I have no idea why Uptown XO isn’t more famous. For my money, the D.C. native is one of the most authentic local artists in the game today. Along with his partners Oddissee and yU, who make up the three-man group Diamond District, the trio has been carrying the torch for the area’s hip-hop sound for some time.
And while they’ve all tried their hands at their solo careers,
including Oddissee’s tremendous “Rock Creek Park” album, XO has always intrigued me, because he’s the one guy from the group who was born and raised in the District. And yes, he raps about what’s going on around him.
With his Tuesday release of ”Colour De Grey,” a follow-up to last year’s “The Color Grey,” that theme continues. I talked to him Tuesday night about the new project, which, as it turns out, is the second part of a larger story he’s hoping to tell.
“All of that music was made together as one, one bunch. It would have been almost 30 songs on one project together,” said XO, whose birth name is Jamaal Walton. “It was basically the sequel to the movie.”
If you want a soundtrack to the gentrification era via the hip-hop world, Uptown XO is the guy you're looking for. On “Color,” with track names including “Petey Greene” and “Occupy D.C.,” you can tell what he’s about.
On “Colour,” his message has a more uplifting tone, a fact made clear by the titles of the tracks. There is “Salaam,” Arabic for “peace,” to start.
“I made it to be inspirational. Songs like ‘Spread Love,’ ‘Finding My Way’ — songs like that are made to inspire people,” he said.
“The tension behind the gentrification thing [is about] the demographic changing and the stories, the legacy that we had on certain streets, things that we considered landmarks that weren’t publicized landmarks to the masses, but we grew up here,” said XO, who was born at Howard University Hospital.
Maybe it’s because I grew up off Georgia Avenue that I find XO’s approach to rap more satisfying than some other acts out of the D.C. area. His flow and style is innately local. In my favorite video of his, “I Got Doe,” he raps while sitting on a couch outside the Petworth Metro station. He’s upholding a culture that is eroding on multiple fronts around the city. And he’s not afraid to talk about it.
Referring to the classic clothing store, he says: “The Madness shop is a landmark to me. I used to live above the Madness shop. Now that’s gone. Now that part of history is not around, and who’s going to talk about it? How is that part of history going to be preserved? It’s preserved in my music.”
For him, the color grey, a theme he has doubled down on, is the basic fulcrum around that concept of yin and yang, or two sides coming together to make a whole. “The whole grey thing is basically focusing on being centered as a people and coming together and unifying as a people. And rising above duality,” he said. “Everything comes in pairs as far as good and bad. We can tamper with the bad, but it’s about staying in balance. The ‘grey’ is the balance of black and white.”
There are a lot of artists from the area doing it big on a national and global scale. And while XO and Diamond District have done all that — they were featured in a recent Under Armour commercial — XO’s music is more than homegrown. Its homespun.
“The true connoisseurs know about what we do, and if you listen to my music, I do it for the connoisseurs who stayed true to the culture,” XO explains. “The hip-hop is like kung fu. I’m like a monk. U Street is like the monastery that I trained and studied in."
I, for one, expect a pretty big year from XO. It’s already off to a good start, and he’s got more coming: a new Diamond District album and a tour, for starters. “I got so much music, man. . . . I’m going to definitely give the people something to look forward to,” he said.
“I'm a get ’em talking.”
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