by Nick Hanover
Max Wells not only released his new EP Now I’m Here with little fanfare, he openly bragged about not putting any money into promotion to ensure the product is “as organic as it gets.” That might seem like commercial suicide in an era of neverending product but Now I’m Here isn’t just paying lip service to the idea of DIY cred, it’s thematically structured around it. In fact, the juxtaposition between this aggressive “doing it on my own” politic and the EP’s unapologetically commercial production is a big part of what makes it such a thrilling and unique work. Max Wells is young and determined and refuses to not aim high, but he also refuses to go about his goals in a traditional manner.
Early on, Wells declares “I got my foot in the door/I might close it behind me,” commenting on the tried and true music biz tradition of riding on someone else’s coattails. Wells is drawing a line in the sand between the fake, lazy emcees he sees surrounding him and the people who he admires, who carved out their success on their own terms. That’s especially topical in Austin, where so many hip hop acts seem to be incapable of creating their own sounds, only offering up watered down retreads of bigger national acts. Now I’m Here operates in the club hip hop realm from a production standpoint, but Wells stands out from club rap hopefuls with his vicious flow and introspective lyricism. If there’s a precedent for Now I’m Here in terms of this integration, it’d be Murs’ Have a Nice Life from last year, specifically hook-heavy hip hop critique “Two Step.”
Of course, Murs is a seasoned hip hop veteran and Wells is about half his age, making Now I’m Here an unusually jaded and cynical work from someone so young. This isn’t to say that Now I’m Here is ever a slog– it’s refreshingly well-paced and spry, with early standouts like “Blackswan” and “Save Yourself” structured in ways that manage to emphasize Wells’ vocal talents without distracting from the maximalist beats– but it has a venenomous edge that makes it more than the kind of radio ready fluff that has production perpetually overshadowing slack emcees with no handle on rhythm or melody. “Twisted Words” even slims down the maximalism in order to provide a pure platform for Wells’ verbal dexterity, giving him a spacey, pogoing beat that pushes his tempo into inhuman territory.
“Runnin” goes in an opposite direction, with the stuttering beat slowing Wells down and then giving him space to build back up to his normal furious pace. It’s also a better use of autotune effect than “Lil Light Beam,” which starts off promisingly enough but is ultimately hampered by the pushy vocal effects. Wells is at his best when his flow is relatively untouched, as on the ominous and unsettling “Heavy Breathing,” which showcases Wells’ narrative talents, detailing a series of bad decisions over menacing bell tones and chimes, punctuated by Wells asking “Where is my momma now?”
Wells might talk up his lack of push from blogs, but Now I’m Here is the type of work that is too bold and strong to go ignored for long. It’s rare in general to encounter young artists with as much versatility and confidence as Wells, but it’s especially difficult in Austin, where there are fewer opportunities to hone your craft and win over larger crowds. Which is why Wells’ decision to go it alone and do his own thing shouldn’t be seen as youthful arrogance but a sign of his commitment to rising above his peers. And who can blame him if he feels like shutting the door behind him after he’s gotten through it?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover