As we sit across from each other on the upper balcony inside downtown Riverside’s part-coffee shop part-arts and entertainment venue Back to the Grind, 22-year-old Max Allen, otherwise known as up-and-coming rapper Maxo, begins to delve into praise about Kendrick Lamar’s latest full-length project “DAMN.”
“I can just relate to that dude,” he says about Lamar, gleaming, while toying with the strings on his fleece Polo brand hoodie. “Like Kendrick is a real dude.”
Realness is a concept Maxo just recently came to define himself. Or, redefine, as he suggests on “Nickel to a Dime,” the fifth track from his latest effort “Smile” — a fluid and contemplative eight-track EP, brimming with Allen’s ambition.
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“I took what y’all called ‘real’ and redefined that / ‘cause if you look down you’ll see the rivers where I cry at,” Maxo raps on the song’s hook. A line more optimistic than its somber tone would suggest. “With that line it really meant like I’m at the point where I’m one with everything,” he explains, “like if you look down, I’m one with my struggles and shit so it’s like it’s the water to me. It’s just there and I just rock with it.”
Allen hails from Ladera Heights, a dominantly African-American city just 20 miles north of Long Beach, growing up in a condo with his mom, dad, older brother, Myles Allen and younger brother, Elijah. Around this time, Myles was pursuing a since-fleeting rap career, something Maxo registered at the time, before pursuing his own just two years ago while living in Claremont, California where he attended high school.
“I don’t wanna say I had a plan to do it … but I’ve always had interest in it,” Maxo says about making music, “it’s like, I seen him (Myles) doing it and then I was like it’s kinda cool I wanna try it, but I didn’t wanna take his shit. But then he kinda fell out with it and then I just naturally kinda picked it up.”
In November of 2015, Maxo emerged on Bandcamp under the Anchorage, Alaska-based cassette label Burnt Tapes, releasing his seven-track debut “After Hours.” The tape is honest, vacillating between naked introspection and Maxo’s irrepressible aspirations, featuring muted minimalist production reminiscent of Earl Sweatshirt’s “I Don’t Like Shit …” Though where Earl appears withdrawn and uninviting, Maxo draws us into the two-part struggle he has since become one with: Reaching self-acceptance and growing up being black.
“Just getting to a point where I’m comfortable with what’s made me, me,” is how he describes it. He continues, “Like just basically growing up being black and just being black in general really. It don’t really click ‘till you get old enough to understand so it’s like now I really get to look back and be like, ‘damn.’ I’m only 22 and I look back and just realize shit.”
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That realization shows itself on “Smile,” where Maxo swaps “After Hours’” self-effacing for efficacy as he rhymes over dulcet lo-fi production maintaining a kinetic flow akin to LA rapper Blu. The tape’s title in and of itself acknowledges Allen’s growth. For him, the word “smile” is wholly unironic, an ode to his personal perseverance.
“It means, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of what you’re going through, that you should still be able to smile,” he shares, “just like appreciate your shit regardless of your circumstances.”
It’s a sentiment reflective of the persistence which prevails through modern day black existentialism, where the ever-looming threat of death breeds greater desire to excel, to organize. This is a subject Maxo discusses with his friend at the opening of “Smile.” Here, Allen mentions the gunning down of Trayvon Martin, lamenting the absence of video documentation of the incident but acknowledging the hope he feels when seeing his community respond in protest.
Observations like these are why Maxo raps. What is seen and heard by Allen himself — self-described as quiet and reserved — is laid out through the artist’s words.
“I do a lot of observing, I don’t really be saying too much,” he shares, “growing up since (I was) a kid I just noticed everything and it just came to this … like the artist is putting it all out there.”
Experiences drive hip-hop. Though this is cyclical: The music itself manifests culture and shapes experience, remaining inexclusive in its affect. Just as Kendrick serves as a liaison for Compton’s realities and popular culture, Gucci Mane is a voice for Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. Maxo floats in the middle — conscious yet outwardly unperturbed, mellow with an urgent ambition to, as he says, “just be the best artist.” Though, for the time being, he remains in hip-hop’s ever-present underground, making water of the rocky path upward.
Listen to Maxo’s latest single “18 Years” below: