Album Review: The color grey is ambivalent. It’s neither black nor white. It’s a good description of Washington, D.C. today, a city with changing demographics, and for D.C. native Uptown XO, it describes his state quite well: caught between the extremes of the harsh streets and the desire for enlightenment and growth. One-third of the Diamond District, XO has been on a steady rise. Unfortunately overlooked in comparison to his District brothers, XO has much to offer with his stellar collection of tracks and mixtapes such as 2012’s The Color Grey. In 2013 he drops his proper debut, Colour de Grey, keeping his impressive catalogue moving. Alongside producer AB the Pro, XO continues to strive for perfection and to gain respect for his city.
Dubbing himself “DC’s Mozart,” XO certainly has a point. He’s more closely tied to the streets of the District than Oddisee or yU, and has gone through his fair share of ups and downs and struggles. On Colour de Grey, he certainly spits raw life. Opening with “Spread Love,” XO details his slow but needed change from a thug to a man, rhyming: “I’m in a position that’s rare, diamond in the rough, living without a care cussin’ on the bus / I grew transformed, shed some ways like snake skin, flew did tours and like icons in their faces.” He’s trying to find that balance in life, currently stuck in that grey area between the gutter and something better, and it’s a theme he returns to throughout the record. AB’s production is spacy and fulfilling, and works well with the feel of the track.
One of the more striking elements of Colour de Grey is producer AB the Pro, a longtime collaborator of XO, who employs some intriguing musical elements and really strong productions which gel well with XO’s lyrics. “Finding My Way” is one such example, a headnodder with plenty of attitude which feels so right as that soundtrack for walking U Street on a Friday night while feeling cool as hell, as XO mentions his come up: “And it was ‘fuck school,’ niggas showed up at noon/ Boys finished old kills at the prison and Job Corps was the alternative for the vicious / Jobs more niggas ain’t want ‘cuz we were flippin’, and mama had 3 jobs and still got evicted.” “Soul Value” rolls with the smoothest and most ethereal beat I’ve heard in a minute, which goes hand-in-hand with XO’s messages of positivity and uplift over crushing situations. “XO Skeleton” hits excellent heights with the pianos, synths, even occasional mandolin strings, and concluding with a guitar interlude which dares you to move. AB definitely has his moments on the record.
Not to be outdone, XO puts in dope work as well. He’s a spitfire emcee with a lot on his mind, and he delivers moments which will have you thinking. “Witness how we gamble, going broke and trying to reassess the shambles,” he mentions on “Soul Value,” talking about the futility of the hood. On “They Say” he affirms the power of Black people and urges reflection and inner strength: “Who were we before slaves? Kings and queens, we had them before Jay / Dynasties, but they can’t hide the son from the mother.” “If I Should Die” is definitely one of the record’s most outstanding moments, with an empowering beat from producer Soulful and XO dropping gems: “I come from not just Georgia Ave, the circumference, that’s D.C., London, Africa, Russia, even ourselves / In your heart you want the music to touch up.” It’s a terrific closer, with XO assuring that his music and soul will live on with the legends.
Missteps on Colour de Grey are few but noticeable. There are a few tracks which fail to ignite your interest, especially compared to some of the stronger moments. Examples include “Needs and Wants” or the posse cut “Reflection Eternal.” A larger, looming issue is AB’s production overshadowing XO’s performances on some tracks, as songs like “XO Skeleton” and “Poor Man’s Copyright” will hit you with a beat so dope that XO’s lyrics get lost in the sound.
On Colour de Grey, Uptown XO provides great commentary into that grey area, navigating the space between his past and future and hoping for the best. Along with stellar production from partner AB the Pro, the record most definitely knocks although there are some so-so moments in the mix. With this record, XO definitely proves that he’s got a lot to offer, and can bang and stand up tall for his cities like his contemporaries. Don’t sleep on this one. - Jeff Leon (KevinNottingham)