“Hold on and don't let go / I'll give you what I owe / In due time” —CeeLo Green
I. Chapter Zero
Hope is enthusiasm born from pending promises. Hope is what I recognized with each new tweet inquiring when my promised interview with XV would be published. It was initially scheduled after I declared the Wichita, Kansas rapper’s return in May of 2016. My story, “The Rise, Fall, & Return Of XV,” reignited the flame of passionate Squarians who wondered when the beloved blog era rapper would re-emerge. The article was like a bat signal piercing the clouds over a forsaken Gotham with a message to those patiently anticipating that it wouldn’t be much longer―he was coming.
Hope was alive, but it didn’t last.
Nothing happened after our initial declaration planted new optimism. The interview never happened. Music wasn’t released. Silence replaced applause. The hush surrounding XV was broken every few months by random tweets asking the looming question that has followed him for years: What happened to XV?
Last Thursday night, XV returned to Instagram with a message to fans. Handwritten in a composition notebook, he wrote an honest letter acknowledging his absence, ending his hiatus like hip-hop’s Yoshihiro Togashi. There were still many questions to be asked, though. Thankfully, XV was finally ready to answer them.
Following his announcement, XV and I spoke for three hours over the phone, my longest interview to date.
XV sounds rejuvenated, brimming with the energy of a man ready to once again take on the world. I was happy to hear in his voice a sense of renewed spirit―a born-again artist absent of baggage, doubt, and self-consciousness.
We spoke of music―music to come, music of old, the music of his peers, and the music industry―but mostly about what was happening behind the curtain, the things no one saw: Problems with his label, problems with his team, and the demons he fought within―not a battle with drugs or alcohol, but with confidence. XV's story is one of rediscovery, enlightenment, and overcoming the weight of ego and expectation.
If you ever wondered what happened to XV, look no further.
II. The Kid With Broken Confidence
“How do I fit in?” was the unanswered question eating away at XV. It wasn’t a new thought, but an age-old one for someone who always felt more outcasted than André and Big Boi. The year was 2014 and XV was no longer a new artist, but he had been around long enough to witness rappers from his peer group rise and fall.
XV looked on as Beyoncé redefined the album release and Drake blossomed from blog stardom to become one of the leaders influencing hip-hop’s melodic transition. Where did this changing landscape leave an artist like XV who built his appeal on clever songs, witty lyrics, and thoughtful writing?
"A lot was changing. Before, as long as you could rap, they didn’t give a fuck what you sounded like. That changed. Melody changed. I was in the studio every day making records but I’m also smoking and trying to find myself. I’m making records thinking that these are 'it' but I'm playing them back next to the songs that are out [at the time] and I’m like, ‘Yo, something's wrong.’ I’m literally telling myself this. I’ve always been hard on my own music, but I felt like something was wrong: Your voice, your mind—everything is wrong."
III. False Starts & Missing Pieces
Those closest to XV suggested he cease comparing himself to others. He didn’t listen.
“It was the worst thing I could’ve done,” Vizzy says in retrospect. “I always hated my voice. You throw in not liking your voice and the new thing is 'fuck lyrics, we want to hear your voice,' it just made me very self-conscious. It was the worst kind of self-consciousness I could’ve ever been in.”
Your voice isn’t a body part able to be surgically altered by a trip to Dr. Miami; your voice is a rare program that humans aren’t able to update or uninstall. The stress of losing direction created a mental prison. XV was losing himself and losing team members. Not to music, but because he wasn’t releasing any music. The man who was supposed to make it had grown stagnant.
“I’m losing all these pieces around me who are moving on to figure out their lives. That made me even more down,” he confessed. “My producer Awesome Sound, I lost him just to his mind. He ended up getting locked up, and that’s my cousin so I lose him in the family and in music.”
XV found himself with a dwindling team, fighting a creative rut, and publicly trying to navigate an escape. That’s where all those false starts came from―attempts to force freedom. But each time brought upon another sudden disappearance, sporadic returns, and a series of setbacks.
"I’m trying to do it to prove that I’m not taking a break or I’m trying to do it to prove that I got music, that I can stick around. I’m doing it for everything other than me. I’m dropping March Madness 1-4 (2014) just to get some shit out. I’m doing Squarian Radio Vol. 1-5 (2015) just so I can do a playlist. I knew playlists would be the new thing. I felt it coming. I just knew people weren’t caring about albums anymore. 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016—all false starts. After you wrote that article things were supposed to go, but in 2016 my computer crashed, and that’s when everything changed. I was trying to get out of that rut, in public. I didn’t realize until it was almost too late. That’s when I say [to myself], 'If you don’t go away, you’re going to fuck everything up.'"
