On Friday Kanye West‘s GOOD Music drops the self-titled debut by Hxlt, pronounced “Holt”—it’s the stage name of Treated Crew member Nigel Holt. Hxlt has been a known quantity around these parts for more than a decade, albeit as Hollywood Holt. In a 2015 interview with MTV, Holt explained the change: “When I rap I’m Hollywood Holt, and since I’m not rapping it’s just Holt.”
Hxlt doesn’t rap on his new album, but rapping was his entree into music. In a 2008 Reader feature Miles Raymer tracked Holt’s progression from hype man for Flosstradamus and Mano to center-stage performer in his own right. The piece highlights Holt’s fastidious dedication to all the elements of hip-hop, his ubiquity in the local scene, and his disregard for genre demarcations. One quote sums up his philosophy: “I want to smash the stereotype that you can’t be the best at everything.”
At that point Hxlt had recently released the mixtape Holt Goes to Hollywood (which someone needs to re-up online). After dropping the 12-inch Hollywood on Chocolate Industries in 2008, he returned in 2010 with a mixtape called These Are the Songs That Didn’t Make the Album but Are Still Cold as Hell So Shut the Fuck Up Vol. 1, which features Mano, Rockie Fresh, and Mikkey Halsted. The title alludes to a Chocolate Industries full-length Hxlt was working on that never saw the light of day. Hxlt toured with Kid Cudi in 2008 and opened select dates for Fall Out Boy’s comeback tour behind 2013’s Save Rock and Roll.
Hxlt might’ve looked like an unorthodox choice to open for Fall Out Boy, but his selection says as much about the band’s genre agnosticism as it does about his punk proclivities. This has less to do with sound and more to do with attitude. Not just anybody could face down thousands of pop-punk fans and then start rapping for them as if they’d come to see him, but Hxlt has a relentless stage presence and an apparently bottomless well of energy. (When I saw him MC the Timbuck2uesday tribute to DJ Timbuck2 at Metro in late December, he jumped around the stage past 2 AM as though he’d just had his first cup of morning coffee.) A polite Examiner review of Fall Out Boy’s Milwaukee show gave Hxlt credit for tackling the challenge: “It would have been an tough moment for any artist outside the pop-punk genre, and Holt did manage to garner more cheers than jeers by the end of his set.”
Listening to Hxlt reminded me of that tour with Fall Out Boy. It’s a punk album, but it’s not boilerplate three-chord punk rock. It’s punk in its concept and presentation, and in the fact that a rap label—Kanye’s rap label, no less—is releasing an album with no rapping on it. Hxlt’s hip-hop history makes itself felt, though like his punk style it’s a subtle element—you can hear it in the swing of the electronic percussion and in his sober singing. The bare percussion loops and spindly guitars of Hxlt‘s postpunk skeleton can sound cold, but that austerity makes the small inflections in Hxlt’s mood feel like grand gestures; “Guitar,” one of the final tracks on the album, maintains a modest minimalism while exuding an irrepressible uplift. Its lingering melody has encouraged me to revisit the whole record.