The young rapper's debut album is a tolerance test
When not racking up millions upon millions of YouTube or Soundcloud plays before most in the mainstream has even heard of them, one thing you can always count on new rap to do is anger hip-hop’s old guard. Whether it’s Pete Rock posting Lil Yachty memes or Migos escalating their Joe Budden beef from lyrical to very nearly physical, there seems something intrinsic about rap’s latest youth-led scene (often dubbed ‘mumble rap’ or ‘sad rap’) that irks the genre’s elder statesmen.
Of course, this idea of ‘old v new hip-hop’ isn’t new at all. Ever since the first waves of rap, there have been struggles between the legends of old and what they deem the flavours of the day. A decade ago, we had Soulja Boy (whose ‘Crank That (Soulja Boy)’ can be seen as a forebear for many of today’s viral Soundcloud rap hits) going head-to-head with Ice-T, who labelled the former’s music “garbage” and, even less diplomatically, told the then-17 year-old to “eat a dick” for “killing hip-hop”. Kanye West – who still operates as a link between rap’s establishment and new royalty – came out in defence of Soulja Boy, describing the youngster as “fresh as hell”, while arguing that the old guard “always talk about the golden age” but that “for a 13 year old kid, this is the golden age”.
It’s perhaps this latter argument that explains why hip-hop’s old school often feels threatened. New musicians are always indebted to their influences, and rap is no different. But after decades of co-signs from young upstarts, things now appear to have shifted. Rap’s biggest stars of the moment are either teens or barely into their 20s. Lil Uzi Vert was born in 1994, Lil Yachty in 1997 and XXXTentacion in 1998. Instead of paying homage to the likes of Biggie, NWA and Public Enemy, young rappers today are more likely to cite their heroes as Kanye, Drake or Lil B, while some of this new wave have perhaps more in common with rock, emo or pop-punk.
Lil Xan’s recent angering of rap’s old guard typifies this more than most. Last month, the Californian 21 year-old came under fire after a viral clip appeared to show him dissing a late great. Asked by Revolt.TV to rate a series of things on a scale of 1-9, Lil Xan gave Beethoven a perfect 9, Drake’s recent single ‘God’s Plan’ an 8 and Tupac a lowly 2. “It’s boring music,” a gutsy and perhaps naive Xan shrugged. Clearly prophesying the reaction he was about to elicit, the video came with a disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed in this video are those of Lil Xan only.” Sure enough, the fire was quickly stoked, with Waka Flocka Flame among those calling for Xan to be “banned from hip-hop”. It also led to a farcical scene, gleefully reported by the tabloid press, with Xan being surrounded by a “hostile” mob at a fast food restaurant in his hometown, forcing the rapper to “flee” to a nearby YMCA, where the police arrived to escort him. Xan later backtracked and, in almost Trumpian fashion, claimed that his words had been “twisted” by the media.
In one sense, you almost have to applaud Xan’s honesty in the first instance – how many rappers would dare to rank Beethoven above not only Drake but Tupac too? But you also have to wonder what Xan was thinking – was he blissfully unaware or cynically wise to the controversy (and publicity) that he was about to attract? This was, after all, a non-black rapper (Xan, real name Diego Leanos, is of Mexican descent) disparaging not only one of the greatest rappers of all time, but a black icon who explored and expressed African-American issues with great profundity. You don’t have to be an old grouch to find it unseemly to disregard someone who paved the way for your success.
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All of this has underlined the idea of Xan being the quintessential type of new rapper that anyone above 25 will simply never “get”. True enough, it isn’t difficult to roll your eyes at Lil Xan – he’s an almost cartoonish millennial who dresses like Yung Lean after listening to Hadouken! once, and who even prints his own face on hoodies and then wears them. Xan’s debut album ‘Total Xanarchy’ ought, therefore, to have been a well-timed response to such criticism – the perfect opportunity to prove himself to be more than a novelty or curiosity.
While ‘Total Xanarchy’ is by no means a triumph, even the most po-faced of listeners will find some parts hard not to enjoy. Singles ‘Betrayed’ and ‘Wake Up’ are undeniably catchy, there’s some impressive guest spots (Charli XCX and 2 Chainz among them) and Xan admittedly has a knack for infectious – if not unmemorable and unoriginal – hooks. Clearly studied in the current rap climate, Xan often lifts some of the best bits from his peers and predecessors – there’s Drake and Migos-esque flows, Young Thug-like ad-libs and his spaced-out drawl could be compared to Lil Wayne if he swapped lean for Xanax.
Named after a former addiction to the prescription drug Xanax, Lil Xan alludes to drug abuse on over half of the album’s tracks, but, given America’s current opioid crisis, his tendency to scratch simply the surface of the subject seems a massive missed opportunity. On ‘Deceived’, Xan admits that “prescription pills made me a villain”, before refusing to go further and swiftly moving on with the follow-up line: “Never busy, man I’m always chillin”. On ‘Slingshot’, he raps, “I like lean, I like drugs / I like beans, I got plugs”, never thinking to explore why.
When not issuing a terse cautionary tale about drug use, Xan’s lyrics don’t get any more weighty elsewhere. On the aptly-titled ‘Tick Tock’, the chorus goes: “I got tick tock, tick tock / Tick tock, tick tock, I got Gucci flip flops”. On ‘Saved By The Bell’, meanwhile, Xan manages to repeat the titular phrase 33 times in just three minutes, yet we still never really find out what he was actually saved from. And it’s not just Xan’s lyrics that sound uninspired – you can play ‘Wake Up’ over Big Sean’s ‘Moves’ and the two are almost identical.
Lil Xan is by no means the worst thing to happen to hip-hop, nor does he symbolise its death. However, he isn’t very good either. Stretched to a full album’s worth of material, Xan’s music, like a certain branded prescription drug, quickly tires those with little tolerance.