“I’m basically everybody’s punching bag,” Lil Xan tells Playboy on a recent October afternoon. Not that he minds. The 22-year-old, whose real name is Diego Leanos, forever looks like a rebellious teenager just awakened from a midday nap, given his short stature and spaced-out eyes. He revels in being known as much as an internet curiosity as a serious musician, and he’s certainly playing the part: There are his numerous face tattoos (“Zzzz” under one eye, "Candy" under the other), a “stunt” relationship to pop singer Noah Cyrus (more on that later), his widely derided disregard of rap icon Tupac Shakur and, most recently, a Cheetos-induced hospital visit.
“So you can hate on me all you want,” Lil Xan declares, “but we out here winning.”
Fame came quick for Lil Xan, and he’ll admit he’s still coming to terms with what it all means. “I feel like I’m in the fucking Matrix, bro,” he says of his swift rise to notoriety. “I would never even win a prize at school. I thought I was the most unluckiest kid ever, and then boom,” he says, miming his suddenly being swarmed with attention for his music. “‘Here’s a lot of money! You’re a famous rapper! Go live a great life!’ Like, what the fuck, dude?”
He made his first rap song, a fairly innocuous track titled “Hit My Line,” days before his 20th birthday. Little more than one year later, in November 2017, following the music video for his breakout single “Betrayed” going viral and racking up several million views in a single day in August of that year, Xan signed a major-label deal with Columbia Records.
“People wanted to know, Who is this dude named Lil Xan?” offers DJ Fu, Xan’s co-manager and the in-house producer for Mike Will Made-It’s EarDrummers label. When first learning of Lil Xan, on the recommendation of the rapper’s friends, Fu didn’t believe that was actually the young man’s stage name. Fu, though, recognized “a natural star” in Xan and soon introduced him to his friend and business partner, Stat Quo, a former rapper with Eminem’s Shady Records. When State came on-board as Xan’s co-manager, he and Fu helped land the rapper his major-label deal. A few months later, Lil Xan’s debut album, Total Xanarchy, was released to the public.
Xan says he’s long been a musical omnivore: He cites Pharrell Williams as his greatest sonic influence, and says in his teenage years, he listened to “everything from Beethoven to Drake to fucking Black Flag, Sex Pistols, the Cure, early Arctic Monkeys.” And despite him practically worshipping the rapper Mac Miller, whom he dedicates a portion of his show to following the 26-year-old’s death in September, and whose face appears on the cover of Xan’s forthcoming new album, Be Safe, due in December, the rapper admits he never had the intention of becoming a professional emcee: “I was not that kid in high school spitting freestyles like, 'Yo, I want to be a fucking rapper. Fuck all y’all!' Nah, I was not that kid.” Fu believes it's Xan's laissez-faire approach to his profession, or the idea that the rapper, at least to the outside world, appears not to have worked hard his success, that most irritates his critics. “It’s like if your whole life, you wanted to be a football player, and then this kid comes along that doesn’t even try, and he becomes a fucking star,” Fu offers. “It pisses people off.”
If the criticism hurts him, Xan doesn’t often show it. That hatred, he says, largely exists only in theory. Sure, there were death threats that required him to cancel recent shows in both Chicago and Minneapolis. But he brushes it off when pressed for his thoughts on something so serious. No, Xan says, he doesn’t feel any such hate or vitriol aimed at himself in his everyday life. “To be honest you, just gotta stay off the internet,” he explains. “The negativity mostly lives on the internet. When I walk outside my house, it’s nothing but 'I love you, Lil Xan!' and those are the same motherfuckers calling me names on the Internet.”
Labels just wanna fuck you over, bro. Total Xanarchy was put together poorly by the label. Labels are fucking retarded, and they don’t understand what’s hip.
True to his word, the devoted members of the Xanarchy Gang are waiting outside the venue today in Indianapolis hours before his show. Many of them even paid extra to attend a meet-and-greet and watch his soundcheck. What is it about Xan that generates such passionate adoration? Ask him, and he’ll tell you it’s because, like many members of the Gang, he knows what it feels like to be misunderstood. “I feel like I’m a voice for the outcasts because I feel like I was the outcast in school,” he says. “I can see it in my fans. I like that because my music comforts them to let them know they’re not alone. I tell them that every show: 'I am no better than you. We are all human beings. Your flaws are perfections. You are beautiful. You are beautiful, no matter what you look like.'”
