"My mic is my sword kid
My mic is my blade the one I go to war with...
... Yo... Uh...
... Hand me a mic and get the fuck out the way
I'ma run through the barricade holdin' my blade..."
And so it begins, and Mad Maxx bursts out of the stereo with a confrontational tone that curiously evokes comparison both with Cage and with artists such as DMX. From the start, Maxx' ability to flit between rap tempos is evident, and the gruffness in his voice grants his rhymes an aggression that at times seems a little forced, but for the most part seems well suited to the subject matter he chooses.
As might be expected on an artist's first full-length release, Maxx dedicates a number of songs on "Hand Me a Mic" to discussions of his longstanding Hip Hop aspirations, and his assurance that now he's begun to carve out a niche for himself, he is never going to take a step back. "Birth of an Artist" tells the obviously exaggerated story of Maxx' childhood, and while his claim that he learned to spit verses before being able to walk or talk comes across as a little ridiculous, the allegory of commitment to Hip Hop from a young age is clearly one Maxx feels is important. "Facin' the Crowd", while it appears earlier on the album, takes up a similar theme, but with greater effect, and finds Maxx conceding that he is both a face in the crowd (i.e. a Hip Hop fan) and – he believes – someone destined to also face the crowd from the other side of the microphone.
Whether or not Maxx's raspy vocals are assumed or entirely natural is a subject for debate for the individual listener, but one thing is clear; such a tone is much better suited to some tracks than others. "Wake-Up Call" is one track that falls a little flat, both because of its largely uninteresting production and hook, and because Maxx' tone seems out of place considering troublesome relationships. In contrast, the "Djin" interlude and the subsequent "Wishmaster" suit Maxx' voice and delivery perfectly, as he tells the interestingly-crafted story of someone's run-in with a being of pure evil. A different sort of track that Maxx seems similarly well-suited to is the boisterous Blurred Insight posse cut "Natural Born Catastrophe". Maxx, accompanied by the other members of his 'Insight crew spit what are effectively battle rhymes over one of the best beats on the album which is strangely chopped, but features some great loud drums and a well-used warped vocal sample.
Towards the album's close, Maxx' tracks become a little more experimental than the earlier part of "Hand Me a Mic". "(Chainsmoker)" is an immediate stand-out because it adopts an unusual track format on which Maxx spits four bar verses that begin with a quick tempo before slowing down over nothing but live-sounding drums and moments of silence. They may not necessarily be Maxx' finest lines throughout the album, but the construction of the song adds to their impact, and through differing rhythms, Maxx offers an abridged description of himself and his characteristics:
"Spit it out onstage with the mic; hold hands
In the crowd, in a rage battle me no chance
Some day at the game, body paint, brave heart
Drink a lot of liquor and still manage to stay sharp
Half-good; half-bad. All mad; no joke
Have to have that confidence to showboat
Humble at times; respect the principle
Life teaches you this the second you feel invincible
Love my people: those that know me
Those that claim to but don't can blow me
End of discussion: vodka get guzzled
Rush ya; the one your daughter oughta hate but doesn't"
While "Hand Me a Mic" yields tracks that present both Maxx and his producers in a very good light – tracks such as "Aya" with its chants, piccolo sample and syncopated beats; and "Big Blue" with screaming crowds, bells and strings – there are also tracks that do the project no favours at all. "Roadblock" and "I Will Destroy You" are two such tracks; they are not without redeeming features, but are let down by at least one less-than-satisfactory aspect. "Roadblock", for instance, features both passably good production and lyrics, but is sunk by its fairly pedestrian and uninventive hook. "I Will Destroy You", on the other hand, fails because Maxx' verses attempt to be menacing and threatening, but instead come across as contrived and uninspiring.
Ultimately, Mad Maxx' solo debut is a mixed bag that even sometimes succeeds in contradicting itself. While there are times when Maxx' vocals tear up a track, there are others when similar vocals are the track's undoing. With the production also, there are low and high points; those tracks I've mentioned which attempt something a little different are the ones which end up having the greatest impact. And those which take a more formulaic approach to sample usage and beat construction vary from decent accompaniments for Maxx' lyrics to being the reason you reach for the "skip" button on the stereo. No doubt we'll be hearing more from Blurred Insight in the future, and there's every reason to believe they'll bring us some good things. For the moment, though, they've still got some progress to make.
Music Vibes: 6 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6 of 10
Originally posted: December 23, 2003