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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

Maxo is not interested in any narratives about the “rap game” or his place in it. The artist – who for the last eight years has recorded pensive non-linear monologues over mid-fi loops – affirms to me instead the core tenants of his sense of self, which remain consistent despite any movements in his sound, label, or features. How Maxo describes “Maxo” is as someone grounded in his local soil, who treats his musical gifts with reverence, and is incapable of being influenced by outside forces. “I don’t really do the scene,” Maxo tells me over the phone, pushing back when I mention some of the other characters in underground rap that he draws comparison to. “I mean I love these people, bro, these my people – but I don’t know nothing about no scene.”

So before I inevitably editorialize, as I am wont as a journalist, let’s begin with the facts. Maxamillian Allen split his time growing up in Southern California across Ladera Heights and the “IE” (Inland Empire). He was inspired to rap by his brother Sharp, who Maxo still describes as “one of the best rappers I’ve ever known.” He recorded his first project, After Hours with a classmate at Chaffey College who made beats under the moniker VIK, and then together proceeded to develop their styles and ambitions alongside other friendship-forged collaborators around Los Angeles like lastnamedavid and Pink Siifu. In an off-hand reference coveting Def Jam on 2016’s path-breaking gold in the mud EP, he caught the attention of Mike Chavez, who signed him to the storied label that he has since made his home.

Sometime around 2019, after Earl Sweatshirt rebranded with the frayed Some Rap Songs and MIKE had accrued his second “Best New Music” designation, that style of homebrewed sample-swelled soul practiced by Maxo and others felt like a new calling – a distinct genre within hip-hop with its own ambassadors and luminaries. Introverted “old souls,” who subscribed to a personal-as-political brand of poetry, formed their own informal ecosystems of tapes and tours that appealed to the “Lofi Beats To Relax/Study To” generation – kids raised on music as more of an individualistic experience than a communal one.

It was in this moment that Maxo released his Def Jam debut, LIL BIG MAN, which put him in conversation with those artists’ expanding profiles and opened doors for him to perform alongside folks like Fly Anakin and Navy Blue, who recently followed Maxo in signing to the label. Yet in retrospect, the tape was always operating in a wave of its own, unique in the force of Maxo’s on-mic presence; rather than obscure himself in layered clouds of holographic loops, he molded every hook and rhyme scheme around the clarity of his insights. It’s in this intentionality that Maxo has distinguished his career, which takes on new stakes with last month’s Even God Has A Sense Of Humor.

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The project first took shape with its cover art, a photograph of three lifecasted sculptures representing Maxo’s various senses of self, which together stand in stark contrast to the anonymous silhouette from LIL BIG MAN. The album reflects this directness in his self-presentation, processing through pointed spiritual moments from the rapper’s last four years, from a seminal trip to Senegal to the release of his breakthrough project, SMILE. While many of his long standing collaborators return to soundtrack his conclusions, he also expands the range of his beats through new partnerships with Kareem Riggins, who worked with Maxo on the lush instrumentation featured on four tracks, and Dom Maker of Mount Kimbie, who executive produced the record after an accidental studio run in with the rapper. The music seamlessly blends live performance with presets, blurring their edges into something that sounds both crisp and broken-in.

And while Maxo does not entertain the idea that he is part of a scene, he does subscribe to the notion of family, something he believes is the root of the success of his ongoing partnerships with Liv.e and Pink Siifu. Even God Has A Sense Of Humor frames the power of those connections. On “48,” Maxo and Pink Siifu ride a sparkling Madlib joint with a passed-off flow that feels as lived-in as a secret handshake. Liv.e, who’s acclaimed Girl in the Half Pearl was released just a few weeks earlier, decorates “Both Handed” and “Like I Don’t See U” with her cool harmonies, playfully shadowing Maxo’s restless headspace.

This time around, Maxo’s pen feels less searching than usual. Instead, his lyrics consolidate hard-earned lessons, carefully cataloging the wisdom he’s earned for safe-keeping. But rather than freeing, this knowledge weighs on Maxo’s disposition, and his stories of survival can feel more cautionary than celebratory. Beyond just the tone of his music, it’s a quality of his thinking that holds true in his day-to-day. “I could definitely have more fun with it,” he admits, refering how he has treated his growing status in rap. But his sense of purpose is absolute, and stands apart from how he believes others disregard their gifts: “It’s hard for me not to take it serious ’cause of where I come from. Like, I can’t play with this.”

Yet Maxo is currently in high spirits, eagerly awaiting the months ahead of traveling the country on tour as he slowly emerges from the relative isolation of recording the album that will take him to those places. He answered the phone with a sing-songy greeting, warmly introducing himself before kicking us off by generously asking me the first question.

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