There’s a time you gotta man the fuck up, dude. Just stop fucking lying about that shit. … I wish Noah nothing but the best of luck with her career.
But now, back in his dressing room, Xan informs his guests, “Grand Rapids was a movie!” referencing the previous night’s gig. For reasons unknown, Betty takes that as her cue to grab his crotch. “Oh, my God! This is awesome!” Betty says moments later, assessing her good fortune to be back here with Xan. The rapper doesn’t flinch. Maybe giggles a bit. He takes things in stride.
It’s why he he has no problem discussing potentially sensitive topics. Like, say, his relationship with Noah Cyrus that ended a few months back, with each of them exchanging barbs via social media. Eventually, Xan claimed the entire relationship was staged by his record label.
OK, how about when he was recently admitted to the hospital as a result of supposedly eating too many Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? “That story is completely real,” he assures. “I didn’t fake that, bro! I really thought I was fucked up. But this is how the media fucks shit up. I never used the words ‘overdosed on Cheetos.’ But one blog said ‘Lil Xan overdosed,’ and then everyone runs with it. But the Cheetos shit was very real. Not fabricated in any way. Ask the nurses and doctors that treated me.”
Some things, however, Xan can’t be so diplomatic about. Earlier this year, during an interview with Revolt TV, Xan was asked to rate Tupac Shakur as a rapper. He gave the late rapper a “2” out of 10, shrugged and called the widely revered emcee “boring.” Backlash in the hip-hop community quickly ensued, and Waka Flocka Flame tweeted, “Lil Xan banned from hip-hop.” As a result, Xan has done virtually zero press since then, and now he says, “Fuck Revolt. Revolt TV fucked me over. I guess an artist has to get fucked over by a media outlet eventually. But it’s almost like people need something to channel their problems at. I guess I’m just that guy.”
He’s also not pleased with his label, Columbia Records. For one, he says they rushed him to release Total Xanarchy, didn’t consult him throughout the rollout process and, save for five tracks, used old tracks he’d previously recorded for it. “Labels just wanna fuck you over, bro,” he says. “Total Xanarchy was put together poorly by the label. Down to not even letting me know what the track list was. Or the songs they were putting on it. Labels are fucking retarded, and they don’t understand what’s hip. They just don’t.”
The Cheetos shit was very real. Not fabricated in any way. Ask the nurses and doctors that treated me.
Xan is still getting used to life as a famous rapper. “He’s a young kid. He wasn’t groomed to be an artist,” Fu says. “He fell into it. So the things he’s going through are just growing pains of being an artist and being the young rebellious kid that he is.” Still, it undoubtedly helps to have someone like Anna around. Xan's longtime girlfriend, Anna—who looks the other way when he spends time with other women—also acts as his assistant. “I’m like his mom. I literally do everything,” she says with a slightly bemused smile. “You can ask anybody. I make sure he gets dressed in the morning. I give him his toothbrush. I love it, but it’s a lot. It’s complicated.”
So is his future. “I’m probably like eight million fucking years old,” he says, after recalling how his mom used to call him an “old soul.” "I feel like I’m ready to fucking retire after my third damn tour,” Xan adds. “But I’m not gonna. Wanna know why? Because I’m very passionate about music.”
Xan frequently refers to himself as an “open book,” but later he bristles at a particular question. A simple one, really. How much time does he spend in the recording studio nowadays?
He puts down a still-lit blunt and smiles, eyes half shut, casually gazing at Madeleine. Later tonight, he’ll retreat to his tour bus with her and, that evening, share an Instagram video of her clad only in a towel, declaring her the newest member of the Xanarchy Gang.
But now he’s ready to sing his new, sure-to-be smash song to his new friend. “Fuck that hoe. Fuck that hoe. Yah I wanna fuck that hoe,” he raps. Madeleine smiles.
Xan pauses and then, apropos of nothing, declares the interview over. He says he’s too stoned. He might say something he’ll regret.