The rise of XXXTenticion and how he differs from most rappers

Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, better known by his stage name XXXTentacion, is an American rapper from Lauderhill, Florida. He is best known for his breakthrough song “Look at Me”. The 19-year-old stands apart from other SoundCloud rappers. Despite the controversy in year’s XXL Freshman cypher: while Playboi Carti, Ugly God, and Madeintyo bounce around and hype one another with ad-libs, XXXTentacion stands motionless in the background, head hanging low. Then Sonny Digital cuts the beat, and X crouches to the floor, expressionless, rapping in a monotone voice: “And if the world ever has an apocalypse, I will kill all of you…” There is a sense of unease when Digital brings the beat back; no one is sure how to follow it.

It’s a popular thing these days for rappers to insist that their work transcends genre, though by now it’s a bit of a cliché. But a deeper dive into X’s three-year catalog turns up sufficient proof that it is more than just lip service when he lists his inspirations as Nirvana, Papa Roach, and the Fray. Scattered throughout his SoundCloud are surprisingly compelling experiments in grunge, nu-metal, and post-Weeknd R&B. In fact, “Look At Me!” might be one of the most emotionally shallow tracks he has, making it an insufficient distillation of his artistry. If anything, the song’s most revealing element is its title’s imperative exclamation point: “Look At Me!” is not a request, but a demand.

It turns out people are looking, though perhaps not for the reasons X had hoped. As “Look At Me!” crept up the Hot 100 earlier this year, X sat in a Broward County jail, serving time for violating a house arrest agreement from 2015 charges of home invasion and battery with a firearm. But more recent, and far more harrowing, charges have made X notorious, raising the valid question of whether ethical consumption of his music is possible. Miami County court records reveal charges that include aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. That woman is alleged to be his ex-girlfriend; a photo of her swollen, bruised eyes has been circulated across social media. Google Trends data shows a grim correlation between the alleged October 2016 incident and X’s sudden spike in visibility. Since then, there has been almost no middle ground in the response to the rapper’s popularity. Many of his fans seem eager to comply by trolling his critics (and, horrifyingly, his ex herself) with frenzied claims of “innocent until proven guilty” and familiar misinterpretations of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, just as many listeners have chosen to opt out entirely, and understandably so; it is soul-crushing enough to exist in 2017 without the obligation to engage with music made by even alleged abusers.

In fact, it would be a stretch to call 17 a rap album at all; instead, it is a collection of shell-shocked bedroom R&B and hopeless, rock-bottom grunge that deals exclusively with depression, heartbreak, and suicide. “Jocelyn Flores,” a half-sung, half-rapped dedication to a friend who ended her life in a hotel room earlier this year, presents pain as one’s final connection to something that’s no longer there. “Dead Inside (Interlude)” is just a piano and X’s racing thoughts, reminding me quite a bit of the 2000 version of Cat Power’s “In This Hole.” “Voices in my head/Telling me I’m gonna end up dead,” he chants along with the funereal plod of “Save Me,” a blatant cry for help that sits somewhere between Stained and unplugged Chris Cornell. Of its 11 songs, only half make it past the two-minute mark. But if the songs on 17 often feel like unfinished thoughts, well, that’s what existing inside the black hole of depression and PTSD feels like. And for those who have suffered from mental health issues, it’s hard not to relate, on some primordial level, to the visceral despair here. There is no respite, no light at the end of the tunnel, just darkness.

Picture taken by @theinfamousjc

By Kelsey duncan

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