Of all the various complaints that have been leveled at Soundcloud rap’s up-and-coming cheerful troll Lil Xan, the one that most baffles me is that he is promoting drug use.
First of all, this is an absurd assumption, and a prime example of a certain kind of rap fan’s tendency to only look at the surface of things, rather than actually listening to songs. As Jay-Z once put it: “Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”
In fact, Lil Xan prides himself on being pretty anti-drugs in his music and even calls himself the pioneer of rap’s intriguing straight-edged anti-drug wave which has also been spearheaded by business-savvy MCs like Vince Staples, Kamaiyah, and the more abrasive Russ.
However, the best evidence for Xan’s anti-drug stance is also his most popular song, “Betrayed.” It’s right there in the hook:
“Xans don’t make you
Xans gon’ take you
Xans gon’ fake you
Xans gon’ betray you
Xans don’t make you
Xans gon’ take you
Xans gon’ fake you
Xans gon’ betray you”
He’s straight up telling kids “drugs are bad” without saying so in as many words. In fact, with “Betrayed,” Xan may have created rap’s first truly effective “cool” anti-drug anthem.
Sure, there have been plenty in the past, dating all the way back to Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s “White Lines.” However, even in that song, it’s hard to discern whether or not Melle Mel is telling us to avoid cocaine or do more of it. In that song’s hook, the refrain “Get higher, baby” is heard over and over again, complete with a “Freebase!” ad-lib that wouldn’t be out of place in a current Migos hit (and how confusing is it that a song called “White Lines,” obviously referring to powder cocaine, encourages the listener to switch to the more potent rock cocaine midway through?).
Of course, that song reveals the consequences of chasing the high by ending with Little Jack Horner sitting on the corner with no shoes and clothes — he’s strung out and destitute after his wild ride on the white horse — but nobody ever hears that part. What DJ is going to play the depressing ending with a party to rock?
From “Night Of The Living Baseheads” by Public Enemy to “Slow Down” by Brand Nubian, rap’s anti-drug albums have all tried to convey their important themes through tales of terrifying outcomes and and verses mocking users, but there’s always been that one thing lacking: They aren’t all that catchy, they aren’t super entertaining for anyone under a certain age, and while they relay the basic downsides of drug use, they always seem a bit disingenuous and preachy coming from educated, clean-cut guys like Chuck D and Sadat X.
Xan is one of the kids he’s talking to, the ones who did drugs to look cool or fit in or escape from his problems. He recently had an eye-opening experience with the tragic early death of fellow Soundcloud rapper and Xanax aficionado Lil Peep. In fact, he even vowed to change his rap moniker to his given name Diego, although that’s gone about as well as anyone could have expected it to. Sometimes, you can’t shake your nickname, no matter how hard you try.
And if we’re going to hold that against him as evidence of promoting drug use, then we would have to level the same accusations on MCs dating back to Kurtis Blow, including Redman, Pusha T, Rick Ross, 50 Cent, and Scarface, who was named after the poster boy for going out in a drug-induced blaze of glory.
Besides, it’s one thing to put the anti-drug messages in the more lyrically complex verses of most of the songs that caution the youth, it’s another thing to put the message in the part designed to be repeated at shows and reverberate through the listeners’ head hours after the song has ended.
Even Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools,” ostensibly about the dangers of succumbing to peer pressure and overindulging at a party, reserves its more serious messaging for the dense, hard-to-remember, hard-to-recite verses and merely describes the functions of its protagonist. The warnings are buried, whereas “Betrayed” tells you upfront, “Hey, this is gonna suck.” While the verses are filled with generic rapper flexes, the part he wants you to remember is right on the surface.
And yet “Betrayed” has become one of hip-hop’s most popular songs, spending 17 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaking at No. 64. Not bad for an emerging artist without a family-friendly, squeaky-clean image like a Chance The Rapper or an established factor like Vic Mensa, who also tried their hands at anti-drug raps (Chance’s “Same Drugs” and “Finish Line” from Coloring Book and Vic Mensa’s “Rolling Like A Stoner“).
Lil Xan has Trojan Horse’d the rap world by presenting himself as just another teenage scumbag promoting drugs in order to sneak in a much-needed message doing just the opposite. It’s one time I can’t feel too bad about being tricked by a rapper’s image, because behind that tattoo-faced front is a good kid, trying to make amends and set an example for his peers. That’s why you can’t judge a book by its cover; the real value isn’t in the presentation, it’s in the words.