IV. Destinations Are Often a Surprise to the Destined
Without announcement or warning, XV went away in 2017. Being aware of the weird battle he was fighting within, he felt the best thing to do was to enter a self-imposed exile from social media. No Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook beyond funny videos shared by family and friends. It was an escape from the world he was immersed in, a chance to reset. After watching so many artists fight their ruts in public, he knew a positive ending wasn't likely. “I was happy to be away but I also felt lost. What are you going to do? I was trying to find whatever would make me wake up in the morning and have direction in my day. It was all about finding a new direction and that didn’t come until I took a complete break.”
One of the most enlightening thoughts he shared with me was about what it means to break. Not just the figurative separation, but to break in the literal sense:
"You have to break apart and become unwhole. That’s what happened to me, I wasn’t whole anymore and I had to figure out what makes me whole again."
Trying to make an album didn’t make him whole, so he stopped trying to make one. Instead, XV sought books. Comic books. Screenplays. Self-improvement books. Spiritual books. DJBooth articles. He dove into his passions seeking to expand his mind with knowledge. Raps were written and beats were produced but without the intention of being apart of something bigger. By moving further away from the idea of a deadline and the pressure of expectation, peace was able to supersede chaos.
“I’m doing a little bit of everything that makes me happy and it’s allowing me to have stories to tell,” he said, musing on his time away. Growing his mind became more important than chasing his goals, especially after a four-year period between 2013 through 2016 led to no real outcome, no real goals being met. So he spent his days pursuing growth, bliss, and solitude. He reconnected with old friends, including Seven, the Kansas-born producer behind some of his best records and a bulk of Everybody’s Nobody―the mixtape that brought XV his first wave of mass acclaim.
In the process of unplugging and reconnecting to the world, an album was made. It sort of just happened, gradually.
"When I say I’m taking my break and growing my mind, I think anyone who is a fan of my music and a Squarian would be doing the same exact thing with their life. Those are the type of people I think we grow into. That’s what inspired me to make a project the way I did, I knew I needed to give people a manual of the shit I been through, of the times where I’m walking out the door and felt like I could never do this again. Now that I been through it, it’s a lot easier to talk about it."
V. Do It for the Vine
For those who followed XV’s career, signing to Warner Bros. was the moment where it appeared the rapper that XXL overlooked for a Freshman cover would cross over onto a much bigger platform. I had to ask what happened; he had a Verizon commercial, “Awesome” was on NBA 2K12, there was The Hip-Hop Award Cypher, and he was headlining his own tours. Like the title of his mixtape, there was a time where XV appeared to be reaching popular culture.
No magazine cover, no songs on the radio, not even a video on 106 & Park, and yet the blogosphere consensus was that XV would be next. The 11th freshman XXL overlooked would have his day in the limelight. XV takes pride in this backing, knowing how much fanfare surrounded him despite not accomplishing the prerequisites most bubbling artists achieve.
He had the majors but would soon learn the cost to be a star.
“There was one time, when I spent a month in L.A., when my A&R pulled me to the side and said, ‘If you do everything I ask, you will blow the fuck up,'” he recalled.
"He was trying to get me to do a comedy song, a parody record. My noncompliance with the label at so many different times made him say that: 'If you just listen to me and do what I ask of you, I will blow you up.' But it's also saying, 'If you don’t do anything you want to do, and everything I see you as, I’ll make you a star.' There was a certain compromise I wasn’t willing to make."
Warner Bros. didn’t understand XV. When Vine was popping, the plan was to have him make a viral record, a ridiculous idea for anyone who knew his music. It was their decision to make “Awesome” a single years after appearing on Everybody's Nobody; that’s why the song reappears on various XV tapes. Warner witnessed the song performed during a concert and saw potential, and tried to make the record bigger with a feature from a "street rapper." Cam’ron was their first choice, but he declined, so they went with Pusha T. (Besides Kanye West and Common, XV has collaborated with every artist on the initial G.O.O.D. Music roster.)
It was Warner who told XV to release Zero Heroes as a mixtape, not an album. They didn’t see the promise of those records until fans embraced the project with a warm reception.
For a rapper green to the industry and the workings of a major label, it was a brand new experience. The label brought him certain perks but also drove a wedge between him and Seven. He knew why he was buzzing, but they believed the label knew best. XV likened their mindset to that of a pimp. Even with a fanbase built prior to his signing, Warner still treated him as if they made it happen. It’s the ego born from an advance: I gave you this money, I made you who you are.
