A year ago, Diego Leanos was onstage at a concert taking photos of SoundCloud rapper $teven Cannon when his camera was stolen. After the theft, he decided to take up rapping, because studio time was cheaper than buying a new camera.
Now known as Lil Xan, the 21-year-old former Xanax dealer is the newest face of the “sad rap” movement. Sadness itself isn’t a new theme in hip-hop—just look at Tupac’s music—but the wave of rappers led by Lil Uzi Vert and the late Lil Peep (who recently died of an overdose) share a connection to another genre: emo. In a recent Noisey Raps profile, Leanos calls his hometown of Redlands, California, “Deadlands” with the contempt of a disaffected suburban youth.
Lil Xan will release his debut LP, Total Xanarchy, sometime this year, but his breakthrough single “Betrayed” is an upbeat banger cut with flashes of pain. Over producer Bobby Johnson’s hazy, piano-driven trap beat, Leanos raps about sex, drugs, and money in his signature raspy voice. But by the end of the song, he’s barely able to mumble, “Xans gon’ take you/Xans gon’ betray you,” referencing his addiction to the prescription anxiety medication. On “Slingshot,” Leanos reminds listeners that his struggle with minor celebrity, addiction, and severe anxiety is ongoing: “I don’t pop fucking Xans/I might pop a Norco” (a prescription painkiller he’s also trying to quit).
Leanos’ cautionary, anti-Xanax lyrics almost seem like the hip-hop version of an afterschool special, with the maximalist melodrama of emo. But this isn’t emo that centers on angsty white kids living in McMansions; instead, it reflects the experience of kids growing up in the middle of the Great Recession, the foreclosure crisis, the opioid epidemic, and the rapid gentrification of American cities that force poor people of color further to the margins. Lil Xan’s first singles only begin to describe it.