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★★★★☆
“Your name is Emekwanem Ibemakanam Ogugua Biosah / Emekwanem means, ‘Don’t f–k with me.’”
In these first two lines of his debut album “Punken,” menacing Houston rapper Maxo Kream introduces himself by his birth name. After a long pause, a dark drum beat rises and Maxo emerges to set the scene with his lyrical agility. The album’s theme of growing up in Houston amid violence and crime is similar to his previous work and serves as a welcome increase in his ambition.

The second track, “Grannies,” which was previously released as a single, follows the same pattern as Maxo delivers a powerful hook: “Wake up in the morning, load my pistol, can’t leave home without it / Come from where you see a lot of bodies, but don’t talk about it.” Maxo excels in storytelling, painting vivid backdrops and delivering gritty verses to create a foreboding mood.

As the boundaries of trap music continue to expand, Maxo provides a balanced fusion between the charismatic energy of his peers and historic influences of his predecessors. While Houston’s rap scene has declined since its mid-2000s entry to the mainstream and now stands in the shadows of trap-music hotbeds like Atlanta, Los Angeles and recently southern Florida, artists like Maxo show the city is still a force to be reckoned with.

The third track on the album, “Capeesh,” is more atmospheric, serviced by the haunting vocals of Trippie Redd, a rising star from Canton, Ohio, who has drawn comparisons to Lil Uzi Vert. Trippie Redd’s melodic energy pairs well with the gritty textures Maxo employs and punctuates the album’s unflinching raps.

On “Hobbies,” which features a flow similar to the “Bad and Boujee” intro of Migos, Maxo attacks the beat, rapping, “Pesos, Dracos, still serve movin’ packs in the vaco / Botox, faceshots, pop at a n—a top ’til the K lock.”
Harsh lines like this are common, and Maxo delivers them with unwavering precision, making murder appear quotidian. This nonchalant attitude toward violence continues on “Beyonce (Interlude),” in which Maxo compares his collection of weapons to celebrities like Kevin Costner as his “choppa won an Oscar.” The track is well-placed, separating the grittiest material from the more polished, though the content remains strong throughout.

The second half of the album begins on a more relaxed sound, with soothing guitar strums under a conversation between two women, with one raving about Maxo. He follows suit, bending his flow to fit the mood as he brags about his sexual history. “Astrodome Pt.2” closes with a conversation between the same two women with a decidedly negative view on Maxo, perhaps because of his exploits.

Maxo maintains the mellow mood with funny punchlines about his affinity for marijuana and codeine among a plethora of other substances with “Love Drugs.” While not remorseful, he is certainly self-aware as he recognizes his love of drugs prevents him from loving a woman.

“Pop Another” samples psychedelic rock band Tame Impala’s song “Reality in Motion” and demonstrates Maxo’s versatility. The Houston rapper is able to adeptly flow even over more reserved instrumentation.

Arguably the best track on the project, “Roaches” sees Maxo verbally maneuver through minimalistic production, reminiscing about a childhood spent shooting guns and remembering “back when music had content and metaphors / Way before the mumble nonsense and poppin’ handlebars.” The simple beat allows him to dominate the song and hammer home insightful commentary that still maintains the style of modern trap. The album closes with the single “5200,” in which Maxo flexes about “getting money 5200 different ways,” a nod of loyalty to his gang affiliation.

Maxo delivers a strong debut album with “Punken” and a fitting introduction to those who have never heard the Houston artist’s music. Although no producer is involved with more than three songs on the project, Maxo curates a consistent vibe across the board, resulting in an impressively cohesive listen.

Maxo shows his skill for songwriting about the harsh realities of street life, compiling 14 quality tracks to present a raw and unfiltered autobiography.

The up-and-coming rapper’s intricate verses are sharply delivered, and he possesses an uncanny talent for hooks, providing powerful bursts of aggression on each track. Maxo is the clear star of the show, able to carry the project with only three features interspersed between his own appearances. His clear technical talent shows Maxo has arrived, yet his vision and commitment are more impressive and indicate that the 27-year-old rapper is here to stay.

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