I always wondered what kept XV in Kansas, why he never moved to a bigger city. As it turns out, a secretary at Warner Bros. advised him not to move to Los Angeles. She saw what the A&Rs didn't, someone who wasn't like the other rappers and needed to be treated as such.
"They gave me the opportunity to move out to L.A. The secretary there was the coolest chick in the world. She was like, ‘ You don’t have a Gucci belt. You don’t have any Louie on. You are yourself. Whatever they tell you in there, don’t move here. Don’t move to L.A.," and that was the dopest shit ever. If they make a movie they’ll have that scene in there. A black chick, the most movie-looking secretary and she was like, 'You don’t have a Gucci belt, I love it.'"
VI. The Lovable Opportunist
December 15, 2017, is when XV started to feel his confidence growing. He had found a rhythm of going to the gym, making music, and feeling genuinely good about the direction he was headed in. It didn’t start that way, but the doubt and expectations fell off him like the shedding of dead skin. Before he was just building confidence, harnessing the feeling, but now he was finally able to wear the new armor cloaking his spirit. A big part of reaching this point was leaving social media and resetting.
Speaking with XV, I heard the difference. Instead of being worried about expectations, he’s anxious to release the music. “When I started this thing the only reason I won was the music,” he recalls.
He won because the music touched people, and he believes people want their souls fed and not just their vibes. Being away from the internet allowed him to notice how the abundance of content would reach the masses, but also fail to stick with them. He wants to provide words people will remember forever.
“I didn’t know I was coming back yesterday, Yoh,” he told me of the letter he posted to Instagram. He has an album coming, content coming, but the letter wasn’t a part of some grand rollout conceived by him and his new team. It was for the fans, but also for him, a chance to begin to lower his shield.
"All of the artists I feel who have evolved from my era are artists who let those shields down. I don’t know when they did it, or what course they took that made them drop those shields, but they didn’t become who they are now until those shields dropped. When y'all hear the music, you’ll see. Even when you see me, you’ll see it. This isn’t what I thought I would be when I made 'Everybody’s Nobody.' This isn’t what I thought I would be when I was making 'Vizzy Zone' and I was signing to Warner.
"All of these different things, I’m going to wear them no matter what because it’s subconsciously part of me. People can see it. A lot of people don’t notice you can see those losses, failures, and faults that you put on yourself. You wear them out, even when you don’t think you are, people can see you wearing them. When you hear this music and see where I’m going with it, you’re going to go, 'Oh shit. I get it now.' Because it’s been a journey all leading up to this. All of these moments. All of these false starts. Even Seven and I breaking up to me talking with a dope ass writer who came up on my music. This has all been apart of a journey to this point."
The bulk of our three-hour conversation does not appear on this page. It would take me 5,000 words to complete the full portrait of XV. We talked about his passion for astrology and how it helped him understand himself more, why he believes hip-hop’s current state is ripe for independent entrepreneurs, how The Kid With the Green Backpack is a metaphor for life, and the time he had to stop and find a studio after hearing Kendrick’s “Textbook Stuff” verse for the first time. We talked about how calling Seven on his birthday in 2015 brought them back together, Combat Jack giving him his first New York interview in a comic book store, and how every four years you can see hip-hop through the lens of the educational system: peer groups, cliques, and graduations.
It’s important to note how appreciative he was of all his fans, of anyone who has sent encouraging messages or ever inquired if he was still making music. They were motivating life during hours where little light could be found.
XV thanked me for my article, something I had no idea he cherished and appreciated. He was just full of good energy, excited, and ready to put his best foot forward with new focus. I'm not sure what his end goal is in music, but I know he's passionate about using his new music to inspire those who understand all he's overcome.
"The evolution came from me being determined. Determined that this can’t be it. Like I said in my letter, I've been down, but I've never given up. That’s the number one thing, I never said that I couldn’t do this. I've been down, I was lost, but a lot of times I knew I had to figure it out. Now that I have a certain mindset, I am the kid with the green backpack. That’s who I gotta be to inspire all of the other kids. That’s the only way I’m going to inspire them."
I don’t know how the music sounds or what artistic direction XV is planning to take, but there’s a lot to be said before a single song can be released. It’s hard to make a name for yourself, but even harder to rebuild momentum once you slow down; discovering confidence once it’s been lost, and trying again after so many unfulfilled attempts. A lesser man would’ve given up, accepting this wasn’t the game for him. XV is still here, still playing, but with a new outlook on life.
2018 is the year the original Squarian strikes again.
By Yoh, aka The Kid With The Green Laptop, aka @Yoh31