Lil Big Man is something of a milestone for its taciturn hopefulness.
Every rapper, like every superhero, has an origin story. Kendrick Lamar was inspired by a visit to the set of 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love” video. Noname took a creative writing class that set her on a path to making poetic music. Jay-Z received a boom box as a birthday present from his mother and used it to write his first rhymes.
The origin story for Maxo (aka Maxamillian Allen) involves just one thing: family. Growing up in the Ladera Heights and Inland Empire neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Allen observed the struggles of his older brother and felt the need to transform these hardships into music.
On Maxo’s Def Jam debut, Lil Big Man, blood ties remain central. His uncle, his mother and his grandmother all appear on the album, either in lyrical references or audio recordings of their voices. “Uncle tried to give me game early and I listened to him and applied that,” he spits, for example, on dollar-eyed “No Love.” His family members always seem to be giving advice, and Allen spends a great deal of time describing his earnest attempts to live according to their direction. “You have a good one/ And make a chance to call your grandmother back,” we hear his mom say at the end of bifurcated standout “In My Penny’s.” The track bleeds directly into “Lucky,” which consists solely of a voicemail from his mom over the free-jazz ramblings of sax, hi-hat and keys. The matriarchal voice recording has become a staple of recent hip-hop and R&B albums (see Frank Ocean’s “Be Yourself,” several tracks on K-Dot’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Solange’s “Interlude: Tina Taught Me” and the opening and closing songs on SZA’s Ctrl), but Maxo’s take on the fad is markedly restrained. There’s no joke or lesson or story here, just a simple voice message.
Realism-laced, laidback directness characterizes the entire album. Listeners looking for witty wordplay, flashy rhyming or aggressive delivery won’t find it on Lil Big Man. Allen raps with the same kind of clear-eyed coolness that Jay-Z wields on 4:44, but this set of 10 songs is even less grandiose. Maxo’s rhymes are clever, but never ostentatious; angry, but never confrontational; thoughtful, but never aphoristic. “And I been parting tides with my wisdom/ Blurred line gets thinner when I’m tryna get my wealth right,” he comments during the hook of album-opening “Time.” There’s a lighthearted juxtaposition of “parting tides” and “blurred line” here, but the metaphor drifts away hazily as his flow rolls on.
The production on Lil Big Man, split almost equally between beat-makers lastnamedavid and SWARVY, is similarly insouciant. Slowed-down soul samples and glissando-driven loops give the album an underground, late-late-night feel. Musically, this is a hip-hop version of Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio, where dreamy sounds emerge from and disappear in thick smoke. Take “Kinfolk,” whose beat exists in the same universe as the jazz-R&B fusions of Lonnie Liston Smith. Electric bass and a barely-there singing sigh weave through the mix in an oneiric ballet that suggests some ancient wisdom. “I see the plotting, I’m a prophet, I suppose,” Allen observes on the same track. The combination of his words with the music swirls with all the elemental realness of fossilized time.
Although it follows in the footsteps of Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z, Earl Sweatshirt and Roc Marciano, Lil Big Man is something of a milestone for its taciturn hopefulness, especially since it was released on a major label. It may be the first rap album to take full advantage of blunted, jazzy beats without a dark, addiction-fueled violent perspective to match. “All I know is when the sun hit my skin, it be beaming,” he insists on aforementioned “Kinfolk.” Part of the power of this observation comes from its position in a verse about witnessing the firsthand effects of police brutality against young African-American men. Maxo uses his art to recognize terror, consider it and then realize that his own black existence defies it nonetheless.