The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At U Street Music Hall, Maxo Kream’s gritty street raps don’t quite click

Placeholder while article actions load

Maxo Kream is Houston, born and bred, and you can hear it in his music. From his syrup-slow, trunk rattling beats to his claustrophobic tales about the real consequences of making money with guns and drugs, the spirit of the Geto Boys and DJ Screw lives on in his paranoid street raps.

But you’re not paranoid if they really are after you. Maxo, born Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah Jr., was arrested in 2016 on charges of money laundering and organized crime after a sting operation, and last year police used one of his music videos to make 20 arrests for alleged weapons violations.

That is also the world in which Maxo was born and bred. “Police kickin’ in my door, threw my momma on the floor. HPD took my pops, I bought a heat, hit the block,” he raps on his new album. When that incident happened, he was just 12 years old. His father was in and out of prison during Maxo’s youth, and his latest album is named after the man’s criminal alias, “Brandon Banks.”

On Friday night, Maxo brought “Brandon Banks” — and crowd-pleasers from the albums and mix tapes that preceded it — to U Street Music Hall. At best, Maxo rapping about real-life trials and tribulations should be cathartic for both him and the crowd, but too often, the concert alchemy proved too delicate to transmute the experience. Maybe it was his tour-worn, flu-addled voice; maybe it was the halfhearted, half-full audience, but something never quite clicked.

One can’t fault Maxo: He tried every trick in the emcee handbook, pitting the left and right sides of the crowd against each other, calling for them to open the mosh pit and using local slang (“kill moe”). And he kept the mood light, teasingly calling a crowd surfer “little Macaulay Culkin from ‘Home Alone.’­ ”

But maybe getting turnt just isn’t the right reaction to Maxo’s music. Despite menacing drug-game bangers such as the Halloween-ready “Clientele,” ringtoning “Cell Boomin” and grime-sampling “Big Worm,” much of “Brandon Banks” and its equally autobiographical predecessor “Punken” is too heavy to get hype to.

Maxo’s lyrical stories are populated with fully formed people: “hookers, strippers, crackheads, robbers, trappers, all in public housing,” as he raps on “Grannies.” And his father isn’t the only family member to crop up in his songs. Perhaps tales of his uncle smoking crack and stabbing someone to death — which Maxo witnessed when he was 6 years old — aren’t ones suited for stage diving.

Maybe Maxo knows that, too. Near the end of his set he performed “Meet Again,” rapping, “I know this rap s--- look real sweet, but my real life, it ain’t no fun.”