Every generation has one: the kind of inveterate jostler who gives your diaphragm a real workout. Thirty years ago, it was Biz Markie, the human beatbox with prominent jowls. Ol’ Dirty Bastard came next, followed by the grimacing, cartoonish Waka Flocka Flame. Hip-hop tends to reward a certain instinct for survival, but these guys have an instinct for comedy. Humor is the mother’s milk of their repertoire.
Used injudiciously, humor can be an obstacle to being taken seriously. XanMan doesn’t have that problem. A bushy-haired, mutton-chopped teenager from the suburbs, Landover, Maryland, Xan isn’t above frolicking on farm equipment, as he does in the “Foulin’ the Plug” video. His sartorial trademark is a hideous, mustard-yellow hoodie; he wears it, seemingly, in hopes of making people wince. Then there’s this line from his 2018 song “Point”: “Who brought the gun inside? Look at me now; I’m feelin’ like Busta Rhymes.” Who embodies the class clown typecast more fully than Busta? Amid the din of zany cutups — for whom hip-hop has probably never been safer — Xan stands out.
If that were all there was to him, it would be tempting, even reasonable, to conclude that XanMan is a joke. Negative. Xan contains multitudes — it’s not all Hellboy references and public exhibitionism. His depth will surprise you and likely cause you to second-guess your own ethical framework. He’s unusually substantive, self-aware and honest about his reliance on humor as a coping mechanism. In Xan’s case, the interplay between humor and horror often makes for queasy listening. Of course, we shouldn’t laugh at his father-son revenge fantasies, which were born from bottomless pain, but to do otherwise would be impossible. Xan is just too funny. And he knows it: he’s particularly proud of “Slide Music,” where he jokes about a “newborn” dying by “ceiling fan.” He’s unusually substantive, self-aware and honest about his reliance on humor as a coping mechanism.
“I can’t say I ever regret it when I say stuff like that,” Xan told me when I spoke with him back in February. “You gotta say what you mean and mean what you say. It’s about standing on your word like a man, you feel me?”
“Gucci Down,” Xan’s cuddly, aquatic lullaby from last spring, may have amassed more than a million views on YouTube. He may be the ringleader of an informal quasi-collective that also includes NoCap and his cousin YungManny; both are lovable troublemakers who, like Xan, plentifully exploit the humor of their misdeeds. But when you get down to brass tacks, Xan — who is only 19 — is really just a boy who’s seen too much.
“I didn’t grow up around laughter,” Xan says. “And I don’t consider myself a comedian, but people find the stuff that I say funny because it’s not something you would normally think of.”
“I watched my father die — it was probably a very sad day for me, but I make it humorous for y’all,” he continues. “When I talk about a ceiling fan, like, I’ve seen a baby pass away before, you know what I’m saying?” Asked to elaborate, Xan tenses up: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Most young rappers want instant success (that’s partly our fault for romanticizing it). Xan has something different: sweat equity. He feels new, but his discursive, some might say unhinged rapping style was perfected over many years. He started recording in grade school, buoyed by his grandmother’s steadfast encouragement, and by 13 had already made a mixtape, 2013’s Finesse Lord. After much hard work, and a certain amount of dicking around (including a six-month jail stint for assault), Xan “blew up” in mid-2019, due to his prolificness and the success of “Gucci Down.”
The video for “Gucci Down,” which was filmed seemingly hours within his release from jail, says it all: Xan waddles into an unlit auditorium only to be deluged by hyperventilating fans. You can see, in real-time, the tension drain from Xan’s face. He no longer feels the enormous psychological squeeze of life behind the fence.
So Xan has a lot of goodwill with high school kids in the DMV — they love him — but there are sharp historical limits to what an artist can do with that. Xan doesn’t want to be the tribune of the teenyboppers. Broken, his mixtape from last October, pushes the envelope with great alacrity. There’s more Auto-Tune and pillow talk than we’re accustomed to hearing from Xan, who is nobody’s idea of a charmer. But, at its best, the tape pairs his asylum-ready babblings with furiously heaving piano loops.
“I have an ear for music, so I know what my voice sounds best on,” Xan says.
On Friday, March 20th, Xan released the followup to Broken: I’m A Bad Person, a mixtape of warped, crude, in-your-face punchline rap.
I’m A Bad Person is vintage Xan. The candlelit ballads (“Pain in Me,” “On My Own”) are there, but they’re relatively few and far between; those of you who bristled at the “softer” aspects of Broken will find this new record much more palatable. On “Tracktor” and “Shake It,” the latter of which features a never-nuttier Tisakorean, Xan goes in over a vengeful electro beat. “Racks” approximates the mischievous simplicity of a Gucci Mane and Zaytoven collab.
Even the ballads have improved since Broken. “ICE” is not an indictment of U.S. immigration policy, but it has the cutest little guitar line, and Xan’s singing voice continues to improve with practice. The problem with his singing is time monopolization: he’s so good at rapping that anything else feels like a somewhat wasteful sideshow. Xan doesn’t see it that way.
“I would call myself original,” Xan said. “Nobody sound like me. I mean, there are people who sound like me, but I don’t sound like nobody.”
With that kind of confidence, it’s not surprising he gives so few fucks about potentially oversaturating the market.
“If it was up to me, I’d release a project every month, but it’s looking like every other month,” Xan said. “I’m probably gonna drop four projects in total this year. I got features coming up, too.”
It sounds like a comically heavy workload, but don’t laugh.
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