The California-based Maxo raps to tell deeply personal stories – not to flex flashy rhymes. Over atmospheric droning or dreamy jazz-fueled production, the 28-year-old grapples with the painful parts of human existence: depression, self-doubt, shaken faith. Maxo is in a more positive headspace these days, but debut LP Even God Has a Sense of Humor is billed as a tribute to and a final rehash of the troubled days leading up to his present at the precipice of mainstream success.

The end of 2019 EP Lil Big Man found Maxo spitting a stream of consciousness on not being taken seriously in music, the agony of the “paper chase,” and sacrificing his personal life in pursuit of stardom. Even God Has a Sense of Humor finds Maxo under the spotlight, but he’s still consumed by the past. “Trying to make it right, trying to make it through the night,” he admits on cinematic opener “Still.” But his music career is starting to finally shine like he manifested five years ago on “Quiktoldme”: “When I’m on-stage, point my face towards the light.”

An Earl Sweatshirt disciple, Maxo follows the format by teasing the tension of production as high-art and minimalistic verse rooted in introspection. When it hits, it’s magic, like on “Both Handed”, featuring Dallas-based singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator Liv.e. “My bones grow brittle through the tests we stand,” he laments. “Everything I got rests right in my hand, rests right in my mind.” The conflict between those feelings of hopelessness and determination are a standout of the record.

Another place where it works is “Nuri” which features a cohesive, journal-like verse and a stunning yet understated beat. Once he drops the mic, the production takes a warped but satisfying turn towards the psychedelic in a clash of supersonic whirring and wind-chimes. “What 4” is another lo-fi stunner with Maxo’s choked vocal delivery drowning in a syrupy backdrop. “We’re out here dying, we’re out here dying. My brothers is dying; my sisters is dead.”

But at times it feels like Maxo is still figuring out exactly how to balance his proclivity for more artful symbolism and his more on-the-nose verse. Maybe that’s because, as he admitted to Fader earlier this month, he’s still reconciling the past version of himself that was admittedly “too sensitive” and the more resilient version that exists today.

Socially conscious and artistically daring, Maxo creates some magical moments on Even God Has a Sense of Humor. There are moments of raw honesty and instrumental brilliance – it just doesn’t quite come together in the way Lil Big Man hinted a follow-up would. It doesn’t make the effort bad, but it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. And yet, this ends up being a positive, showing that Maxo still has plenty of untapped potential for the future.