He’s still here, though, and his strange surroundings have changed how he raps. “I used to write street stories, but lyrically, I’m past that,” XO explains over lunch — a bright orange plate of General Tso’s at an eatery on 14th Street NW. “I want to preserve, not my truth, but the truth. My stories aren’t as important as the overall story of oppression... I want to motivate people to think so that we’re not being taken advantage of by what we don’t know — which is most business models. Consume, consume, consume. But intellectually, we’re still starving.”
Step out on 14th Street and look both ways. You’ll see capitalism thriving in every direction, from the luxury condos built for moneyed new residents to the high-end retail chains catering to them. It’s a new kind of urban blight being lamented most vividly in rap songs like XO’s “City Feel,” a blissfully percussive tune that memorializes the sunnier side of yesteryear, but with an explicit reminder that things “will never be the same.”
Musically, XO’s D.C. roots run deeper than the open mic nights on U Street NW where he learned to rap as a teenager, and where he eventually met his future supergroup collaborators, Oddisee and yU of Diamond District. Decades back, XO’s grandfather managed the proto-go-go group the Young Senators. His father is a jazz drummer who once played with Gil Scott Heron. His mother studied saxophone at Howard University and performs in the marching band for Washington’s NFL franchise.
Funneling all that history into his rhymes, XO hopes that his music can help listeners envision the D.C. of tomorrow. To make that happen, not every lyric needs to hit hard.
“The earth is spinning around — the power is there, but it’s subtle,” XO says. “The power of your breath, the power of your heartbeat: It’s subtle. When it’s snowing, it comes down subtle. It might cover the city and pile up eight feet high, but it’s subtle.”
As he waves his fingertips flurry-like over the tabletop, the brain of an image-minded lyricist silently kicks into action. “Subtlety is where the power lies,” he says. “In music, in everything.”