The Untamed Terrain of Xavier & The Thrill

Let me start by saying that I find it fascinating how an artist’s past work, no matter how far removed in time or style, can still have a presence on his or her most recent output. This is how I want to introduce you to Chicago rapper Xavier & The Thrill.

I once heard the sensation of panic described as your mind accelerating while the rest of the world slows to a halt. The effect is delocalizing; removed from your physical setting, you now find yourself neck deep in the tumultuous whitewater of your stream-of-consciousness, flailing and fighting to keep your head above the rapids.

On the monstrous “Nocturno”, that fight manifests between the lines of a frenetic meditation on ambition and success. “I come alive in the night time,” howls Xavier, punctuating each repeated outburst with a series of violent shrieks that amplify the song’s manipulation of horror iconography. It’s all here: murder, blood, guts, bones, centipedes, poltergeists, and even a passing reference to Alfred Hitchcock himself.

But if moonlight catalyzes the emergence of Xavier’s truest and most unhinged self, then that transformation is not without consequence – so too does the world of sex and glamour around him become a little more macabre, a little more sinister. Fascination becomes disgust. Pleasure becomes panic.  

That duality is again emphasized when the song’s warped, scratching production – it reminds me a lot of the mysterious radio signal from Robert Zemeckis’ Contact – transitions into the pristine calmness of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2. Suddenly, tranquility is made jarring, peace made foreign. Contextually, it’s an incredible outro, providing listeners with just enough breathing room to ruminate on (but not fully make sense of) the chaos preceding it.

As an experience unto itself, “Nocturno” is a thrill ride complete with terrifying highs and pacifying lows. Accordingly, it’s the perfect precursor to Xavier’s debut album, the aptly named Thrill. This isn’t to suggest that the project is similarly infused with the creative energies of horror cinema; unlike the darkness of “Nocturno”, Thrill presents itself as a sometimes bubbly, sometimes booming tribute to the retro hedonism of neon-saturated Hollywood.

Take Thrill’s opening track, “Candy Man”, which follows the character of Bobby as he makes his way to the disco, encountering several partygoers and fellow night creatures all waiting for the titular Candy Man himself. Even if you interpret this figure as a drug-dealer (which seems to me the most direct reading of the metaphor), Xavier’s vocal and lyrical playfulness take what could have been an otherwise gloomy narrative turn it into an endearing and wacky portrait of a night on the town.

That the album opens with a dazzling concoction of funk, house, and psychedelic rock immediately situates it in a vision of the past that borrows from many different eras – Xavier seems less interested in experiencing the nightlife of any one point in history than he is in simply bringing the aggregate pleasures of old to the present. “I want something more than digital,” he sings on the delightfully tropical  “More Than”, as if to say something real, something that exists in the moment that he can reach out and touch.Though it’s easy to lose track of as the album’s hard-hitting trap influences become more overpowering, the search for that something is what gives Thrill its emotional heartbeat.

“I was seeing much of the world through a dark filter. I liked to have fun and all, but everything in my personal and public life had darker undertones. Life felt like a cave to me,” Xavier explained in a message to Pigeons & Planes, describing his tonal evolution on the album. Songs like “In One Ear / Uppers” and “Tears of Legend” offer glimpses into (and from within) that darkness, voicing concerns about losing your composure, your perspective, and your loved ones all in the name of chasing your dreams. 

“I knew I needed to move forward and get from under this dark grey/black smog, because now it wasn’t only affecting how I saw the world but how family and colleagues started to see me,” elaborated Xavier in the same interview. And with Thrill, Xavier doesn’t just venture into light; he does so with the force, volume, and excitement of a roller coaster pushing forward amid the screams of its euphoric riders. A damn good time, indeed.

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