You may have noticed in your internet travels last week that a rapper named XXXTentacion was released from jail. You may have read that immediately after his release last Wednesday, he went on Miami’s 103.5 to discuss three upcoming projects: 17, I Need Jesus (I kid you not), and Members Only Vol. 3. And also to call Drake a bitch:
Another thing that XXXTentacion would theoretically do for Drake: get Drake’s name tattooed on his ass cheek. But only if Drake could out-rap him, he said Tuesday.
For context, because some is desperately needed: Several weeks before Drake’s More Life “playlist” was released, something familiar happened: The Boy previewed a new song that sounded awfully close in craft and delivery to another rapper’s, once again spurring (fair, possibly accurate) accusations of biting and wave-riding. It seemed Aubrey Drake Graham, with great malice aforethought, had once again siphoned the talents of a less-well-known but burgeoning rapper and cosplayed with their signature sound like Rap Game Kirby. The song in question was “KMT,” on which he rushes out free-association bars in single gasps, with a familiarly nasal and high-pitched tone.
If “KMT” was the heist, then the mark is a smallish, twitchy 19-year-old from South Florida’s Broward County, a SoundCloud rapper named XXXTentacion (pronounced X X X tent-ah-see-ohn). Born Jahseh Onfroy, he has a handful of tiny, hastily considered face tattoos — the words “BAD VIBES” are written across his eyelids, a broken heart is scrawled under his left eye, “numb” is in cursive beneath the other — and another, larger one of an elephant on his neck. You may recognize these (along with a few others), his sallow skin, and tufts of fuzzy twists atop his head — half bleached, half not — from his mugshot.
That mugshot also now serves as cover art for his biggest hit, “Look at Me!,” released on SoundCloud in 2015. It is, even for a given measure of trash, trash. There’s a boom-in-the-shot quality to the song that’s punkish and even refreshing if you choose to read that much into it, but the levels are all over the place, the mix is as if the song were recorded in a rusted oil barrel, and the second line — the very second one — is “can’t keep my dick in my pants.” Oddly enough, it’s also … exciting? (Still, that revelation occurred to me after a lot of listens.) And, though Drake denied grafting his flow during a recent DJ Semtex interview, you don’t need to squint too hard to see the resemblance.
There’s a breaking point in SoundCloud surfing — or, rather, a buying-in point — where you loosen your grip on pretense and begin to consider the music on its own terms, appraising it within its own scarcely existent rules. It’s like a viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief while watching a film. And I’ve found that it’s only within this vacuum that XXXTentacion’s music can work.
Skipping refinement in favor of purposefully ramping up distortion does bottle the raw, knock-down-drag-out energy of a mosh pit at a live show, and it makes you question, if briefly, whether rap is even listenable at low volumes. With self-described eclectic taste, XXXTentacion does display a proclivity for different styles, though most of them are the ones we usually talk about with regard to your angsty neighborhood AutoPlay SoundCloud rapper: futuristic (is it just “present” now?) bedroom R&B, slurry pop-leaning trap, soul-bearing emo rap that is equally slurry, the like.
The sampling choices he makes further point to some sort of dexterity, and they are different enough to be interesting. “Look at Me!” rips and pitches down a vocal sample from a Mala record made in 2007. He told Genius that his dream collaborations are with the Fray, Kings of Leon, and Lorde. A fireside chat on his SoundCloud page is set to “Head Above the Water” by Palace, a British alt-rock-blues band that I’d never heard of, and now might kind of love.
He’s also somewhat like early-2010s Odd Future in that some of the things he says seem spat out purely for shock value, or because they just feel good to say aloud. Each problematic line is delivered with a wink or annotated with a wry laugh, wading in just far enough to be able to back out quickly if need be. It might be fairly easy to hold XXXTentacion up at arm’s length and determine that youthful irreverence must be what’s happening here, but that doesn’t really hold up to any amount of scrutiny.
