Paradise ain’t lost

Art by Tyler Farmer. Photos by Millan Verma.

It was four in the morning and we were still twenty miles from Atlanta. Michelle was curled up in the passenger seat, and despite my fluttering eyes, I assured her we would make it home alive. She was wrapped in a blanket as warm as the air but couldn’t fall asleep because I was singing the blues with all of my chest. 

The highway from Birmingham to Atlanta consists of two dark lanes and eerily similar patterns of trees. You can drive on it for hours and feel like you haven’t moved an inch. In a state between wonder and worry, between dream and reality, it is the perfect place to be: a strip of Limbo hidden in plain sight. 

When you are too tired to think yet too determined to sleep, your present feelings have no choice but to transmute themselves. So on that strip of Limbo, the weight on my head released itself through Honda Accord speakers. Juice WRLD, Lil Peep, Hendrix and Cobain played—songs for the forsaken, by the forsook. Songs that transmute pain and perseverance, love and longing, into capsules contained within the parameters of a fade-in and fade-out. I wondered why such great artists deal with such great pain, and why they so often wash that pain with poison. Michelle said it’s because artists, by nature, feel more than the normal human; that they imbibe to maintain an emotional equilibrium in which their feelings are within reach but not entirely overwhelming. 

The human mind plays fantastic tricks on itself. 

The previous morning, we made the three hour drive from Atlanta to Montgomery, Alabama, the old stomping grounds of Rosa Parks, Henry Ruggs, and my father. There, we paid a visit to my Daddima, a wise, short and stubborn Indian woman who stuffed us with sugar melon, dhal, peach cobbler, cookies and chai. We discussed global warming and gardening, family ties and inflation, then hugged and kissed goodbye. Heading north towards Birmingham to pay a visit to RXK Nephew. 

We arrived at Saturn, the venue, a few hours before doors opened. In my experience, getting a hold of RXK Nephew is like chasing a horse across an ungated pasture–the only hope is to catch ‘em during a rare moment of rest. While waiting for that moment, I surveyed Saturn’s lobby–a bar, coffee shop, and fully inclusive game room–and found that this pilgrimage had been made by dozens of others across the southeast. 

When I asked the overwhelmingly male crowd, who hailed from colleges in Tennessee to backwater towns in Mississippi, why they liked RXK Nephew, just about every response was the same: their eyes widened, their necks retracted, then they gave me a slow head nod followed by, “Man…he’s just…different.” The true answer lies in the ellipses. Whenever I try to explain Nephew to a normal person, I sound like a lunatic. “So he’s this guy who dropped a thousand songs on YouTube and said that he would beat Santa Claus with a hammer for trespassing in his home and he used to record schizophrenic debates with an internal demonic entity called the Slitherman and while he can be extremely violent he really just wants a mother’s embrace and and and—”

It’s confusing – It’s unnatural – It is rewiring. There are screeds that try to explain it, rolling essays from some of the most revered publications on earth–The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, No Bells dot blog–but nothing encapsulates it better than the gaping mouths of fans from hidden American corners who have plummeted down his rabbit hole. 

At 8:15 I got the text. We went outside and met Neph’s manager—a gangly, hospitable white man who wore a sock over his head—at a side door by a garage, then climbed three flights of stairs to reach the green room. 

Saturn’s green room is an artist’s nest. It is equipped with eight beds, some of which are built into the walls like secret hovels, a wide outdoor patio with a pingpong table, a vintage pinball machine, a fat bluetooth speaker, a full kitchen, an impressive collection of music magazines, a living setup with big couches and a T.V, and a very nice but now cigarette-stained pool table. 

When we walked in, RXK was laying on a couch, playing on his phone in one hand and holding a blunt in the other. Filo, his trusty and versatile cameraman who booked this night’s show, was seated stoically on the adjacent couch, filming Nephew’s every move. On the table lay two Red Bulls, one for drinking, the other for ashing Newports and blunts, and a bottle of Hennessy about two-thirds full. Dressed head to toe in black street wear, Nephew was relaxed and smiley. Given his current position, who wouldn’t be? 

In two years, he has gone from hustling in a beatdown city to modeling for Rick Owens and Adidas; from filming and editing his own music videos to moving across the country—presumably lucratively—with a team that wholly believes in him; from barely getting recognition in his birthplace to having a collage of faces drive multiple hours to see him perform in the state of Alabama. Nephew himself can barely believe it: “I don’t even know how to express it. These people really love me and fuck with me. And I never thought anybody fucked with me at ALL. Me or Pap. So to see people show out like this—it’s crazy. Sometimes I feel like it’s too good to be true. You know what I mean? Like, way too good to be true.” 

In preparation for this interview, which consisted of driving through Montgomery in a thunderstorm while listening to Shawty Rxk 2 Too, this hungry writer drummed up one question: Why are we in Alabama? Neph’s  answer is pretty reasonable: he and his team were in Memphis doing features, hitting different studios, all that, then word got around that they were down south so promoters reached out. 

