Maxo Kream’s ‘Brandon Banks’ Is A Masterful Character Study

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Brandon Banks, the new album from Texas rapper Maxo Kream, is a prime example of rap’s powers of autobiography. Amid the array of crime tales, twerk encouragement, and stone-faced threats, Maxo’s narratives display a lived-in quality a little like the original Star Wars — it feels real, which elevates the material from simply crowd-pleasing to truly transcendent.

Maxo first burst on the scene over a half-decade ago, with mixtapes like #Maxo187 generating the early buzz that helped his 2018 debut Punken land like a bomb on a music scene, with the rapper already bursting with talent. Those years spent toiling in relative obscurity ensured that Maxo emerged fully-formed and distinct from many of his street-rap peers, his rhymes at once expansive and claustrophobic, the specificity of his references lending them an air of intimacy and personable relatability — even for listeners far removed from his Southwest Houston stomping grounds.

The glowing reception for Punken from critics and fans alike secured Maxo a deal with Roc Nation and RCA Records, upping the stakes and scaling the expectations for Punken‘s followup proportionately. Fortunately for Maxo, he has exactly the kind of flow and voice that can anchor a more ambitious project — and the story to help do so.

The name Brandon Banks is, like most of Maxo Kream’s song titles and lyrical references, drawn directly from his personal life and provides the overarching theme of family ties and how they play into many of the choices we make. “Brandon Banks” was an alias used by Maxo’s father, Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah, when doing dirt during his own wild days pulling scams. Maxo followed his father into the crime life, joining a Crip set and selling drugs — an experience depicted in exquisite, harrowing detail on tracks like “Meet Again” and “8 Figures,” the latter of which describes some of the similarities between his life and his father’s.

His father’s voice periodically appears to provide advice and admonition, from criticizing Maxo’s gangbanging to approving and encouraging his rap dream. It provides a balance between parental advice and familial examples — the quintessential tug-of-war that both produces and spins out of life on the streets. Meanwhile, Maxo’s sharp delivery and crystalline depictions of the trials, tribulations, troubles, and fights cuts through the brawling, sprawling beats that lace the project, further distinguishing him from the trademark Houston sound that he refuses to allow to constrain him.

That isn’t to say that Houston isn’t a presence. It’s almost impossible to avoid, it permeates practically every verse and facet of the album, right down to the hyperspecific song titles: “Bissonet,” “Spice Ln.,” and “Dairy Ashford Bastard.” He doesn’t have to chop and screw his beats or lace them with references to Slim Thug and Lil Keke to pledge his allegiance. Fellow Houstonians Megan Thee Stallion and Travis Scott both appear — on “She Live” and “The Relays,” respectively — to further highlight the family affair.

Ultimately, though, Maxo’s experiences and specific, sometimes-contrarian worldview (“I’d rather be buried by six, than judged by twelve,” he declares on the chest-thumping intro) drive Brandon Banks and give it its poignancy. Of course, an album talking about the influence of his father over his life choices would prominently feature his father’s words like a running commentary. And of course, a proud Houstonian would pepper his best songs with the names of streets and the street names of his associates. Maxo Kream is a product of his environment, but also of the people around him, nurture and nature both, the push-and-pull between who he was born to be and who he is. The question of who he is to become is the one Brandon Banks does its best to answer — he doesn’t figure it out all at once, but it’s a joy to hear him working to find out.

Brandon Banks is out now via RCA Records. Get it here.