Antone Exum insists that the stereotype of the modern-day athlete — hyper masculine, emotionally rigid, impervious to doubt — is a tired trope. As a former professional football player turned musician, Exum proudly cites famously androgynous and outré artists like David Bowie and Prince as his heroes, and he expressed surprise that his favorite artists would raise any eyebrows.
“We’re not all in the locker room listening to crazy heavy metal and hardcore hip-hop,” says Exum, a former San Francisco 49ers safety who records under the moniker EXUM. “There was an incredibly diverse collection of people in those locker rooms and they had incredibly diverse music tastes.”
Even when considering the variety of genres now coursing through the headphones of today’s NFL stars, the sheer ambition and creative range of Exum may still cause some listeners to do a double take. He may not come from the bad old football days of buzzcuts and mindless platitudes, but his debut album Xardinal Coffee represents a bold declaration for a guy whose former profession was tackling people. The album, which was released on June 4, runs the gamut of modern music tastes, touching upon everything from dreampop to trap to hip-hop to neo-soul.
Exum was a three-sport star growing up in Virginia, excelling in track and field, basketball and football, eventually earning a scholarship to play cornerback at Virginia Tech. After a successful college career, Exum was drafted by the Minnesota Viking and ended up enjoying a six-year NFL career as a safety, including three seasons (2017-19) on the Niners.
A true Renaissance man, Exum has always dedicated much of his off-field time to music — scribbling poems and lyrics in his notebook while growing his eclectic playlist of hip-hop, R&B, indie, classic rock, and more.
“I’ve always been enamored by what music can do to the listener — particularly how it acts as this soundtrack to your life,” Exum says. “There can be different sounds to different moments. And I always wanted to explore new music that could kind of match those moments. Like, right now, I’m sitting here drinking tea, watching the sun come into my kitchen, and I’m thinking about what music would go with this moment.”
Exum was able to take his musical passion to the professional level in 2016, when he sat out the season due to an injury.
“I definitely believe in divine timing, so when I got injured, I just saw it as an opportunity,” Exum says. “I was writing a whole lot of music at home at the time, and I thought, ‘I have the resources, I can afford to go to the studio, so why not?’”
Heartened by that experience, Exum continued to write and record music. The nine tracks that comprise Xardinal Coffee are from a two-and-a-half year period dating back to the end of his playing days in 2019. They demonstrate what can be accomplished in a post-Spotify world, when a talented artist confidently embraces the mantle of maximalism.
“Dark Kept Secret” is the best Twin Shadow track not written by George Lewis Jr. — all brooding, wounded vocals, bellowing bass, and synthetic strings. The track is lovelorn, sexy, and catchy as hell, ending with a faded-out solo that would cause even the most self-assured glam rock axeman to practice his scales.
Exum could have xeroxed the blueprint of “Dark Kept Secret” for the eight additional tracks and Xardinal Coffee would have been a crowd-pleasing set, but the album continually zigs when you think it will zag, making it an enriching, engaging listen. “Portabella Mushroom” is a murky, lights-low R&B tune praising the power of psychedelics; “Arrest the Dancer” is an ecstatic disco track cooked up directly from Nile Rodgers’ kitchen; and “Wolves Eat Wolves” is an ominous hip-hop number that feels like a more misanthropic Vince Staples, circa Summertime 06. The album closes out with the gorgeous, dreamy “Muffin Years in Lydian,” an auto-tuned ambient number that could be the lovechild of Bon Iver and Frank Ocean.
“I wanted to make sure that the listener never got too comfortable with this album — we wanted it to be fearless in exploring different sounds and genres,” Exum says. “I didn’t want to be boxed in or put in one category, and I think I’m really just scratching the surface now on exploring different kinds of sounds.”
Like his musical heroes, David Bowie and Prince, Exum also embraced the painstaking work of cultivating an overall aesthetic and image for the album, which he released on his own label, ücke. He helped championed the album artwork, an abstract expressionist rendering of an androgynous body crafted by Rosabel Ferber, and he worked closely with director Allison Bunce on his music videos.
“Guys like David Bowie and Prince were conscious and deliberate about every decision related to their music,” Exum says. “From their music videos to their media interviews to just how they walked down the street — they embraced something very specific. And then they could reinvent themselves completely”
Even when playing in the NFL, Exum embraced the bold fashion sense of his icons, frequently dyeing his hair, wearing nail polish and sporting gender-bending outfits.
“I was always going to do my thing,” Exum says. “As far as that was concerned, I didn’t give a fuck what anyone said or felt.”
Exum says he loved shopping for those outlandish getups in San Francisco when he played for the 49ers. Although he lived in San Jose, he would make frequent excursions north to check out second-hand and vintage clothing stores in the city. He didn’t get much of a chance to check in on San Francisco’s vibrant music scene, although he says he hopes to perform here this year, likely sometime in the fall. Before that, he will embark on a two-month tour of the Midwest and East Coast supporting Alex G, a sonically omnivorous indie rocker who shares Exum’s disdain for easy categorization.
Exum is already working on his second album, a collection of songs that will continue to push and blur genre boundaries. The athlete-turned-musician says he’s eager to pursue his unique brand of artistry while continuing to defy convention.
“I’m never going to shy away from who I am, whether I am playing football or making music,” Exum says. “I’m going to express myself and stay true to myself no matter what. And I’m looking forward to doing that through my music and my art.”
Vinyl & Digital
Will Reisman is a contributing writer. @wreisman