TSO Music Group
In a media landscape where a catchy track and outrageous music video can get a rapper signed for millions of dollars (think of 6ix 9ine, Desiigner, or Trinidad James), the Houston-based rapper Maxo Kream has made his name the old fashioned way – sonically taking over first his neighbourhood, then his city, and then the rest of America – whilst retaining the sort of street-cred and authenticity others only dream of. Just a few years on from handing out mixtapes for free on street corners, Maxo Kream (his real name, Emekwanem Ibemakanam Ogugua Biosah is read out by his father on the album’s opening track) has made his arrival with an excellent new album that announces him as one of the most exciting and versatile rappers of his generation.
Punken is compulsively listenable. Even the most uninspired beats (of which there are a couple on the tape) are infused with a melodic life of their own by the cadences of Kream’s flow. His delivery can be aggressive, playful and pensive all in the same verse, and the ease with which he can match a change in rhythm or tempo allows him to slide seamlessly between styles and genres. The originality and effortlessness of this flow, at least as much as the musical production and lyrical content, that give this project its unmistakable imprint.
The versatility of his flow is abundantly apparent on the opening track, “Work”, in which a catchy trap-by-numbers beat is transformed into a hustler’s anthem by the bombastic personality of Kream’s vocal delivery. The chorus refrain of “work the work, had to put in work” (“work” here referring to the drugs being sold as well as the work of selling them) makes the song sound like an ode to a particularly tough-love, hood version of the American dream, in which a ruthless, robber-capitalist mentality will drag one out of the dirt and into a penthouse by sheer force of will.
But halfway through the track, the beat and the mood switch up. Over a smooth, almost mournful choral backing track, the topic turns to the dark side of the “work” glorified in the chorus. He sings of a stolen childhood, “when I was twelve I went from Chuck-E-Cheese to selling work to fiends”; a coming of age surrounded by violence and deprivation, and the lack of direction felt growing up with an incarcerated father
Dad was locked up, doing time for crackin’ cars for revenue/ Twice a week he call my line, to preach and tell me what to do/ Told me follow mama rules, read my book, go to school/ But instead I bought a tool [gun], hit the trap [drug-house] with Janky Ju.
In examining his own childhood, Kream toes a fine line between the escapist nostalgia of Chance the Rapper and the figure of the panicked, traumatised child growing up in the terror of an urban warzone invoked by so much of Kendrick Lamar’s music.
Lyrically, Kream excels at the gritty, photo-realistic accounts of street life: cooking up crack cocaine in abandoned houses, avoiding police and rival gangs, violent robberies and skipping school to serve addicts. Nothing in Kream’s delivery is in the slightest bit sentimental – stories about petty scams, police brutality and the death of his brother are all told with an unflinchingly honesty and open-eyed realism, in the consistent bass rumble of his thick Texas drawl. But on Punken he also brings to the table a remarkable knack for characterisation, with the ability to create an effective and revealing snapshot of an uncle, girlfriend or fellow gang-member in a single line or pair of couplets. Throughout the album we are introduced to a cast of funny, tragic and thoroughly real individuals from the public housing projects of Alief, Houston, including almost every member of his immediate and extended family.
Many of the best of these vignettes are provided on the standout track “Grannies” in which Kream recounts the years spent living with his grandmother, having been kicked out of his parents’ house. He recounts stories about the various brothers, cousins, aunties and uncles who would stay with them in the house, in between stints in jail, rehab or hospital:
My Granny oldest son is Alvin Jr., call him Uncle Main / That’s my favorite Uncle, on occasion he smoke crack cocaine / Petty, thief, and junkie, but he always had my most respect / When I was six, I seen him stab a nigga, and he bled to death…
Aunty Trish was smokin’ up my weed, she used to work my patience / Every night I sneak off with her keys, I’m drivin’, paper chasin’/ Two days later HPD pulled up and questioned Aunty Trish / She knew I took her car and hit a lick, but she ain’t tell ’em shit / Never snitched, betrayed her family, but she always told my Granny
Aunty Trish’s loyalty is contrasted with the constant trickery, thieving and betrayal of friends, love-interests and fellow gang-members. On “Janky” in particular, his bitterness and frustration come to the fore, as when he spits out the complaint about being in “court gettin’ judged by 12 whites/ Who never had to struggle in they goddamn life” and in the constant, visceral reminders of the violence and poverty of his early life. Indeed, the evocations of the deprivation in the public housing projects of Alief, Texas are frequently very affecting, as are the disturbingly vivid portrayals of violence, particularly on “Go”, where Kream describes how he would send out the junior members of his gang – the “crash dummies” – to rob, extort and murder on his behalf.
As with many of the more self-reflective gangster rappers, Kream is at his most interesting when his guard drops, and the anxieties and vulnerability of a young man from a tough neighbourhood take centre stage. For some this vulnerability emerges from their own drug abuse, or their relationships with women, but for Kream family remains the core. Guilt over the death of his brother, murdered by rival a rival gang, is a palpable presence throughout the album, despite evidently deep-seated attempts to conceal it, and a loving sympathy tinged with disgust at his favourite uncles – now crack addicts who steal from him and his grandmother – colours almost every track. As the final bars of the last track “Roaches” fade away, and the beat dies down, two voices emerge from the silence: that of his mother and father.
We hear the voice of his mother wearily congratulating him and tells him to “keep doing you with your music”. It is the voice of a woman who has been through more than she would care to reveal, and who is, because of her son’s success, finally able to enjoy a moment of respite. But whilst the voice of the loving mother is a well-worn trope in hip-hop, the return of the absent father is not, and it is with the deep Nigerian accent of Kream’s father that the album comes to a close. This voice, almost bursting with a tearful pride at the other end of a prison telephone, recounts a memory from the early childhood of our protagonist: “I remember you would always ask me to ‘drop you to ship’, you meant ‘rock me to sleep’. I used to rock you to sleep”. This element of humour (the idea of 6’5, 20-something stone Maxo Kream ever having being rocked to sleep seems absurd) only contributes to the poignancy of the memory, reminding us of one element Kream does not bring out – the moments of simple, uncomplicated happiness in between the neverending strife. Knowing all we now do about the tragedy and struggles of this family, these closing words of approval and pride function as an ultimate validation and motivation for everything that went before.
Jonathan Egid  is studying for a BPhil in Philosophy at Wadham College