On “Jesus Malverde,” A-Wax Spit Like His Life Depended On It

A-wax

In Mexican folklore, Jesús Malverde is celebrated as the “generous bandit,” a man who carried out his passion for the redistribution of wealth in the most direct manner possible: by jacking the rich and giving their spoils to the poor.

Though the historical record is hazy as to Malverde’s actual existence—he may be a synthesis of multiple bandits from around the time—his image and legacy have been claimed in recent years by those in the drug trade, whose adoption of the folk hero carries with it the implicit promise of taking the money they make from moving weight to the gringos up north and using it to improve the region’s infrastructure. That stance has allowed them to win the support of the populace in the process.

These days, Malverde’s image is so inextricably tied to the cartels—who have in part rebranded him as the “narco-saint”—that possession of his likeness has been ruled admissible as evidence in drug-related court cases.

The messy morality, paranoia, and outright desperation that come with the Mexican narco-saint’s name run through Jesus Malverde, the 2013 album by rapper A-Wax. Much of the Pittsburg, California rapper’s oeuvre is defined by a manslaughter charge from his gang-affiliated teenage years, which led to his incarceration in the Washington State Penitentiary while still in high school.

Though later tracks such as “Tried as an Adult” and “Be Alone” deal more explicitly with this formative experience, on Jesus Malverde, the subject is constantly lurking around the corner, along with the dangers and tragedies that can come with making a living on the black market. His bid is the nail in the coffin that estranges him from his mother on “Her Mistakez,” a track detailing how the overwhelming challenges facing impoverished single parents makes their offspring susceptible to gang life. The gleeful misanthropy of “Selfish” is thrown into relief on “Gun Range,” when A-Wax declares, “I just came home from prison, what kind of welcome is this?” before rapping about cleaning fingerprints off of spent shells for fear of ever going back.

A-wax

When A-Wax emerged on the Bay Area rap scene in the early 2000s, his albums such as 65 G’z in a Jordan Briefcase and Thug Deluxe drew liberally in both sound and cadence from regional legends C-Bo and The Jacka of Mob Figaz, who had come to define the mob music style throughout the era.

But as the decade wore on, A-Wax went his own way. He engaged in a beef of hazy origins with Mob Figaz’s Husalah, spent time on Akon’s Konvict Muzik label, and was a member of Waka Flocka’s Brick Squad. Jesus Malverde showcases these broader sounds. On “One More Time,” New Jersey producer Cardiak flips the Daft Punk song into a syncopated trap-house beat at a time when the rapper, spurred by the promise of a spot on the HARD Summer, flirted with EDM. A-Wax’s collaboration with Gucci Mane and DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia on “Make Room (Remix)” solidifies this post-regional mindset.

No matter his sonic backdrop, A-Wax’s work lends itself to close examination—the connections are always there, but he leaves it to the listener to draw them for themselves. Perhaps the most literal iteration of this philosophy comes in the form of the red “P” tattooed on A-Wax’s throat, as visible on the Jesus Malverde cover. Is it an homage to his hometown of Pittsburg, or a reference to his alleged affiliation with the Elm Street Piru bloods set? Judging by the image of A-Wax as Freddie Krueger on the cover of a trio of mixtapes titled Nightmare from Elm Street as well as his Everlasting Money album, it’s probably safe to say the answer is a bit of both.

Underpinning A-Wax’s gun talk and outright threats is the mindset of a sociologist, and Jesus Malverde examines the ravages of the drug game with an insider’s eye and humanist perspective. “Talking about it is easy, going through it is the hard part,” he told Yahoo around the time of Malverde’s release. “It’s the stuff you don’t anticipate when you’re coming up listening to rap music. I kind of felt let down by that.”

That attitude informs lines on Malverde: “There’s a difference between / Joining gangs and marines / One’s gonna pay you in cash / One’s gonna pay you in dreams / That never come to fruition / This shit just ain’t what it seems”—these serve as the climax of “Gun Range.” On Jesus Malverde, A-Wax rapped about drug dealing the same way Aesop Rock once rapped about waiting tables: it’s no way to live, but it pays the bills.

Drew Millard

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