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The long way home 

Two years ago, April Mills appeared to be the state's great young hope to break into the national rap market. After two accomplished mixtapes, the statuesque 22-year-old, who recorded and performed as XXzotic, distinguished herself locally not so much by rapping dirty — and not just dirty, but bawdy enough to make Tipper Gore's head explode — but by making everything she rapped, even lines like “behind closed doors you can call me your ho,” sound menacing. Her debut album, financed by Next Page Entertainment, a fledgling local label with no apparent aversion to spending national-type money, was on the horizon. The remix of the debut's single, “Caught Up,” featured a guest verse from rap legend Pimp C, which seemed to make it a candidate for radio airplay beyond Arkansas.

Today, Mills lives in Houston and works with young women with mental disabilities. The “Caught Up” single never seized ahold of any outside markets. Mills has split from Next Page, and says she's resigned to the idea of never releasing the album she recorded for the label. She's currently preparing a comeback. Little Rock, she says, doesn't “spark” her anymore.

“I can't get anything from the air anymore. My spirit is dead there. There's not venues or stuff going on. I can't run into anybody. I can't go to any mixers. I can't go anywhere to get my picture in any magazines.” She says she's settled, maybe for good, in Houston, long a Southern rap Mecca.

But Little Rock (and North Little Rock, where she was born) will always be home. And for the first time in eight months, she'll return home to perform, with local acts 607 and Suga City opening, both of whom have also long been described as on the verge nationally.

All Mills will say about the fallout with Next Page is that she wasn't the one to walk away. The split, she says, evolved gradually but came to a head late last year. Since then, with little interruption, she's busily worked to carve out an independent path for herself. She's secured a business license for her new, one-woman label, XO South, and learned, with some initial help from Houston producer Kojack (Lil Flip's “This Is the Way We Ball”), how to make beats and produce tracks. She'll release a self-produced mixtape sometime this fall. And, to fully assert her new independence, she's come up with a new performance name: Nina James.

“I said to myself, ‘OK, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, even when you want to consider the new class, Alicia Keys — names that last forever.' When someone says, ‘What's your name?' I can say, ‘Nina James,' without kind of shrugging my shoulders, like, ‘XXzotic,' knowing that their first thought is going to be, ‘Oh, she's talking about sex.' I'm tired of that. I'm another person. Nina James just gives me room to bend. I've been doing a lot of singing lately. So if I'm at a neo-soul event, if I want to go perform at a church — wherever I want to be. Nina can be 'hood, it can be gangsta, it can be classic. And then, there's ‘Rick James, bitch!' So a lot of the time you'll hear ‘Nina James, bitch!'”

Mills says her new material, which she'll unveil on Friday, is “way more positive,” but “still bumping, still raw.”  She plans, too, she says, to interact with the crowd more. “Even though I'm a great performer, I used to be stuck in performance zone; I didn't really talk. I couldn't find a balance. This show is going to be a lot more personal. I hate that over the years, I've deprived people from getting to know me.”

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