On an evening in September, at the tail-end of New York Fashion Week, rapper Maxo Kream tells me that he’s worn out from the city’s nightlife. “Anybody that does Fashion Week in New York is always tired after,” he says. Seated at a restaurant in Manhattan, he explains how he’d been out partying with A$AP Rocky and Rihanna the night before. Of course, according to the laws of Instagram, this also means that the 31-year-old Houston rapper is officially a superstar. And despite his fatigue, he definitely looks the part. A Houston-native through and through, Maxo flashes a grin that reveals a blindingly radiant grill, encrusted in diamonds. He wears an equally iced-out chain — customized with the logo for his streetwear company Persona — and an Atlanta Braves fitted cap. In other words, he’s crisp, ready for his long-overdue breakthrough.
Where rap’s biggest names have spent the past several years maintaining an aura of often manufactured mystique, Maxo is an open book. When we meet, he’s a few days away from releasing his new album Weight of the World, which dropped earlier this week. On the album, he positions himself firmly within a lineage of rap’s great storytellers — from Pimp C to Jeezy — confronting the loss of his brother, becoming a father, and his own inner demons, with unflinching honesty.
Maxo raps in the deep southern baritone of many of the city’s most iconic acts and has already been prolific for nearly a decade at the ground level within Houston’s hip-hop scene. He was poised to finally see his breakout moment following the release of 2019’s Brandon Banks. Sobering, concise, and dutifully executed, that album finds the rapper suffusing his already stellar songwriting with an engrossing, Goodie Mob-style paranoia. On the record’s biggest hit, “Meet Again,” Maxo takes cues from classic H-Town ballads, rolling over somber low-ends, crafting a letter to an incarcerated friend. Like much of Maxo’s work, the song lays bare a host of internal struggles. Anxiety over what feels like endless lawyer fees; Wrenching reflections on the cycles of criminality in his own family.
After Brandon Banks, Maxo’s star did in fact begin to rise. He went on to appear on last year’s Dreamville compilation Revenge of the Dreamers III, and was getting ready to go on tour. Suddenly, Covid-19 threw a wrench into what appeared to be a promising future. Then, around the beginning of nationwide lockdowns last March, Maxo’s brother, “Money” Madu, was murdered in Los Angeles. “My brother was my best friend. I trusted him more than anyone, including my Pops. I miss him,” Maxo says.
Now, with Weight of the World, Maxo is unraveling his grief with profoundly grounded precision. On “Trips,” he gives a vivid play-by-play of the night of his brother’s death. The song unfolds like the recounting of memory, the details seared in the rapper’s mind. Maxo sets the scene as if it were a flashback in a novel, starting with a drug transaction that goes south. “Takin’ trips to California, frequent flyin’ with United,” he raps. “OG Chronic marijuana buyin’, how you end up dyin’.”
Every line arrives like deftly paced camerawork, as Maxo constructs a scene worthy of a Scorcese film. His brother, realizing he’s been set up, proceeds to fight back. “On his neck, hе felt you was a threat, he had the burna tucked/Four-five, pocket rocket, he just bought it but ain’t use yet,” Maxo raps. We subtly transition into a panoramic view, as the rapper takes note of the friends who were more concerned with fleeing a crime scene than helping his kin, rapping: “My brother bleedin’ on the ground and he ain’t even tryna help.”
Vignettes of betrayal run deep in Maxo’s catalog. It’s an unfortunate and unavoidable element of a certain kind of life. Still, his music, as well as his burly and imposing appearance, belie an ultimately warm heart. Maxo, who recently became a father himself, has been helping to take care of his brother’s young child since his untimely death.
Born Emekwane Ogugua Biosah Jr. in Southwest Houston, Maxo Kream is in many ways his father’s son. For one, he’s named after his dad, Emekwane Sr., who immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, and started hustling in the streets when Maxo was a kid. The album title Brandon Banks comes from the alias his dad used. Driving the metaphor home, the cover art features Maxo’s face stitched together with his father’s.
When Maxo was about 11-years-old, his dad was arrested on fraud charges. “When he went to prison, we ain’t had no money and I had to start making money on my own,” Maxo says. The parallel paths taken by Maxo and his dad remain a significant motif in his music. In the same way that Kendrick Lamar explores his family legacy on DAMN, Maxo has been navigating his own intergenerational patterns since he started making music.
Maxo tells me that he remembers the impact of Young Jeezy’s seminal album, Thug Motivation 101, which dropped around the time that he was a teenager. Jeezy’s street-level epics rung true for the budding MC. Eventually, he’d start rapping with his cousin and friends, forming the group Kream Clicc, and infusing the city’s rap scene with a youthful dedication to sneaker and streetwear culture. Around the same time, Maxo’s dad was released from jail, only to be arrested again over parole violations and other alleged crimes. When the Feds ravaged their home, they seized some of the money that Maxo, who was working at a Panera Bread at the time, had saved. Strapped for cash, he went back to selling crack.
Still, the music would eventually stick. He first came on the scene in 2011 with a flip of Kendrick Lamar’s Section .80 highlight, “Rigamortis.” In the video, Maxo emerges with a commanding presence, making easy work of the beat’s high-velocity drum pattern. A forefather of Houston’s ascendant rap scene, Maxo’s been around long enough to have played a part in the rise of a number of other rappers, whom he brought to the city and provided vital connections. On “They Say,” from the new album, he confronts the specific kind of self-doubt that comes with being denied the success of the people you’ve helped shine. “He put Playboi Carti on and then that nigga surpassed him,” Maxo raps, taking on the voice of his detractors. The song ends on a triumphant note, with Maxo putting any doubts of his talents, or his intentions, to rest.
Where his earlier releases featured a bevy of artists, who in hindsight may have needed Maxo more than he needed them, there are just three features on Weight of the World. The pitch-perfect pairing with Freddie Gibbs on “What I Look Like,” offers a compelling corollary for Maxo’s enduring career as one of rap’s most genuine, and talented, stars. “I wasn’t chasing features on Brandon Banks, but this is more organic,” he says, comparing this album to his last release. All of the features on this new record serve to bolster rather than detract from the rapper’s carefully built universe.
Towards the end of our conversation, Maxo tells me about spending several months in jail when he was 19 after running from the cops and slipping on the count of the crisp Jordans on his feet. “I was wearing these purple skinny [jeans] with the aqua 8’s, and they were tight and I slipped,” he remembers. “They caught me for evading arrest. The gun, it was in the bottom of my jeans.” It’d be the beginning of a vicious cycle. He’s currently fighting an organized crime case stemming from an alleged association with the Crips. “On the state level, now people are fucked because they charging conspiracies there too. It’s crazy,” he says.
Despite finally achieving success commensurate with his talents, Maxo knows that his world remains fragile. On his new album, he proves that he has the strength to hold it together.