Album Review: Mainstream Hip-Hop Makes Room for Maxo Kream on Brandon Banks

Among the best and biggest-hearted rap albums of the summer




The Lowdown: Six years ago, the eminently deserving Maxo Kream scored a minor hit with “Whitney Houston”. In so doing, he exposed just how porous conventional wisdom can be. It had previously been assumed that there was no place in mainstream hip-hop for a husky-voiced, non-photogenic Houston street rapper with a deficit of social graces (“When we meet, it’s execution,” he warned), but Kream has since dispelled that fiction and then some.

The beats on new album Brandon Banks are hard-knocking and stimulated by adrenaline, even though, like many rappers today, Kream is helpless to resist the occasional foo-foo orchestral flourish. But don’t be misled: Kream doesn’t merely churn out caustic gangsta rap or frivolous booty chatter. He rhymes eclectically about gambling addiction (“8 Figures”), teenage motherhood (“Brenda”), and his previous life as a hapless sandwich maker at Panera (“Pray 2 the Dope”). Through it all, Kream remains sensitive, insightful, and unsparingly self-critical while also forgiving of others.

The Good: Many, if not most, rappers under a certain age are cavalierly dismissive of their forebears. When it comes to Kream, you can forget all that ageist pablum; this guy is downright reverent. He has David Banner’s incandescent indignation, Chamillionaire’s pitter-patter flow, and Scarface’s quenchless enthusiasm for storytelling.

What distinguishes Kream is his severe bullshit detector — possibly the severest in all of hip-hop. Kream is a lot of fun when he wants to be — he gets extra loose on “Spice Ln.”, which Zaytoven sloshes with Casio keyboard goodness — but he’s equally amenable to introspection. On last year’s “Roaches”, Kream, a Hurricane Harvey survivor, called attention to racial disparities in disaster preparedness. On Brandon Banks highlight “Meet Again”, he gently admonishes his thieving, drug-dependent elder brother. “Dairy Ashford Bastard” pays loving tribute to Kream’s father while still holding Dad accountable for his myriad abuses and infidelities.

The Bad: Kream carries a track so ably that he doesn’t need friends, particularly not friends like these: the most diplomatic description of ScHoolboy Q and A$AP Ferg is “highly performative.” To put it less charitably, their histrionics disrupt Kream’s momentum. Also unwelcome is the bone-lazy Travis Scott, who contributes nothing of import to “The Relays”. As tempting as it surely is to parade his deep contacts in the upper echelons of hip-hop, Kream should resist that urge in the future. Though he shouldn’t ditch Megan Thee Stallion—her toe-curling eroticism is the best part of “She Live”.

The Verdict: Times have changed since “Whitney Houston”. The snarling enfant terrible with a go-it-alone attitude is now a mentally and emotionally grounded 29-year-old capable of cherishing his loved ones. Without question, Brandon Banks is among the best and biggest-hearted rap albums of the summer. It can be summed up in three words: “Family uber alles.”

Essential Tracks: “Dairy Ashford Bastard”, “Meet Again”, and “Spice Ln.”