Solid production and quality features aren't enough to save the meager effort displayed on Lil Xan's debut.
In 2017, “Soundcloud rap” went from a gimmick to a legitimate subgenre; a number of high-profile signings and debut albums from rappers like Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, and Smokepurpp essentially led to a new wave of talent dominating the media. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always due to their music. Many prominent Soundcloud rappers formed the habit of attracting controversy, sometimes for legitimate heinous acts. Otherwise, for merely being young and not living up to certain standards.
Such is the case for Diego Leanos, more commonly known as Lil’ Xan, who rose to notoriety after his single “Betrayed” managed to burst onto the charts. While the success landed him a loyal following, Xan later became a controversy magnet after calling the late Tupac Shakur “boring.” Unfortunately for the young rapper, his comments rendered him hip-hop’s latest public enemy. Now, his debut album Total Xanarchy arrives with added baggage, weighed with the improbable task of proving his worth against an admittedly contemptuous audience.
In his rush to become a staple in the game, Xan hasn’t exactly established a definitive sound. When the Ronny J produced, 2 Chainz assisted “Tick Tock” starts up, you might easily shut your eyes and imagine one of the lesser known offerings from Smokepurrp or Lil Pump. Likewise on “Saved By The Bell,” a laconic single dependent on an aimless drift, which plays out like an inferior take on Swae Lee or Lil Uzi Vert. Even on a record that’s incredibly atypical such as the lullaby-soft teen love of “Moonlight,” blessed by the LCD-ravaged teen pop vibes of Charli XCX, or the shimmery EDM-inspired Diplo collab “Colorblind,” Xan often feels like an ill-fitted featured guest on his own material.
It's not to say that the rapper isn’t turning in competent performances, but he's frequently plagued by an unfortunate weakness of character; while he’s capable enough to capitalize on current trends, Lil Xan doesn’t quite have the star quality required to keep people’s attention. At least, not yet.
As Xan tends to deliver meager performances in the departments of lyrics and flows, the guest verses generally manage to leave him in the dust. On a record like “Round Here,” itself derivative of Metro Boomin & Big Sean’s collaboration style, YG manages to ghost the track with an unforeseen ferocity, making the demure efforts of his host seem like amateur hour. Meanwhile on the Rae Sremmurd assisted “Shine Hard”, the duo manage to make Xan feel like the outsider on one of his own potential singles. While the aforementioned features by 2 Chainz and Charli XCX are also commendable, perhaps the greatest achievements are done by those with the least ‘vocal’ presences on the album.
Mike Will & Bobby Johnson, industry veterans with experience from the ‘trap’ side of the game, find themselves dipping into the more playful and vividly imaginative production that has made Xan and his peers attract fans with such incredible results. Listening to the zany woodwind lick of “Diamonds” or the tearjerker 8-bit melodies of “Deceived” confirm that Xan at least has the good sense to recognize standout production, which can in turn carry the weight whenever he falters.
Despite these numerous moments of inadequacy, Lil Xan does manage to reflect qualities that suggest there’s more than imitation and a sharp ear for beats at his disposal. On album opener “Who I Am,” there’s a playfully dopey enthusiasm married to the kindergarten-like melodies of Bobby Johnson’s beat; Xan manages to turn his singsonging into brief hints of teen profundity, doing his absolute best to have a message while still remaining charming and catchy (as opposed to strident hectoring you might get from so called “conscious” rappers).
All in all many of the songs benefit from a weird sense of ethical standard that Xan occasionally hints at, though he struggles to invoke it with any lyrical clarity, possibly due to his relatively amateurish level as an emcee. It's ironic that such a banal approach to communicating some intangible reach for depth almost echoes Tupac, even if Xan most certainly lacks the wisdom or the urgency of the late legend.
While only a mere debut album from an artist who’s really only begun to find his footing, there’s no arguing that Lil Xan’s Total Xanarchy is not going to impress many newcomers; conversely, it may also disappoint even loyal fans of the rising rapper. For all the production’s charms, the songs are generally rather underdeveloped; Xan himself struggles to project a quality that might help him stand out in an ever-trendy climate of rap he’s managed to emerge from. If he wants to become more than a mere footnote for the Soundcloud rap scene in later years, Lil Xan is going to have to learn how to consistently deliver for more than a fleeting moment. Because if not, he may not survive in so demanding a rap game.