Wednesday, August 13, 2008

X.O. Makes The Express Paper...

Ready for the Takeover: XO


Having already released an EP ("Timeless") and a mixtape ("The Takeover, Part 2") this year, the 23-year-old rapper born Jamaal Walton is far from done. Two more records are due by the end of the year.

"I just want to make my name in history," Walton says with a smile — and a slight chuckle.

20080813-xo-cd.jpgWith such a prodigious work ethic, it is indeed refreshing that XO (he claims his moniker is of "unknown origin") didn't turn out to be a different kind of hustler.

XO was raised by a single mother in a rough Northwest D.C. neighborhood at Georgia Avenue and Kenyon Street — an area he calls Uptown — and he could have swallowed the bait of the streets, hook, line and sinker. (Walton only admits that he did "some stuff.") Indeed, he credits his fatherless childhood — his dad left the family and moved to London when Jamaal was 11 — for giving him his "emotion and drive."

And there was something else pushing him, too: rap.

"I was good because I was listening to the right rappers," he says with a laugh. Of course, Walton didn't need hip-hop to get smart: "At the end of the day, I'm still an intelligent guy."

Nowhere is this more evident than in "The Life," one of the songs on "The Takeover, Part 2." With the soulful tap of the beat in tow, XO raps about his despondency over the departure of his dad, which led him to "thugging out to fill a void." It becomes an intense inner struggle: Would he succumb to the fatal allure of the "street life," or would he embrace the radiance of the "good life"? By the end of the song, it is obvious what choice he makes as he concludes: "Older now, wiser now, I get what y'all [were] saying now / And you ain't got to focus on me so much when you're praying now!"

XO cites the influence of artists like 2Pac, who pointed out that both wretchedness and redemption that can be found in ghettos all across America. "Brenda's Got a Baby," one of 2Pac's early songs, is especially poignant to Walton. A tragic tale about teen pregnancy, it is one of the many entries in the rap canon that deplores the ills of such environments rather than celebrates them.

The rhyme-slinger is determined to expose all dimensions of himself as a rapper — and as a person.

"We're all human, and we all have our flaws. But we have to be completely honest," he says. "I'm from the streets and I will give you that street stuff, but I'll [also] try to steer you through the right direction."

Noble intentions, yes, but are they futile in today's mainstream rap climate? The two best-selling rap albums of 2008 so far belong to a mumbling, largely incoherent wordsmith inexplicably crowned the "Best Rapper Alive" (Lil Wayne) and a kingpin wannabe whose recently revealed past as a correctional officer belies his street pharmaceutical tales on wax (Rick Ross).

But current hip-hop trends don't deter XO; he counters such pessimistic sentiments with the dire need for a balance in the music industry, citing rap's golden era in the late '80s and early '90s when acts as disparate in style and ideology as De La Soul, Public Enemy and N.W.A. co-existed and thrived.

20080813-xo-2.jpg"[We] need balance [in rap]," Walton says, "otherwise the game will be off balance."

According to XO, the game could do with more people like him.

"It seems like with each generation, there is a further loss of values," he says. "[I feel that] music is a way of restoring these values. No youngsters are listening to T.D. Jakes, [and] we have no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. People look up to rappers."

To this end, XO is looking forward to closing out 2008 with a bang. He will start work on a second EP, "Us vs. Them," which will then be followed by a full-length called "Realmatic" that will focus on the "circumstances surrounding" Barack Obama's presidential campaign. To paraphrase LL Cool J: He plans to take DMV and beyond by storm, and he's just getting warm.

"It's more of a movement, enlightening type of thing I'm trying to do," he claims with a slight tip of his fisherman hat.

Yes, XO will continue to hustle hard.

Written by Express contributor Dayo Akinwande

» Download "The Takeover, Part 2" mixtape and "Timeless" EP for free from XO's blog. Or listen to tracks from each at XO's MySpace.

Photos courtesy Shannon Evans (

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