Maxo’s music, especially as of late, has felt like those coming-of-age movie scenes where the frenzied young protagonist meets someone they aspire to become—picture Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez and Babe Ruth—and realizes that today’s stressors eventually build tomorrow’s character. The Los Angeles veteran’s output has long thrived through reflection, inhabiting soupy, hypnagogic production like a confessional booth of his own creation. For the cover art of his most recent record, February’s Even God Has a Sense of Humor, he took the uncomfortable measure of lifecasting: a process like getting a portrait painted, except that you’re slathered in guck, you can’t see anything, and the “painting” is a large, topographically accurate bust of your body. The songs on that project were disarmingly personal and deliberate, larger-than-life without being invincible. It’s hard to run when you’re stuck under a coat of alginate.
Where much of Maxo’s output has functioned like a living diary, Debbie’s Son sounds less like he’s taking inventory of his baggage than trying to cut through it with a knife. The record’s ethos is encapsulated in the opening verse to “Another. LAnd,” where contemplation is supercharged by acknowledgements of his right to self-interrogation. “I question the ways inside my being/I’m workin for change but present time speak,” he admits, before turning away from the mirror to lob an abrupt question: “Who is you to judge?” As much as his self-image has hardened, it remains too nuanced to feel impenetrable. On the track directly following “Another .LAnd,” he turns his back on the scornful “you,” and returns to the mirror. “Reminding myself I’m strong as what I’m faced with,” he says, in a sing-songy voice that borders on teasing. “But it’s hurting, aint it?” As much as you can hear the pain, there’s also a sense of triumph.
Debbie’s Son features an eclectic cast of producers, including lastnamedavid, Alexander Spit, The Alchemist, and Beat Butcha. They provide a compelling range of cinematic backdrops, against which an on-edge Maxo hurls mantras like graffiti on government buildings. His tone is careful yet unapologetic, self-confident without being reckless. While some tracks thump along to rhythms as precise as assembly lines (“PlayDis!”, “Another. LAnd,” “What Are You Looking For?”), others bask in his more characteristic jazz arrangements, reverb-heavy vocals cutting through haze like the sort of old-and-wise deity that Morgan Freeman could portray on camera. On the Ahwlee-produced “Boomerang,” a love song to “the old me,” lush guitar arpeggiations stumble into one another in a trance. There’s unresolved sentimentality to the instruments’ circular haze, complementing Maxo’s lyrical back-and-forth between past and future.
The record leans into the foundational elements of Maxo’s music—verses that meander more than they attack; roomy, coffee-shop-band auras; autobiographical honesty—but occasionally departs to give old tricks new vigor. Compared to the murky vocal mixes on his earliest releases, he’s coming through noticeably clearer now. And he’s more willing to be a prophet in places where he once was content being a proselyte. “No wonder why I been chasin’ unknown,” he echoes, with the knowing whisper-speak of a Black grandparent telling a story, over the jazzy title track. As he repeats these words, an upright bass stumbles along a riff that’s just as asymptotic. As meditative as his work has always been while foregrounding a new sense of fortitude, Debbie’s Son shines in the many moments when Maxo and the music are convincingly one.