Tyler the Creator is a bit of a dickhead, too, sure, but unlike the rapper known colloquially as X, the most legal trouble that Tyler’s ever landed in was a 2014 SXSW arrest for “inciting a riot.” X, however, saw his popularity skyrocket while doing a nearly six-month stretch in Broward County Jail after pleading no contest on gravely serious charges: home invasion robbery and aggravated battery with a firearm. He’s now serving six years of probation on a withheld conviction, but he’s due in court again on May 1 for, among other alarming things, domestic battery by strangulation and aggravated battery of a pregnant (PREGNANT) woman, his then-girlfriend, to which he pleaded not guilty.
An honest conversation about XXXTentacion can’t be had without broaching the topic of whether art and artist should be considered separately. This inevitably leads to a different and murkier exploration of whether all crimes should be weighted the same in that consideration. While I, and hopefully most people, would find strangling a pregnant woman to be appreciably more heinous than normal aggravated assault against, say, not a pregnant woman, X has cultivated a massive online following that seems to disagree. There’s a good chance they might even deny he’s done anything wrong. The core of this following tends to find his mounting list of charged transgressions either totally fabricated to impede his success or incidental to the enjoyment of his music. You’re either all in or you’re all out.
In an April 2016 episode of the No Jumper podcast (Adam22, the host, is XXXTentacion’s sometime-manager), X shared his reading of what fandom means. It sounds a lot like blind, credulous fealty, which, now that I think about it, isn’t as far from the truth of hero worship as I’d like it to be.
“If you’re gonna be a fan, that’s different than being someone that supports me. If you’re a fan that means you abide by everything that I believe in, and that you support what I do to the fullest extent. … I have a cult fan base; I don’t have a weak ass fan base.”
Later in this interview, X excitedly fumbles through a graphic story of beating a fellow inmate to a pulp for his (possibly charged) staring, and smearing the blood from the carnage on his own face. It’s told in oddly specific detail, but only so that you, the listener, can appreciate that he’s past that point in his life. (While recounting this story, he’s the only one in the room not wearing a shirt, which, I don’t know — it seems like an important detail.)
X went back to jail after this. And in the midst of his ongoing struggle with recidivism, calls for the powers that be to “#FREEX” galloped around the internet, making their way from word of mouth to display names to Instagram captions. This is standard fare for music fandom, as any one of the three different pieces of “Free Gucci” merch I own — or Louisville QB Lamar Jackson shouting out “Free Kodak” after atomizing FSU on national television last year — would tell you. These calls are rooted partly in valid fear of artists and their music being lost to us, as well as in outrage over mass incarceration rates heaped disproportionately on young black and brown men. But because Gucci’s rap sheet is impossibly long, and because the warrant for Kodak Black’s arrest looks especially reprehensible, these calls should also, at least partially, be made in jest.
Fans trying to wrest their respective stars from the foul clutches of judicial accountability obviously isn’t a new thing. Before X, Kodak, or Gucci it was R. Kelly. Before R. Kelly, as Marc Hogan at Pitchfork points out, it was 2Pac. Before Pac, it was Dr. Dre. And this bargaining isn’t exclusive to black artists — when David Bowie died, talking about Lori Maddox was necessary, though it felt inconvenient. This pattern also isn’t exclusive to music; see Nate Parker, Casey Affleck, Mel Gibson, Terry “get nekkid” Richardson, and on and on.
Some of these cases still exist only as allegations or were settled somewhere away from public view. But — and I’m not telling you how to think here, I’m just asking a question — how much does it cost you to entertain the possibility that your fave might’ve, you know, actually done the thing?
Let us consider, for a moment, that ya mans is guilty as hell. Whether or not you continue to listen to his music becomes a question of whether you can compartmentalize, unless you take no issue with gender violence. Alternatively, the rolling landscape of SoundCloud is vast and full of subgenres, and you conceivably could find something else, maybe even just as good or better — from an artist who at least faces fewer criminal allegations. As a matter of fact, there are at least three other major music streaming services, and a few other less major ones, each with an approaching-infinite number of digital crates to thumb through. And in those digital crates, there are — and again, I’m just spitballing here — albums and songs by artists who may serve better as a cause célèbre.
With such an impossible amount of good music being made out there, it’s especially weird to not only listen to XXXTentacion, but also to campaign for his freedom. Innocent black men get knocked over bogus charges all the time, but to quote Huey Freeman from The Boondocks, “every famous nigga that gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela.”