Lil Xan’s Total Xanarchy Might Sound Good If You’re 15
Lil Xan wasn’t created for a focus group, but he might as well have been. A pale kid from inland California named Diego Leanos, Xan has tattoos all over his body, golds in his teeth, and makes music about being sad and doing drugs. It’s so on-the-nose of an of-the-moment persona that it might be hard to take him seriously as a genuine musician. The fact that his music sounds like what would be the dictionary definition for “SoundCloud rap,” were it to get one, doesn’t help either. Maybe because of this, much of Lil Xan’s story has revolved around things that don’t really matter much, like him not caring about Tupac (Xan was born a few days before his death) or using a police escort to escape being jumped, allegedly by a deranged pack of teenage Tupac fans. Like with Lil Yachty before him, this is ephemera used to prove that Lil Xan has no place in rap, but he also shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
Doing so would distance you from the interesting threads of the Lil Xan experiment. Xan, and much of SoundCloud, has used the earnestness and vulnerability that resonated for so many in emo rock and brought it to dark, gothic Three 6 Mafia homages or post-Lil B cloud raps. It maybe shouldn’t work at all and hardly ever works completely, but the formula has clearly resonated. Tapping into the mess of teenage feelings has always been part of rap’s appeal, too, but this adoption of the naked emotionality that made emo so popular with kids years before feels like a logical step for a new generation of rappers and fans. Lil Xan is far from the best at it, but whatever charm can be gleaned from his music comes from how openly youthful it is.
Total Xanarchy, at times, can read too much like parody, completely stuffed with miserable songs about breakups and doing drugs and regretting doing drugs because of how much worse they make him feel. “Xans don’t make me what I am / Xans gon’ mess up all my friends” he raps on the opener “Who I Am,” a defensiveness that is repeated throughout the album. Xan incorporates, if not downright takes, the styles of Post Malone (“Saved by the Bell”), Playboi Carti (“Tick Tock”), XXXTENTACION (“Diamonds”) or longtime Lil Peep collaborator Lil Tracy (“Deceived”) on any given song, appealing to the fundamental feeling of experiencing something you already know you like. Even the name Lil Xan feels like a gag —The Great Gazoo to a rapper like Future or Young Thug. He’s like a character from the kind of skit on an old rap album that laments a new wave of rappers, sleepily slurring but then excitedly ad-libbing back and forth through the record.
Xan shot to fame thanks to “Betrayed,” a snoozy single that hit millions of YouTube views long before he was signed by Sony. It’s clear that money is now behind Xan in an effort to mainstream him: guests like Rae Sremmurd, YG, and Yo Gotti are here not just for their star power, but also for their bonafides. But this is music that panders to its audience, and shamelessly so. Xan is extremely emotional in all the shallow ways in which teenagers can relate, and the music is never specific or unique in its storytelling. When Xan raps, “Found myself in the dark place / Last girl made my heart ache / Now I’m tryna get my soul, yeah / Why all y’all fake flex,” on “Deceived,” you might swear you heard those exact lines in one of the ten songs that come before it. Xan’s lyrics are full of scatterbrained half-thoughts, brief diary entries and sketches of a man, but never a full picture. “Poppin’ a bean (ooh, yeah), I lost my spleen (ooh, yeah) / You ever been so fucked up? (damn), I lost all my friends, they broke trust,” is how he opens “Far.” He’s unfocused, emotional, and feigns coolness to hide pain, and if you’re 15 you might be charmed by it. The music is full of the same noisy production, drug fetishizing, and easy go-to rap colloquialisms of most songs that are popular on SoundCloud now. It is essentially rap karaoke: He sings like Post and ad-libs like Carti or Uzi, but never adds anything interesting. The best you could say for Lil Xan is that he can be serviceable: “Saved by the Bell” and “Shine Hard” are catchy enough, and at least fully-formed ideas.
The album may be bad but it is not especially so. It’s paint by numbers and as such blends in with everything else. You might hear it at an Urban Outfitters and confuse it for three other recent rap albums you’ve heard. It will probably be popular with the contingent it’s meant to appeal to, which isn’t meant as a swipe: kids are pandered and marketed to all the time, and Lil Xan is far from the most offensive example. Instead, he represents another cog in a new rap mainstream happening under the noses of the casual adult rap fan. You could have said the same things about emo rock as well, which was also savaged until everyone who was a kid growing up that music came of age to shape the canon themselves. Perhaps, we’ll have to deal with that in 10 or so years when it’s time to “reconsider” Lil Xan, who by then, will probably be called something else.