When Donavan Johnson was fifteen years old and only known in small high school circles as “the kid with the green backpack,” the young outcast left earth and took residence on the (still undiscovered) Planet Squaria, where the skyline is marked by towering stacks of comic books and the streets are strewn with tennis shoes, video game controller wires and action figures. It was on this planet that he began to produce his dream music – a mix of street-rooted hip-hop, rock concert drums, space fantasy, soulful samples and superhero references.
I must have arrived at the Blind Pig just after he teleported himself back to earth for an 8 o’clock show. A quick glance at the crowd left my mind spotted with batman symbols, superman t-shirts, Xbox controllers and multi-colored hats and bracelets. I’ve seen pretty diverse audiences but this one was kind of out there, like if Comic Con, Necto and the hookah lounge closed at the same time and sent their patrons to XV’s show.
XV had a presence that brought to mind a lot of different possible influences, but I didn’t get the impression he was trying to fill some sort of mold. He had a Kanye-in-2008 haircut, Big Sean charisma, and enough bracelets and wrist bands to start a souvenir kiosk. He spoke like Kevin Hart imitating Jamie Foxx and he rapped like Lupe might during a practice session, loosened up by a small audience and no grand expectations.
Through a sea of lifted arms I could see XV dancing, jumping, kneeling – inhabiting the small stage like it was a temporary cage. And perhaps that’s true – graduating to bigger platforms begins with imagination, and XV has no shortage of that. But on this night, not only was he forced to showcase his art on a small canvas, but was also slotted in a short, early set with no opportunity for a deserved encore (jamband geniuses The Werks had a claim on the stage for a later show).
So after a series of impressive original songs, tributes to Tupac and Michael Jackson and B.I.G., some talk about Halo and Skyrim, and a frenetic last-song-of-the-show performance to a dubstep sample of “I Can’t Stop,” XV left the stage. A familiar feeling came over me, a feeling I first had when I saw Mac Miller perform at the Blind Pig over a year and a half ago. A feeling that I was lucky to see this guy up-close-and-in-person at a small venue, because his trajectory doesn’t allow for many more shows like this.
What does it take to become famous? You need to have something different and interesting to offer. You need to be skilled at offering it, and you need people to begin demanding more of it. XV returns to Planet Squaria with all his bases covered.