After I got that question out of the way, we started chatting. But before I share  that convo, I want to make something clear: RXK Nephew in real life is, in my experience, not some sinister being. Yes, he is boisterous, but he’s also incredibly thoughtful and well-spoken. He might’ve dropped out in the seventh grade, but he is better read than most college graduates I know. RXK has done and said a lot of insensitive shit on social media, and he partakes in the lyrical misogyny that runs so rampant through hip-hop, but as of late it seems like he’s been becoming more centered, straying further away from his red-pilled, Slitherman self. When I asked him about getting soft-cancelled because of a leaked verse about his ex-girlfriend who passed away, he seemed to have learned from his mistake: “I didn’t know the height that I was at, I didn’t understand my influence. It was a lesson to not do that again, to not be so inconsiderate to the world.” 

The drinking, though? None of that is exaggerated. He drank an entire bottle of Hennessy earlier in the day and was working on a second while we spoke.

Millan Verma: Do you like performing? 

RXK Nephew: I love partying. I never go to clubs, so these shows get to be my party. Everybody listens to the music I like. The more I dance, the more the people dance. So if I decide to spin on my head, I bet you somebody in the crowd is gonna outdo me. If I jump in the crowd people start wildin’ out. The energy keeps goin’ up up up, so yeah, I love it. 

Then for festivals, with like rock bands and stuff, I’m comin’ as a rapper doin’ all kinds of crazy music, like Spanish and EDM. The crowd might not know what I’m doin’ at first, and I might not know how to take it because they’re not dancin’ off the rip and they’re not screamin’ my name, but I make ‘em feel it and enjoy the party. I can kinda control them. There was one show where I saw one part of the crowd that didn’t move, they were so still. In my mind I’m like, [Neph gets up to dance] Naw you’re gonna move tonight! Ain’t no way possible y’all don’t move. Then I see ‘em! They go from a frown and start smilin’! Even if they got a gun they gon’ tuck it away and dance! And even the white boys, they start dancin’ too!

You ever do any stunts on stage?

Noooooo. I’d need a bigger stage for that and I’d have to be sober. In the future I definitely wanna have it laid out to do some crazy shit. But then I wanna come out with this Henny Water too.

Henny Water?

If they don’t do a collab with me, then Imma do it myself and use the same label and come out with some water. Or something that’s gonna help me quit. Something that’ll make me feel like I’m still drinking but will help me wean off. 

Has it been hard trying to quit? 

Hell yeah. I’ve been drinking since the last time you seen me [holds up his Hennessy bottle]. All them bottles that was in that crib lined up [from our last interview], that was me. 

Didn’t you try to go cold turkey? 

I tried before but that shit…man…it’s bad. 

How long did you last?

I can’t say for a fact but I don’t think I made it a week. 

What’s Henny Water?

It’s just water. I really feel like if I was at a party and drinkin’ Red Bull, I could still party with everybody else. It’s a groove thing; a mind thing; I can manipulate myself to make me think I’m drinking Henny but I’m really not.

It’s gonna help me though. And it’s gonna make me some money. And I’m gonna help other alcoholics too. 

I’m trying to quit everything. No cigarettes, no weed, no nothing. I just wanna drink water, eat, be energetic and backflip. I don’t wanna be lazy, I swear this shit is slowing me down [shakes Henny bottle]. I’d drop way more music, be way more creative. I wanna do a lot of storytelling. I wanna do boom-bap beats, I wanna battle rap, I wanna do sketch comedy, some TikTok shit.

Do you ever meditate?


It’s hard. I can only do it for like 5-10 minutes. 

What do you think about when you meditate? Do you try to think about completely nothing?

I try to think about my breathing. Just in and out. But then I start thinking about whether I’m thinking about my breathing too much. I have bad ADHD so my mind usually starts racing.

Yeah, I do too. I don’t really know what real meditation is, but my meditation is closing my eyes and going to paradise. 

Where’s paradise?

Thinking everything is peaches and cream. I go to the future and act like it’s my reality. I go to a good place where nobody gets harmed, where I have a nice family, kids, good food, a nice house with a big backyard and a pool. I go to that place, and when I get out of it I wake up super motivated. 

That’s how I escaped jail. That’s how I escaped all that time in the box. I did a year and a half in the box—that’s solitary confinement. I was already in jail, then they took me out of jail, away from the population, into the jail’s jail. All I could do was lay there. Just walk back and forth and lay there. I’d just read and lay down. I’d read three pages then close the book ‘cause I couldn’t take it any more, so I’d just lay down and meditate. When I came home I was stuck. From every book I read, every magazine, every picture, I was stuck. Every friend I had was probably tired of me because I’m still stuck. It programmed me to this day. I believe in the unbelievable. I came home thinking of Bentleys, thinking I’m gonna be a millionaire. People looked at me like it was far-fetched, saying, “You’re getting out of jail with all these crazy dreams. It’s not about to happen.” I was like, “Mannnnnn, Imma do it however I gotta do it.” I just wanted to become legal. I didn’t want to do anything that would risk me going back. I wanted to become rich and take care of my people. 

