Me, Myself, And I: A Review Of Maxo Kream’s Debut Album, “Punken”

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From Scarface to Chad Butler, Houston and the surrounding “Third Coast” have been home to some of the most influential names in hip-hop. Yet, despite this, in recent years Southern Texas has been removed from the mainstream gaze as rap made way for the current ATLien invasion. But during the city’s hiatus from popular culture, the talent of Houston’s underground scene began to bubble with Alief, TX native, Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah, Jr, better known as Maxo Kream, gaining almost all the limited attention.

This artist who became known for his unusual delivery and uncanny lyricism burst on the scene in 2012. However, due to rap’s current ignoring of Houston and a few legal issues, it took the 27-year-old almost six years to release his debut album, “Punken.”

Although six years may seem like a long time, Maxo proved to be nearly perfect in his delivery. The 14-track project is seamlessly divided into three inferred parts, with each section highlighting a different portion of Maxo’s mentality. Crafting an overarching story of tenacity.

Part I- “Emekwanem means don’t f**k with me!”

Maxo’s debut album begins with his father, Emekwanem, Sr., detailing the meaning behind the name they share.

“It means don’t ever think about making me mad,” Maxo’s father warned in his thick Nigerian accent. A caution that Maxo emphasized through the brandishing of his Crips street gang affiliation via his lyrics and album cover art. Letting his Five-Deuce Hoover set serve as the exclamation point to his father’s statement. His father’s speech sets the stage for Punken’s first section, “Emekwanem,” or how Maxo sees himself.

This portion of the album that extends from the lead-off track “Work” to “Go” details the catalyst that turned Emekwanem, Jr. into Maxo Kream. Through rhyme, the Houston-bred lyricist tells how his family life and socio-economic climate fueled his desire to obtain success through any mean possible. The track that details this molding process the most might be one of the album’s earliest singles, “Grannies.”

Opening the record with the bars: “Mama, Daddy kicked me out at fifteen, wildin’, renegadin’ / Moved into apartments with my Granny, started going crazy / Then my brother Ju moved in, he fresh up out the penitentiary / Whooped my ass, he made me to a man, I slanged his crack in vacants,” Maxo uses “Grannies” to describe how teenage rebellion led him to his Grandmother’s project apartment where he was exposed to the characters that will eventually transform Emekwanem into Maxo Kream.

He holds true to his unorthodox, but strong lyrical prowess, as he describes each character vividly. He weaves a family tree of influences and carefully places each branch where it fits in relation to their shared matriarch. Through “Grannies” and the similar tracks that fill this part of the album, fans start to grasp a more clear understanding of how they gained the character they love, Maxo Kream, was created.

Part II-“Maxo Kream… he has an extensive criminal history.”

Unlike the “Punken’s” previous section, Maxo makes a subtle and seamless transition into this portion of the album, not letting it be obvious to the listener that they here until it’s nearly over with the interlude that brings the song “Love Drugs” to the close.

Part II is the story of “Maxo Kream” or how others see Emekwanem.

Beginning with “Beyoncé” and ending with “Pop Another,” Maxo paints a picture of himself as an artist. Not only does he continually flex his verse understanding of rhyme patterns, he also delivers songs that demonstrate his musical growth. On these tracks, he shows fans what they’ve learned to expect from a Maxo Kream project. With “Astrodome, Pt. 2,” a song where Maxo rehashes his satiric take on womanizing, and “Beyoncé” a title that creates a clever metaphor for a track centered around felonious activities, Maxo puts “Punken” in conversation with his work of the past.

Yet, his artistic growth is best flashed on “Love Drugs.” On this record, which can be described the refined meeting between Z-Ro and Future, Maxo crafts a song that intelligently alludes to the trauma that created his rap person and how his attempts to cope with those scars are disrupting his romantic happiness.

“We always fight I think we’re better off separate / I spit the Qualitest when I am desperate / I ate a xanny and instantly felt it / ‘You on them drugs?’ is that really a question,” Maxo raps before crooning “I choose the perks over you / I choose the syrup over you / Love is a drug and I think I’m addicted.”

By placing this personal song in a section meant to showcase his persona as an artist, Maxo not only invites fans into his romantic life, a portion of his personality that he previously shied away from, he also implies that despite the harden image he projects or identifies as his true self will always find a way to shine through.

Part III- “You know what, Punken, you came a long way!” 

The third and final part of Punken uses the vivid storytelling of the album’s first piece to widen the glimpses of introspection that are present in the second section. From “Janky” to the album’s finale with “5200,” Emekwanem not only shares personal stories of perseverance but warns against the trials of the gang-infested life he seems to glorify.

Part III of this project is the perfect combination of the two previous segments. This installment is “Punken.” Maxo Kream’s true self.

Throughout Punken’s entirety, Maxo has crafted an anthology of stories that permit fans to enter the psyche of Emekwanem. He tells an overarching story of correlation between pain and success that is cleverly weaved together as the album concludes, which is best projected via the last two tracks “Roaches” and “5200.”

On its surface, “Roaches,” seems like a nostalgic track of perseverance. But when lyrics like: “Back when a face tat was for OG killas / Now I’m seeing teardrops on you soundcloud n****s / Remember back when music had content and metaphors / Way before the mumble nonsense and popping handle bars” are thoroughly digested, listeners can feel Maxo’s bittersweet feeling towards success and the progression of his life.

This duality is solidified in the second verse. Maxo details the ever-present pain in his life through a story about the loss his family took when his hometown was hit by Hurricane Harvey. He then mentions how this devastation came in conjunction with him and other members of the Kream Clicc facing potential prison time for allegedly breaking RICO/organized crime laws.

Although this seems like a somber theme, the tone present in “Roaches” paired with “5200” – an optimistic track that uses his Five-Deuce Hoover affiliations as an entendre on the many ways to persevere – give consumers the feeling that Emekwanem will undoubtedly overcome these obstacles.

And with this theme which ties Punken together, one can’t help but feel like this is a mentality that is embodied in every facet of 27-year-old Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah, Jr.’s personality. Through the story told on his debut album, fans got a concise grasp of Maxo’s emotional complexity.

In this album, listeners are shown how the fierce Nigerian infant, the Hoover Crip that used to sell fake lean, and the protector of culture/family are connected through a direct line of persistence. A trait of a steadfast personality that, through Punken, might have allowed Maxo Kream to position himself in a space where he can bring Houston out of the underground’s overcast, bringing the “Third Coast” back into the sunlight of mainstream hip-hop.