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Steven Louis is neither lip syncing nor lip singing.
Max B has always had an alibi. A man with such waviness can’t afford to be caught in just one place. Domain Diego handles West Coast operations; Biggavel takes the fall as the skeezer with different lovers in rotation; the Eloquent Music God is a sophisticated Harlem storyteller with divine eye; the Silver Surfer keeps that thing on his waist; Charly Wingate is his government name, the one used to pay taxes and sign contracts for ghostwriting Jim Jones hits. But Inmate 000904278D has been serving a 75-year sentence for murder conspiracy and robbery chargers since 2009. It’s some gutting, bizarre cosmic joke — my pick for the best, most original rapper to claim hip-hop’s birth place in two decades records at East Jersey State Prison. His popularity has surged galactically since he was stripped of his freedom; his rivals got washed up while his protégé dropped three gold albums and seven platinum singles.
Last year’s “Hold On” with French Montana was the first new Max B release in eight years. It glows with a brightness that the prison system exists to extinguish. Since then, an unstamped brick of purity in the form of Coke Wave 4, a groovy and somehow forward-sounding EP with Paul Couture called House Money, an absolute flex of a legacy compilation … and now, Charly, five new songs from Max’s new EMG imprint. His sentence was first reduced to 20 years, and now, Max and his representation say he should be out by 2021. All of this is cause to rejoice, but it’s sobering to consider just how much of the man’s career has been taken from him.
Max’s ex girlfriend and stepbrother were accused of fatally shooting David Taylor in 2006 after a botched stick-up of Taylor’s business partner, Allan Plowden, from a north New Jersey Holiday Inn. Max himself was nowhere present, and accounts of the night are inconsistent. He was tried with his stepbrother, despite the massive differences in their circumstances and testimonies. And Max’s lawyers were…well, the type of lawyers to give explicit interviews to DJ Vlad. Greatness was stolen; a father, a son, and an Uptown superhero was sold out for nothing.
Charly is brilliant. Max’s crackling voice hasn’t lost any of its charm, harmonies cresting with gravelly ahhhs and owwws. His bars remain as strong and self-assured as ever. He’s back over Dame Grease beats, but he also has eyes on Camila Cabello and the second season of Pretty Little Lies. “Goodman” sears righteously with jabs like “Martin Luther King, he had a dream / I had a vision, ended up back convicted” and “these devils is white as cotton, Jesus is black as fuck,” but it also makes room to joke about the Kawhi Leonard/DeMar DeRozan trade and lament the fact that French’s natural disaster insurance didn’t cover the Calabasis brush fire. The 2020 sequel to “Porno Music” is precisely what it sounds like, but it’s also something quite confounding — reconciling such frantic, all-over-the-place drums with Max’s relaxed flow doped up on reverb is an impossible ask.
The EP doesn’t last even 20 minutes, but Charly is such a satisfactory listen, a welcome reminder of the mythological talent from a New York no longer identifiable. A hint at what 2021 might sound like. The Silver Surfer, at point break.
“They Don’t Know” is towering, brass-backed shit-talking from a most unlikely place. The Boss Don shackled, but still commanding lieutenants on the outside and crooning verses to himself in a three-piece Armani suit. “In the zone I’m in the zo-oh-one, I’m coming ho-oh-ome.” Hard not to feel personally taunted. Waviness can’t die; it multiplies. No earthly force has ever broken the man’s charisma or confidence, though many have tried — Dipset and Jim Jones’ Byrd Gang, contractual obligations and dirty capitalism, racist prosecutors in Jersey and a decade-plus in prison.
According to The Marshall Project, Coronavirus has been ravaging New Jersey carceral facilities, with more confirmed cases than both Florida and New York. That’s more than 1,500 cases per 10 thousand prisoners, a rate higher than every other state in this wretched country. Max is sentenced to war with fate on a daily basis, all for an alleged murder that he was not present at. He still sounds joyous, proud … and, of course, immeasurably cool. Charly teases the potential of Max B’s output from the other side of bloody concrete walls, from actual studios with the people he loves right by his side. His freedom is not guaranteed, his health and spirit still put in jeopardy. Waves crash to the shore, while the vastness of the horizon keeps growing. Charly is 42 years old, and he’s spent most of his adult life in jail.
While his classics defy timespace and his physical reign over W 140th St remains suspended, new Max B songs hit with warm, sincere intimacy. And for all the pejoratives worth throwing at the Gregorian year of 2020, there’s perhaps one thing worth celebrating — we’re inching damn close to Charly’s well-deserved liberation.