Seems like you’re getting closer to that paradise. 

I’m gettin’ older. So now, to get to that paradise, I know I gotta stay healthy. That’s what falls back to that [points to Henny bottle]. I’m not gonna make it to that paradise if I don’t get healthy. I’m blacking. The years add up, the days add up, so it’s like, when am I gonna stop? I’m human just like everybody else. My liver, my kidney, my heart, my sleep schedule, my eating schedule—I have to clean up on that before I’m like, 36 and fucked up. They’ll be like, “Man he’s 36, that’s still young!” Then I’ll be like, “Man, I ain’t take care of my body. I was just blackin, doin’ shows, drinkin’ everyday.” 

So I’m worried about my health now. I feel like I’m not old enough to be focusing too much on that, but I still should be. 

Sterno, 1985. Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Guess it’s better to deal with it now than later. 

I always said when I hit 27 I would get healthy, but I hit 27 and didn’t. Now, before I hit 30 I have to do it. But I’m not gonna hit 29 doin’ that either. That’s why I’m enjoyin’ myself now. ’Cause them 6 years in prison, I was healthy as shit brah. I had no Henny, no females, no distractions, I was just workin’ out and eating three meals a day—healthy as shit. 

When I came home, everybody was doin’ everything: Xanax, Molly. I missed that whole train, so I was like, “Damn, lemme try that for the first time!” And they were like, “Man, we been did this man!” They were like, “Watch how he act! Watch how he act! It’s his first time!”

When I came home from jail, I was so young and energetic. I used to drive from Florida to New York, from California to Memphis. But now I can’t, it’s not in me no more. I can’t do it. I’m not on them drugs. A regular human has to eat and sleep. A regular human is not about to get up and drive to California and stay up the whole time. If you do that, Imma accuse you of drugs. Cocaine, ecstasy, any upper gon’ get you there! How the fuck could you do that sober? 30 hour drive, and then you still talkin’ bout, “What’s up?” Still interviewing, still recording. I’d be like, “Bruh is you serious? How’d you get here?” 

Have you been resting more now?

Yeah. I’ve been able to sleep. I ain’t worried about too much. I used to be thinking about mad shit. My future, where I’m about to stay, if I’m going back to jail. But now I’m just thinking about saving money, countin’ it. I’m not thinking about how I’m gonna get the money, I’m thinking about how I’m gonna use the money. 

(Here’s the full interview, courtesy of FILO TV. We discuss a lot more, including Neph’s full-length project with Ariel Pink.) 

We hung out for a bit afterwards then went back down to the venue. More people had piled in. It wasn’t a sold-out show, but given the location, it was definitely a formidable turnout. There were a few dainty college students, two men in their late 30s rocking Neph’s 2020 New Breed Trapper shirts, a cohort of frat boys in vintage NFL jerseys, and a group of friends, clearly from Atlanta, dressed to a T. The room was rowdy and drunk. Between the sets of the last two openers, “RXK” chants broke out. Neph finally took the stage at 11:20. 

Shades on, and his bottle of Henny a good bit lower, Nephew greeted the crowd with a gaping smile, clearly blown away for the umpteenth time that they had come to see HIM, that this moment was real and not a paralysis-induced vision he was having in a cell, that he was getting Paid to speak his mind. Inching closer to Paradise, doing exactly what he envisioned, exactly what people told him he couldn’t do. 

That is the glamorous take, but in reality, his triumph is followed by a thick smog, a suffocating gust of wind that could strike at any moment. See it’s hard not to celebrate when it hasn’t struck in some time, but unless you’ve constructed a stable shelter, every night is a gamble. 

There was clear causation. The drunker he got, the more entranced they became. The closer towards the ceiling he aimed that Hennessy bottle’s fat glass ass, the louder the applause, the more feral the crowd acted. Rapturous chants–”RXK! RXK!”–from frat boys to OGs to rawrXD girls caked in glitter. Love is fickle. He told me a few hours ago that he wanted to stop. That he needed to stop. That his kidneys were gonna give out just like anybody else’s. At what point does a brand become a death sentence? “I’ma drink this Henny till I fuck up my kidney,” he raps. These fans are cheering him to the finish line. He stands up on the DJ table, whole body wobbling as his manager implores him to step off.  He remembers every word to the songs he recorded in this same exact state. The performance is mesmerizing, terrifying, a balloon of lethal joy destined to pop. It ends abruptly. Neph performs a final song then rushes off stage, his posse following close behind. They love it. They hate it. They couldn’t take their eyes off him either way. “What the fuck did I just witness?” “Best concert ever.” The fans disperse and go home. Tourists promenading through chaos. 

Don’t they know that some can’t escape? 

That road is too dark to drive down. These headlights are too weak. No matter. He has a show in New York tomorrow. Time to do it again.