New Houston Rap

Maxo Kream and the Art of Keeping It Too Real

The scariest thing involving Houston rap to occur in the past week? We almost lost Maxo Kream for an extended period of time.

The Kream Clicc leader is easily a favorite among the newer crop of Houston rap acts and it’s not a secret as to why: the razor-sharp double-time, the storytelling and the persona that makes him seem equal parts easygoing and menacing. We’ve written about Maxo extensively over the past three years as the sort of smoldering rap tough guy Houston always seems to generate. Last Thursday was supposed to be another fun night — Kream has put himself in this weird position where he’s not exactly famous, but is a burgeoning regional talent and known all over the 'net. Thursday, Maxo played intermediary between a regular opener and Danny Brown as part of Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition tour. Kream did perform, absolutely tore Warehouse Live to shreds with the time he was allotted.

Hours later, Maxo Kream was inside a jail cell in Fort Bend County, charged with a lesser version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Mobsters normally get hit with the RICO. Maxo was charged with two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity. For a day, a #FreeMaxo and #FreeMaxoKream movement sprung up on Twitter. Last Friday, I wrote about the ramifications and seriousness of Maxo's potentially going away for a long time over at Day & A Dream. Maxo missed a show in Dallas on Friday night, but by mid-Sunday he was no longer under the supervision of the men and women of the Fort Bend County Jail.

While some promoters and bloggers were more concerned with Maxo's mugshot than with the severity of his charges, the Alief rapper quietly returned to the civil world. He posted a quick 20-second video on Twitter, scoffing at the charges levied against him.

"Niggas say organized crime. I'm organizing these songs for my album," Maxo said. "Organizing these shows and shit, taking care of my family. Doin' right and shit." There's no further word on a court date but given the nature of Fort Bend County officials, the charges aren't going away anytime soon, especially given the penalty for conviction.

His arrest raises a strong question among Houston rap artists: When exactly do you leave certain things and situations behind? The further we begin to stretch rap conversations into personas more so than music, the more we’re gonna dig into some atmosphere where writing about rap music in a smart, meaningful way will be lost. We’ll continue pulling humans into mythological realms and press them up against our expectations. In a way, that’s what rap music has boiled down to.

Either our rappers, young or old, meet our expectations of their potential and we anoint them, or we cast them aside. Also-rans. What-ifs. But-maybes.

Thankfully, we’re not going to have to write those types of things about Maxo Kream. Not yet anyway.

What have we gotten in the past few weeks? We’ve gotten a few artists who are comfortable letting the world know who they are. We’ve also gotten artists who will only give you what they want you to know about them. Javon “X” Johnson, one of the city’s more underrated acts, walks with an internal clash about him every day. His curiosity about life and different experiences have led him down a pretty remarkable path. The one constant in his music happens to be his mother, whom he still calls on for advice and just to shoot the shit. It’s as beautiful as it is normal. Johnson records in these short bursts, taking normally scattered thoughts and piecing them together to form one cognitive theory. That straightforward rasp of his and that steely demeanor have worked in his favor. He’s a niche blog favorite because he represents a slice of Houston rap that exists in a time capsule, the space where K-Rino and South Park Coalition are revered as giants.

Johnson's latest release, Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished, of course takes its name from Tupac Shakur’s acronym breakdown of “N.I.G.G.A.” Johnson’s mother calls him on September 4 and then again on the 6th, in case you needed a timeline on how long it took for N.I.G.G.A to be recorded. Johnson has always rapped with an eye for confession, piling his sins on top of one another and then pushing away.

“I used to burglarize niggas for their designer frames and I ain’t proud of that shit neither, that shit lethal,” he raps on “Somnambulism Circus." There’s a surly bit of uncertainty whenever he speaks because the narration is so cold and bleak as hell. Going to elementary school where the school buses didn’t run your way? Completely messed up. Being caught up in a fight so vivid that your main takeaway is a damn hurricane in 2009? A funny way of pairing significant events. There’s a jazzier, almost Madvillainy approach to N.I.G.GA as Johnson’s demeanor dances and twirls with Sahmbeau’s easy-going and shifty production. “The things I would do for some benefits…” Johnson raps on “¿” along Eric Christensen’s horn work and Sahmbeau’s dusty, analog style production.

Giving listeners everything from his story has never been Javon Johnson’s thing. He wants you to believe almost anything he’ll tell you is fact, and for the most part, he has little reason to make it seem otherwise. N.I.G.G.A clocks in at around 18 minutes and, in typical Javon Johnson fashion, it never bores or drones on. Johnson gets his issue, mostly on “The Talk” and “Phantom’s Opera." For every drop of darkness that surrounds him, he’s rather calm and at ease with it all. Which is scary as shit. It bounces around from being a pointed look at a world full of injustice to a laughable discussion about knowing who’s fake and who’s real.

