A R.I.C.O. charge dating back to a 2016 arrest still looms over rapper Maxo Kream’s head like a guillotine, but he’s never been more committed to shining a light on the facts of his life. His superb major label debut Brandon Banks is sprawling autobiography overflowing with dense, unflinching, granular detail sourced from his 15-odd years of toting guns, staging robberies, and selling drugs in Southwest Houston. Maxo embraces his inner cartographer, mapping not only the geography of his small corner of Houston but also a vast family tree that blurs the line between biological and spiritual brotherhood. At the center of this family tree is Maxo’s father, a Nigerian immigrant named Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah who once ran scams under the alias Brandon Banks and served multiple bids in jail during Maxo’s childhood. Maxo occasionally speaks on his dad’s past visa-swiping ventures and outstanding legal battles. Sometimes, he lets his dad speak for himself. But most often on Brandon Banks, Emekwanem appears as a shadow. A life of crime is Maxo’s inheritance.
On its surface, Brandon Banks doesn’t scream “Houston.” Maxo, 29, doesn’t have the kind of thick drawl that some Houston rappers swing around like a tangerine slab. Instead, he draws us into his world with a gruff, conversational tone and by assuming we are insiders, familiar with his neck of the woods and friends with his friends. Street names pop up everywhere, especially in song titles (“Murda Blocc,” “Dairy Ashford Bastard,” “Bissonnet”), as Maxo zooms in on hyperspecific locations to initiate memory recall. On “Spice Ln.” a song that plies surreal, sun-bleached production indebted to 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s Savage Mode, he raps, “Niggas screamin’ ‘fuck Kream,’ they know exactly where we be/Spice Lane, Stone Ridge, by the Mickey D’s/On the same block where we lost Baby John and Cheese.” Maxo’s precise language extends to his penchant for drug math; he scrupulously catalogues and describes sales and home invasions (“four deep, six sticks, one blood, three Crips”) and uses numbers to spell out his worldview (“Rather be carried by six before I’m judged by 12”).
On “Grannies,” a master class in storytelling from his 2018 album Punken, Maxo remembered how he sold drugs out of his grandmother’s house after his parents kicked him out at age 15. He introduced his brother Ju, uncle Bo, cousin Pooh, and Aunt Trish, mentioning tragically chaotic figures in the same breath as the women left to clean up their messes. Once again, he dedicates large swathes of Brandon Banks to illustrating how family and criminal activity can intertwine. On “Meet Again,” a letter to an incarcerated comrade, he matter-of-factly details his profoundly fucked-up family dynamic: “My little bro on the run, he think he on vacation/My pops back in the system, he just might die in prison/My mom is co-defendant she just might get locked up with him/He got snitched on by his own sister, she the eyewitness/Now every time i see my blood cousins, I don’t even feel ’em/Cookin’ drugs with my older brother, baking soda whippin’.” With dozens of shoutouts and a track literally titled “Brothers,” Maxo extends his family tree to include close friends, to whom he is forever bonded by shared struggle and criminal partnership.
But as Maxo’s dad insists in a voiceover from the album-closing “Still”: “Blood is thicker than water. All these five fingers are not equal.” Maxo would probably agree. Brandon Banks chronicles their warty, complicated relationship, and in the end, on “Dairy Ashford Bastard,” the album rings with a combination of forgiveness, unconditional love, and acknowledgement of Emekwanem’s many sins. Maxo perhaps gives him too much credit for holding their family together by a thread. The more compelling, enduring thread is the one that connects them directly. While Brandon Banks offers trenchant insight into the generational nature of crime and poverty, it is also a simple celebration that this particular father-son relationship has evolved and is currently thriving. Emekwanem’s booming voice appears intermittently to impart messages to his son; he could be delivering a pre-ass-whooping tongue-lashing in an imagined flashback, or serving as Maxo’s greatest hype man: “My father was winning, and I’m winning, and now you, Maxo, you’re winning, still.”