Photos by Jay Tovar
The areas around Maxo Kream's eyes are darker than the rest of his face and his actual eyeballs are darker still. They possess a very distinct solemnity, is how dark they are.
His eyebrows default into an angry slant and his mouth defaults into an open-mouthed frown, revealing a top set of teeth with a small gap in between the first two and a bottom row of teeth covered in gold. Even his beard, longish and needle-y, is ill-omened, appearing less like it's being pulled down by gravity and more like it's stretching towards the feet of passersby so it can grab hold and rip them from arrogant ankles.
This intimidation is the immediate appeal of Maxo, a 23-year-old rapper from Houston, TX that has recently begun gobbling up praise. He is, in short, terrifying, frightening, and fearsome. He's been absorbed into his own scowl. Menace is the crux of his creative existence. There are hints that empathy used to be an emotion his brain could process, single lines sprinkled into lyrics about first-person recounts of criminal activities. But those bits only ever feel expository, nostalgic even.
When he spouts, "I know I'm Christ but I got the Devil in me" on his most recent single, "Lewinsky," a devastatingly haunting track from his forthcoming mixtape, QuiccStrike, the implication seems clear: The bad is usurping.
Perhaps even more telling than his words, though, is the grimness with which he wordlessly examines himself in the song's video.
The scene, the opening: After quick cuts of a gun, drugs, Frank Sinatra, and a rosary, Maxo, for but a brief moment, catches his own heavy eyes in a mirror. The shot lasts less than two seconds (from the 0:19 mark to the 0:20 mark), and little of the video's plot has been laid out yet, but there is something there. Something gripping. Something awful. He is measuring himself.
We learn later that the home he's in is not his own. Maxo's in the middle of leading an invasion and robbery. This is something he's done in real life many times. Menace is the crux of Maxo's real life existence as well. In fact, it's essentially how his crew, Kream Clicc, a collection of rappers and street toughs, came to be.
"We were hitting licks [robbing homes]," says Maxo, of the inadvertent origination. "One of the guys, his house was full of shoes. And he wore my size. We're sneakerheads. We started calling ourselves Kream Clicc. Kream is Kicks Rule Everything Around Me."
He doesn't recall exactly how many homes he's been inside of without permission, but he knows it's been no small amount. It's how he fed himself in his earlier years and how he established himself fully later. And that evil-via-necessity turned evil-via-evil is the abstraction captured in "Lewinsky," both lyrically (he walks you from being raised by a single mom who "made $10K a year" to selling drugs in elementary to the very specific mechanics behind robbing homes) and in the video.
That opening moment, that's the beginning of a morph, an idea conceptualized in art what he had only previously considered in secret before. He's contemplating his fate, how the robbery will end, how everything will end. There is good in him somewhere, under the rust and soot in the valves of his heart. But it isn't enough. It can't win. It doesn't win. It suffocates.
At the 0:30 second mark he is in front of the mirror again, this time snarling and rapping and bouncing to the chaos stretched out wide into a beat.
At 0:48, he's there once more, calm, but calm in a manner that suggests he's reserved to his fate.
At 0:57, he is almost swallowed completely by the evil; teeth out, Fuck You fingers aimed at his reflection.
And at 1:01, it's over. Any light that may have been hiding in his irises has been blacked.
The sequences that follow are devastating –Maxo carrying a gun through the house filled with marauders, joining his mob, leading them into a garage where a young white couple is bound and gagged, wiggling about helplessly on the floor—but they're inconsequential.
Maxo is, has become, a monster.
The song is endlessly replayable because it is so endlessly legitimate and frightening. He hinted at being able to this materialize this level of artistic expression on "Whitney Houston," the track that preceded "Lewinsky" (and impressive in its own right), but he perfected it here.
Maxo too, in these moments, is—becomes—the very best kind of rapper.
So this story was a total bear.
Maxo and I first met up in Houston on June 27th. He was performing as part of this secret rap cypher that Boiler Room TV was putting on. I went and watched him and others and then Maxo and I hung out and talked for a good bit afterwards. The plan was to turn in copy a few days later.
During our interview though, Maxo mentioned that he'd been added to the Texas leg of Chief Keef's recent tour. He was going to be in Houston in three weeks, so I planned to attend that show as well, grab a few bits from it, then add it into the story as extra color. Since we had extra time, Maxo and I scheduled a session with Jay Tovar, a talented photographer that we thought could shoot the types of shots that would match the story line. We did that, then we all waited for the Keef show.
The day of the show, Maxo started firing lightning bolts from his twitter account about not being able to perform because of reasons that, due to the legality of a pending issue, cannot currently be discussed in detail. The show came and went. And so now here we are.
After all of that, the story basically stayed exactly the same as what I'd written before the missed concert (and, actually, lent even more credence to it, probably). No matter. Wuddyagonnado?
Shea Serrano is a writer in Houston. He's on Twitter - @SheaSerrano