By contrast, SVN doesn’t dwell inside the same box or shoot at that particular basket. If rap were a full-court game at your local YMCA or rec center, SVN would promptly be the most unsuspecting guard on the court. He’d showcase his handle, immediately make the one guy who wore all the accessories regret his decision and casually leave. He doesn’t want the spotlight or the fame. He just wants to create rap songs with his friends and occasionally interpolate OutKast’s “Git Up, Git Out.”

Second Sunday, SVN’s latest tape, features that rather gorgeous “All My Life” track with Mufasa Enzor, Amaru TMN & Julian Outlaw. It also contains “9000 Bissonnet,” where SVN twists up a Mike Tyson's Punch Out-style drum beat in honor of southwest Houston, Texas. Both of these songs are excellent, but they are bracketed around a series of songs about love, about being the man and being supported by certain people.

“She don’t talk about the game man, she hate the First Take,” SVN spouts on “Prove It,” a pointed record about loyalty from a woman. There’s no sort of menace or super-tough-guy appeal to SVN. He’ll readily tell you he made sure to work two jobs while moving to Los Angeles and keeping his sanity. Anthem provides much of Second Sunday with rubbery cut-ups of hard-hitting bass, vocal samples (yes, that familiar Rick James sample Kanye West used for “Runaway” is here) and drums. “I Did It” echoes the feeling of Pharrell’s “You Can Do It Too,” a reassuring follow-my-lead moment. “Body Bags” kicks up the triumph and closes the 11-track affair as SVN lets the world know he’s learned more from his father than anything else about this world. He dips on and off the beat sometimes for added effect, but the rapper knows how bad he wants to prove a point. Second Sunday is a tape mostly about love and success. There’s no lulls or low moments from the Houston upstart — unless he stares at you and wonders how you signed a deal and remain broker than him.

Who doesn’t have that problem? Dante Higgins. Every time we think Dante is done or is going to slow down his time in the studio, he pivots and moves elsewhere. When he’s building things, he operates like the 1998-99 Duke men’s basketball team. There will be moments when he weaves a story better than your favorite director. There will be other moments when he enunciates or stretches a word for his own personal amusement and you laugh with him. On his ThreeIVThree EP, the HIG Head General compares himself to Vlade Divac (none of the flopping), looks at “Netflix & Chill” as an escape from the world rather than a put-on for sex, and shoots a middle finger to critics and detractors. It’s a quick strike of the highest degree and a soft preview of Higgins's new album coming down the line.

See? Three totally different Houston rap acts who either give you everything, have all of their dealings displayed on social media or Wikipedia, or feed you what they think you need to know. Option number three is always best.

Kyle Hubbard feat. T2 The Ghetto Hippie & Lyric Michelle, “This Is Houston”
Someone foolishly labeled Kyle Hubbard as a member of Houston’s “hipster” rap crowd, and he should take it as an insult. All because that person watched “This Is Houston," an ironic video in which T2, Hubbard and Lyric kick around rhymes, Houston rap homages and being normal-ass human beings as opposed to stereotypes. See, that’s not being hipster or being cynical. That’s a rap song from a Houston rapper far too aware of his surroundings.

Le$, “Top Down”
Good news: We’re getting an honest to God L-E-Dolla album on November 22, his favorite day of the year. “Top Down” is him and Mr. Rogers flipping a little “Summer Madness” to discuss Le$'s forever worrying about his damn self and concerned with your girl wearing his jersey as a trophy.

Paul Wall, “Han Solo On 4s”
We’ll get to Paul’s gorgeous new Swishahouse throwback album in time, but “Han Solo On 4s” is pretty much perfect. Paul's rapping about his slab isn’t anything new; his last album was Slab-centric, after all. But saying your ride is so clean a homeless man masturbated to it? Nasty. And clever.

Propain, “Straight Up Menace”
Pro’s storytelling and narration have been two of his more underrated qualities. He’s already teased a new project on the way via “Pressure,” and now there’s a freestyle over MC Eiht’s “Straight Up Menace." He spends half the flow discussing a nameless child raised in the slums chasing fast money and adulation and the rest tying it all together to modern ideals.

Tim Woods feat. Rizzoo Rizzoo, “Fuego”
The more time moves toward Tim Woods’s Pushing Daisies, the more he’s edging closer to unlocking the key. Woods and Rizzoo Rizzoo spend “Fuego” discussing how they overcame empty nights, coming home to a house with no lights and more. “I been kicking knowledge like it’s capoeira,” Woods raps while Rizzoo continues his hot streak of stellar guest appearances. He’s a “Can’t Go Back” All-Star and will proudly admit it.


Mike Dean talked to Nardwuar about the history of the Def Squad, which was a pretty incredible trip down Rap-A-Lot lane (shoutout to Choice). The real great thing of the weekend? Lil Flip (yes, LIL FLIP) emerging from random tour dates across the country to help a young fan deal with bullies at his school in Colorado. The kid got stabbed, for Christ's sake, over his lack of shoes and Flip came through not only to cheer him up but to make donations too.