This 26-song compilation surveys the brief period, between 2007 and 2009, when the Harlem rapper remolded rap in his wavy image.
Max B grew up in a Harlem apartment building, a few floors beneath Cam’ron. When he was still a teenager, he was locked up on a robbery charge. He came home eight years later, in 2005, to a Harlem that Cam had refitted with after-market Range Rover paint and furs that looked like Easter decorations. Cam hooked Max up with Jim Jones; Max rapped with Jones and wrote for him; his own music quickly emerged as some of the strangest and most irresistible rap that New York had produced in the new century.
On September 21, 2006, a man was shot and killed during a botched robbery in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Max was alleged to have helped plan the heist and was charged with murder. He sat in jail for months until the summer of 2007, when Max sold his publishing to Jones to pay his bail. Once out, he began writing and recording at a delirious clip. Two summers later, in 2009, he was found guilty on nine of 11 counts. In September of that year, he was sentenced to 75 years in prison.
Wave Pack, a 26-song compilation released by EMG last week, functions mostly as a survey of Max’s work in the period between his release on bail and his 2009 conviction, songs which he had released nearly as soon as they were recorded. (Five of the tracks compiled here are taken from Vigilante Season, the album Amalgam Digital issued in 2011.) The effect is to create an immersive 101-minute block that includes none of Max’s formative work, inasmuch as Max has formative work: more than any of his New York contemporaries, he seemed to have been beamed in fully formed, from a wavier place. Most of the songs here have been smartly remastered, in a way that makes them clearer and more punishing but retains the atonal muddiness that’s central to his aesthetic.
As Guru said, it’s mostly the voice: Max’s vocals are often drowned in distortion and/or doubled until they sound like he’s singing through a breathing machine. Together with the producer Dame Grease, he built a style that imagines lullabies filtered through hell, or at least through a cell block. There are hints in Max’s catalog of the Auto-Tuned pop-rap that dominated radio in the late ’00s (for an example, see Vigilante Season’s “Baby I Need More,” which is not included here) but for most of this 2007-09 period, he was mutating the sounds of early-’00s New York street rappers like 50 Cent into something both grimier and poppier. Listening to Max feels like being on downers in your most expensive clothes. Everything is pained; he sounds as mournful recalling “very nice girls” on “Porno Muzik” as he does lamenting the injustice of his verdict (from “Lord Is Tryin’ To Tell You Something”: “I’m innocent! Wasn’t even there”).
While it skews toward songs from the latter half of his brief period of freedom, Wave Pack still functions as a near-comprehensive primer on Max’s sound. There are the acidic hits from his beloved San Diego sessions (“Try Me,” “Blow Me a Dub”) and playful taunts from his series of Public Domain tapes. And save for one verse from Mak Mustard, Wave Pack smartly eschews features. Max was a prolific collaborator—his mixtapes with French Montana are famous, and even those pale in comparison to his work with the late Stack Bundles—but the best road into his world is exposure therapy, letting the wave wash over you.
Wave Pack opens with two new songs: a shimmering bit of funk called ”Phenomenon” and “Run Homeboy Run,” which under different circumstances might play as a defiant first-day-out dispatch. (It is an unbelievable feat of tonal control to describe a 75-year sentence as a judge throwing you an elbow, and then to rap that line cockily through a jail phone.) Last summer, Max announced that his sentence has been reduced, and that he could be released some time in 2021. He’ll return to a rap industry that has never successfully recreated him, despite the traces of his DNA that can be found in many rappers who have debuted in his absence. But in revisiting Max’s music, you find that it’s harder to draw direct lines of influence than it is to see his work as something mostly alien, ahead of its time but mostly unconcerned with time in the first place.