s penchant for shit talking help to break up the more serious nature of the content. Maxo says “father” countless times on the record and it’s clear that there is a purpose to the repetition. “Brenda” for example is a reference to Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby” but with a hyper focus on generational trauma propagated through fathers and their absence. “Dairy Ashford Bastard” in addition to being one of the best tracks on the record also sums up the energy of Brandon Banks, “I love my pops and he my everything / And that’s on everything, ’cause you the one that taught me everything / I love my pops and he my everything, everything / Showed my how to fight, wrong from right, and taught me table manners / But he been locked up most my life, so that shit doesn’t matter / I had some questions for my pops, the streets gave me the answers / The block became my pops, and I’m a Dairy Ashford bastard.” Using his father’s stories and voice to punctuate the album gives the work a beautiful sense of continuity and cohesion by preventing things from vering too far off course. More so than anything Brandon Banks sounds like maturity and an exercise in intentionality for Kream.
Maxo enlists five guest artists on the 15-track outing and the additional voices bring a nice variety to the steady drum of Maxo’s flow. ASAP Ferg (“Murda Blocc”), ScHoolboy Q(“3 AM”) and Travis Scott (“Relays”) all feel like pretty natural collaborations, but the magic is the strongest between Maxo’s brother KCG Josh and Houston’s resident Hot Girl, Megan Thee Stallion. The chemistry with Megan is off the charts and “She Live” is sure to be blaring out of cars for the rest of the summer. Pure ass-shaking speaker-knocking bliss. “Brothers,” on the other hand, examines the relationship between Maxo and KCG Josh, a bond which far outweighs stealing and fighting with each other as they would literally kill for each other.
The energy on Brandon Banks is polarizing; both chilling and heartwarming, uplifting and depressing. Rather than leading the audience one way or another Maxo presents often times contradictory ideas in the same breath and allows the listener to judge as they see fit. For older fans, Maxo Kream’s major label debut still sounds like the rapper we’ve grown to love, albeit a bit wiser and more self-assured. We look forward to seeing how he manages to continue to evolve, embrace change in his life while maintaining his fidelity to himself both inside and outside of music.