XXXTentacion was like hip hop’s Edgar Allen Poe. His emo rap oozed gravitas and foreboding, plumbing the darkest depths of his soul while documenting life and death, love and pain, violence and suicide.
His two studio albums, four mixtapes, and five EPs may be filed under hip hop, but lyrically – and occasionally musically – they have just as much in common with The Cure’s mope rock and Nirvana’s Sturm und Drang grunge. At times, his music even seems to have presaged the early denouement of XXXTentacion’s life.
The 20-year-old rapper and singer was shot to death while leaving a motorcycle shop in an apparent robbery in Deerfield Beach, Florida, on June 18. As the online eulogies roll out, there’ll be reassessment of his relatively paltry body of work and first impressions by those previously unfamiliar with it.
I fall into the latter camp, and the first thing that struck me about “?,” XXXTentacion’s 2018 album, as I played it on repeat was its joylessness. This is the polar opposite of Drake’s party anthems for the masses. The 18 dirge-like, largely minor-key tracks, all but two of which clock in at under three minutes, paint a portrait of an artist as a young man who appears to have been prone to suicidal depression, wild mood swings, and extreme violence.
According to one ex-girlfriend, the latter side that XXXTentacion revealed on “?” may have been a painful case of art reflecting life. In October of 2016, prosecutors in Florida charged the rapper (real name: Jahseh Onfroy) with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering after the ex, whom he’d met online in May of 2016, accused him of abuse over a period of four months.
Despite the allegations, EMPIRE Distribution still put out XXXTentacion’s 2017 debut album, “17,” and its follow-up, “?,” which came out in March. It looked like the only repercussions of his alleged and actual misconduct (which also included several arrests as well as robbery and assorted assault charges) would be legal. Then last month, Spotify implemented a new “hate speech and hateful conduct policy” to catch up with the #MeToo times.
The streaming giant’s first move was to ban XXXTentacion’s music from its playlists, along with the songs of R. Kelly, who has been dogged by sexual-predator rumors for years and whose ex-wife, Andrea Kelly, tearfully accused him of domestic abuse during their 13-year marriage in a TV interview last week. Spotify reversed its decision on June 1, and both artists returned to its playlists.
Following XXXTentacion’s death, Spotify paid tribute – and according to some critics, cashed in – by promoting his music hard. Surely subscribers and non-subscribers streamed “?” in droves, looking for clues to the state of XXXTentacion’s psyche. They didn’t have to listen long for them to start pouring in.
Along with his anthems for depressed and potentially suicidal youth (“ALONE, PART 3,” “SAD!” and “before I close my eyes”), there are telling lyrics like “Pussy boy, don’t be talking shit/ Or you can meet this AK-47, it got kick back” (“Floor 555”) and “When I’m drunk I feel like fightin’, ayy/ She pop that pussy like Vicodin, yuh (ohmy ohmy)/ Beat up that pussy like a vikin’” (“going down!”). On his Twitter profile, his location is listed as “bad vibes forever,” while his one-line bio reads: “the wolf in sheeps [sic] skin.”
None of this proves that the allegations XXXTentacion’s ex made against him were true, but it makes me wonder if label execs cringed even a little as they listened to “?” for the first time. When a rapper faces such serious accusations and responds with an Instagram video in which he declares, “I’mma f— y’all little sisters in they throats, I swear to God. I swear to God, everybody that called me a domestic abuser, I’m finna domestically abuse y’all little sister pussy from the back,” it becomes harder to separate the inflammatory artist from the equally inflammatory art.
And what about the fans? Do they become complicit in abuse culture by sending an alleged abuser’s music up the charts?
It’s a tricky gray area. In the #MeToo age, the general trend has been to punish stars who say the wrong thing or are accused of abusive or predatory behavior. I understand the impulse for ABC to cancel “Roseanne” over its namesake Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets and for networks and movie studios to fire powerful men who are accused of sexual misconduct. The music industry, though, has been slower to punish stars like R. Kelly and Chris Brown, who has scored big hits and collaborated with a number of female artists, including his ex Rihanna, since he attacked her in 2009.
Should we the consumers pick up the slack? If we decide to, we may find our listening habits significantly altered. If we start banning all the male stars who are alleged to have hit women, that means no more James Brown, no more rap that samples James Brown, no more Temptations (whose member David Ruffin, like Brown, is said to have beaten Tammi Terrell while dating her), no more Bobby Brown, no more Guns N’ Roses or Mötley Crüe, and nothing Phil Spector ever blessed with his production magic. We’d have to drop tons of tunes and artists from our Spotify playlists, YouTube binges, and streaming sessions.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’m ready to go all the way there. I have no history with XXXTentacion’s music, and even his fans probably aren’t connected to him the way they’re linked to legends through nostalgia. It’s hard for me to listen to James Brown’s “The Payback,” R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” or “Proud Mary,” which was credited to both Tina Turner and her abusive then-husband Ike, without thinking of the men behind the hits, but it might be even harder not to listen to them at all.
It’s music that defined my formative years and my early adult years. Tuning out such vital parts of music history would be like losing a part of my own history.
Ultimately, the decision whether to go on listening or tune out completely is as personal as taste in music. But for those who choose to keep XXXTentacion in heavy rotation in the coming days, hopefully they won’t make him into something he was not.
If we’re going to let his music play, it should remind us that the late rising star was, in the end, not a martyr but a tortured, tormented, and troubled soul.