Music is cocaine for the ears. The first XV song that left my ear drums needing another bump was too long ago to recall, but I know I got hooked. I was still in high school, spending my afternoons searching for music the way treasure hunters browse beaches with metal detectors. Driven by the thrill of discovery I found XV one afternoon the same way I found J. Cole, Kendrick, Drake before him—on the blogs. 2Dopeboyz or Nah Right or DJBooth, back then he was on more blogs than Blac Chyna’s baby bump. Whatever the song, there was an instant gravitational pull. If I had to guess, just off the tingle of nostalgia the song gives off, “1997” was the one.
In the high school hierarchy, no one wanted to be considered a square or a nerd. Those titles described the socially awkward, pimple-faced outcast that had more video games than girlfriends, more comics than friends, and let television tell it, were more bullied than adored. Rap, just like high school, is all about popularity; rappers are the ambassadors of the cool kids table. But XV was a rapper that was able to weave in all his interests, no matter how nerdy, and make them sound more fun than driving a Bentley, Beamer or a Benz. I would consider him more Stefan Urquelle than Steve Urkel but was more likely to chase after Myra than Laura. A more recent example might be Malcolm Adekanbi, who was the coolest nerd to grace the big screen since McLovin.
XV took the very idea of being square and flipped it in his favor. Rap had already transitioned from being driven by the gangsters, the next wave was about being you more than portraying a character, XV wasn’t afraid to be himself. This wasn’t always the case. If you listen to his earlier Complex mixtapes he definitely was more gangster than gamer but the attention didn’t really start to come until he shed that image and embraced the uncool. He wasn’t doing anything extreme, Lupe is pretty much a black nerd, so is Pharrell, Mickey Factz and more, but the way XV branded himself is what people gravitated toward. He created a concept mixtape that was based on the planet Squaria to really sell the vision. He also lyrically could stand on his own, a rapper’s rapper—punchlines, metaphors, concepts, his pen was mightier than any lightsaber.
The market was flooded with music. Mixtape after mixtape poured onto the blogs, each one significantly different than the last. The same way Charles Hamilton had the Starchasers, Vizzy had the Squarians. He followed in the footsteps of Crooked I’s Hip Hop Weekly, but instead of a song a week, XV dropped two songs a day. One during the day, one at night. Lil Wayne at his most Martian would tip his cap to the sheer volume of music that XV released. All that built up to Everybody’s Nobody, his 2009 mixtape, by far one of my favorites to come out that year.
Every rapper who was making a name for themselves had a definitive mixtape that took them to new heights, Everybody’s Nobody was XV’s. Seven, his in-house producer, did the bulk of the architecture, but there’s also production from Boi-1da and Omen. Features were also impressive - Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa both appear during the phase of their careers when they were just gaining momentum. There’s even a hook by Ne-Yo just when Ne-Yo season was heating up. It was XV that carried the tape, balancing strong lyricism and personal introspection. The music was good, good enough to take a rapper from Wichita, Kansas and put him on the map. Everybody’s Nobody placed him in a new, national light, and like a moth to a flame, the labels came running. He signed a deal with Warner Bros in 2010 despite being shunned by XXL’s freshmen cover. Twice. He made it. It felt like we had made it.
The Kid With The Green Backpack. It was the promised album that was supposed to come after signing his deal. That’s how it happens: you get the people, you get the blogs, you get the deal, and then you drop the big debut album. Vizzy had major backing. Just Blaze was on board as an Executive Producer, and more eyes were on him than ever before. Just Blaze originally wanted to sign him, he saw the promise. In an interview XV described the album he was working on as, ”Pink Floyd’s The Wall, meets Kanye [West]’s College Dropout, meets John Mayer’s Room For Squares.” My mind is still unable to fathom what kind of musical child those three albums could conceive when brought together in a creative orgy. Unfortunately, we never found out. The album never came like an unfulfilled promise.
It wasn’t the end of XV. With every pushback, with every coming soon update, there was more music, another mixtape to keep interest. The 2011 Zero Heroes was the big one. Just Blaze produced the intro, “Wichita,” an homage to his small town that sonically sounds like a floating kingdom. J. Cole produced “Smallville,” sampling the Smashing Pumpkins, by far one of my favorite Cole beats. Vizzy is one of the few rappers to get Jermaine production, more limited-edition than a holographic Charizard. “Awesome” was updated with a Pusha T verse, CyHi appears on “All For Me,” but the most noteworthy feature happens to come from Kendrick Lamar on “Textbook Stuff.” Vizzy doesn’t slack but the good kid came to put bodies in the ground. Overall, Zero Heroes was a perfect prelude for an album that never made it off the shelf.
Even though the music was impressive, the anticipation for his debut album was waning. There’s patience, then frustration, then acceptance that what you’re waiting for will never come. He had slowly reached that territory. With the album pushbacks mounting, XV had a falling out with his longtime collaborator Seven. He had the sound, a bulk of the music was made by him, it felt like a divorce of a couple you only ever knew as a couple. 2012’s Popular Culture had a new group of producers and was the last mixtape that really felt like it had any overarching impact. Even though I go back to some of my favorites—“Nevermind,” “Mirror's Edge,” “Falling Awake,” “The Kick,” and “Come Back Down” - XV was slowly becoming another rapper I would remember for coming close, someone that deserved to reach the top but just didn't.
Six years have passed since his deal with Warner, the momentum has dissipated, the fans have begun asking that proverbial “Whatever happened to?” question. Watching that video of the day XV signed his deal, hearing him talk about how he spent his whole career working toward this moment and that everything resets now that he’s an artist within the industry. “You only get one shot,” he says, an eerie foreshadowing of how aware he was of his circumstance. Fair to say he missed his moment at mainstream stardom, mainstream stardom can bring as much bad as good, and now the Kansas creative is ready to make another attempt at making it. This is a completely new age since the height of his acclaim and his reemergence follows all the storylines of a hero failing to defeat a powerful adversary, disappearing to become more powerful, and returning for the inevitable rematch. Luke and Darth Vader, Batman and Bane, now it's XV and the music industry.
I look at XV like a television series that you loved but was canceled mid-season by the network. The anticlimactic end feels like being robbed of something great. For years you wonder why they took it off the air while watching the reruns and ranting on social media about how much potential it had. Then you get the notice that another network is reviving the series, that it's coming back, and you can't help but hope that a new chance for the series will mean the fulfillment of a promise you've been waiting years for. XV is coming back.
I don't know what his return will mean for music, but I know that when I heard the news that the Squarian was coming back down to Earth, I felt a jolt.
By Yoh, aka Obi-Wan Yohnobi aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Alec Campbell