December 7 is a big day in the life, or rather death, of rapper XXXTentacion. The divisive artist, who was shot dead outside a motorcycle dealer in Deerfield Park, Florida on June 18, claims one of the most consumed songs of 2018, “Sad!” (No. 3 on the BuzzAngle Top 30 chart logging more than 350 million audio streams), and while no Grammy nominations came to be this morning, a new album, “Skins” — which clocks in at just under 20 minutes — is poised to do big numbers.
How big? Platinum-plus, predicts Ghazi Shami, founder and CEO of EMPIRE, which is distributing “Skins” and also handled XXX’s 2017 release “17.” “I don’t see this album doing any less than that, and ‘17’ was just certified for over a million units” back in August, he adds. Another album, “?,” was released in March 2018 via Caroline, a distribution company within Capitol Music Group, and has tallied 3.1 million in global adjusted album equivalents (1.6 million in the U.S.) and more than 5 billion streams, according to CMG. A first week look of 175,000 to 200,000 adjusted units for “Skins” seems within reach, sources surmise, and could be higher once numbers from a merch bundle with industry leader Bravado is factored. “That’s the wild card,” says an insider.
EMPIRE has a lot at stake, having signed XXX (real name: Jahseh Onfroy) to a deal valued at $10 million before his death. At the time, XXX was mostly known for SoundCloud buzz and a rap sheet, which included ongoing legal proceedings stemming from allegations of kidnapping and physical abuse. Concurrently, the Florida native was developing a following that increasingly viewed him as a sort of modern-day Kurt Cobain, a parallel that crystalized at the memorial held in XXX’s honor at Sunrise Arena, which drew a multi-ethnic crowd of thousands to pay tribute.
Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find an easily categorized genre for “Skins,” which has elements of hard rock, piano and acoustic guitar, electronic touches and intricate sound design, made all the more intense with the flow — and screams — of a kid still on the come-up, and also clearly troubled. As XXX sputters at the end of “Train Food,” the third track on the album: “Now it’s here / Death has now arrived / Time is finally up.”
Much of “Skins” were “songs that were written and almost completely finished before he passed,” says producer John Cunningham, who lived with XXX in the six months leading up to his death. “The difference between almost completely finished and completely finished were certain things he’d wanted – like a children’s choir [on “What Are You Afraid Of?”], “or a certain feature” — Kanye West on “One Minute.”
The 24-year-old Cunningham describes Jah, how he addressed the artist, as a prodigious note-taker, and one with whom he had many conversations about music and his “vision” for the next XXX album, which he wanted out in October.
XXX’s manager Solomon Sobande was on board with the timetable. “Jah was very focused on getting stuff out so he worked every day,” Sobande tells Variety. “He had a studio in his house, and all he would do is record. He would have these ideas, then John would execute and really bring it home. It was always Jah’s idea, then John would put the bells and whistles on it.”
“The concept of the album is that there’s three parts,” Cunningham continues. “He wanted it to be a transformation [so] the first part of the album represents darkness, then the second part of completing that transformation into the third part — the light.”
“Some of the last conversations that we had was about mastery,” offers Sobande. “He wanted to master everything, like he mastered all genres of music.”
EMPIRE’s Shami was also privy to the music-in-progress, even before XXX died. “He sent me five of the records that made the album,” he says. “He’d play the records in real time while he watched you. He said he wanted to see my expression, to know how I felt. He wanted an honest opinion. That’s what was so special about my relationship with him — there was a transparency and I was really straightforward with him. And I actually really liked all the records I heard, even if some were a little bit raw and incomplete, I could see what direction he was going in.”
Sobande goes one step further: “He left us a blueprint.”
But others were also involved. Onfroy had a will which left his assets to his mother Cleopatra Bernard. It also made provisions for his brother, and any children he fathered — one is due, Bernard revealed on June 22. Cleo, as she’s known, declined to be interviewed by Variety, but Cunningham reveals she is the keeper of Onfroy’s computer, which houses his “lyrics and ideas.” As in the case of Avicii, who died in April, there was a thorough forensic accounting of what material may exist.
Pictured above, from left: John Cunningham, Cleopatra Bernard and Solomon Sobande
“She’s been thrust into this role where she’s having to make important decisions about a music career and, of course, that’s not her forte,” says Sobande. “John, his mother, myself, we’re a committee and we talk and really flesh things out amongst each other. Ultimately the final decision for anything is with Cleo, and we make sure that she has the information to make the best decision. But she’s very brilliant and growing.”
Shami concurs. “I think people underestimate her intelligence,” he says of Bernard. “She has great intuition. I’ve watched her kind of weed through the grass and figure out what’s what. She took some advice from people who had different approaches and angles and she drew her own conclusions. And more often than not, her conclusions are spot-on.”
That’s not to say there aren’t those who look to take advantage. As Cunningham explains, the team went back about five years to trace any previous XXX material that may be out in the world, and “some people have contacted us to say, ‘Hey, your son came to my studio, however many years or months ago, and I have this song, and I want to give you the files.’ But there’s also people who have taken his vocals and claimed to have worked with him. His mom has a really tough job cut out for her. She’s not in the music industry. And from my short time in the music business, people aren’t attuned to the way people act in the music business until they really see it.”
If you’re XXX’s team, do you look to the estate of Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G. as the gold standard for, not just successful posthumous albums (Pac, who died in 1997, had several, including 2001’s four-times-platinum “Until the End of Time”), but legacy preservation?
“One hundred percent,” says Sobande. “As I was getting myself together, right after he passed, I don’t even remember who gave me the advice, but somebody was, like, ‘Yo, pay attention to the Tupac estate and watch what they did.’ And I learned that’s it’s about not doing everything at once, but being able to spread things out. It’s about balancing and patience.”
“There’s a lot of material,” adds Shami. “We’ll figure it out. It has to be done in a fashion that honors and preserves the integrity of what was there in that short period of time. I don’t want to create content just for the sake of milking the legacy. Everything has to be done tastefully. We’re doing it in the spirit of what I’ve known of him in the last year; what his mother has known of him his entire life; what John has known of him as a producer; and what Solomon has known about him from being on the road with him for months.”
And what of the violent teen of XXX’s very recent past? Sobande tries to separate the controversial character from the person he knew. “One time on tour, he stopped the show and was like a motivational speaker, talking to his audience for 30 minutes,” the manager recalls. “He was trying to promote positivity and to be a safe [haven] for kids that went through some of the same things, that had a troubled past. He was trying to let them know they weren’t alone. And that was really powerful. He really wanted to help them. That was a serious goal.”
Adds Shami: “We all make mistakes and we all have our troubles, obstacles and hurdles, but at the end of the day, it’s [about] what do we take from those experiences? Do we actually become better people? Do we evolve? Many of those experiences happened when he was 16 and 17-years-old. At 20, he was a very different person. In one year, I saw a maturation process that was pretty profound. He had the ability to bring great change to the narrative of the youth. Unfortunately, it got cut short.”