Let’s start with “Gummo,” because that’s where it started for me, about 130 million YouTube views ago, before I knew anything about the colorful, controversial Brooklyn rapper who calls himself 6ix9ine.
“Gummo” is a boastful, gun-heavy street anthem from the borough that practically invented the form. While the aggressive threats may seem mundane, the song’s cohesive package—the cold open, the uneven structure, the sparseness of the beat, the darkness of the visuals—shows signs of a confident vision. 6ix9ine’s lyrics aren’t particularly clever, but they are slickly delivered and catchy. The sum effect of the track, at under three minutes, is effortlessly sinister.
And then there’s 6ix9ine himself. The 21-year-old rapper is of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage and resembles an anime character adopted by Bloods: half killer, half kawaii. He has the rainbow coif and face tattoos of his new-school contemporaries but none of their torpid, drug-induced languor. The sound is urgent and unapologetic. 6ix9ine’s performative rage recalls Onyx or M.O.P., though his flamboyant style is born of the SoundCloud era.
Released last October, “Gummo” reached as high as no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by the equally menacing singles “Kooda” and “Keke,” both of which also charted. 6ix9ine’s debut mixtape, Day69, which dropped last Friday, is projected to land in the top five on the Billboard album chart next week. He is undeniably an artist on the rise, and improbably, the rapper poised to bring New York back.
6ix9ine is also a pariah, an outrage magnet for our outrage culture. His past includes a guilty plea to a child-related sexual misconduct charge; his present has been marred by violence, real and threatened. He is a shameless troll whose power of attraction is woven in his ability to repel. There are myriad reasons to hate the first new rap star of 2018, but he is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
Nowhere is the “bad men making good art” debate more fraught than in hip-hop, where misbehavior is often celebrated. Rap is, as Jon Caramanica wrote in The New York Times earlier this year, “a genre in which tolerance of complicated histories tends to be high, and in which skepticism about institutions like law enforcement can reframe someone accused of a crime as an anti-authoritarian folk hero.”
For some, 6ix9ine’s transgressions are impossible to reframe. Three years ago, the artist born Daniel Hernandez, then 18, pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance. The charges stem from videos Hernandez circulated on social media in February 2015 in which he appears with an underage girl and a separately charged adult man. In one, Hernandez stands behind the fully nude girl “making a thrusting motion with his pelvis and smacking her on her buttocks,” per the criminal complaint. In the same clip, Hernandez is present as the other man forces the girl to make oral contact with his genitals. In another clip, the other man gropes the girl. Hernandez claimed to police that he believed the girl to be of legal age; she was only 13.
Hernandez accepted a plea deal in October 2015 to avoid jail time; his sentencing has since been adjourned several times because he has yet to obtain the GED required by the agreement. He’s next due in court April 10, when he will either get probation or be sentenced to prison.
News of 6ix9ine’s criminal charges resurfaced—and were circulated by his many enemies—in the aftermath of the viral success of “Gummo” last year. By then, 6ix9ine had already cultivated a reputation as a provocateur, well before he had “69” tattooed all over his face and body. He grew up in Bushwick and dropped out of school in eighth grade when his father was shot and killed. His internet notoriety originated as a Hypebeast meme, was furthered as a profane social media troll, and evolved into a musical persona. 6ix9ine’s early raps, distributed by a Slovakian record label, were collaborations with Zillakami and Trippie Redd, artists with whom he has since fallen out. Those initial experiments helped mold his signature sound and style, culminating in the breakthrough of “Gummo.”
6ix9ine has been taunted with calls of “child rapist” and “pedophiliac,” but they have hardly slowed his career ascent, other than to provide those who subjectively dislike his music an objective reason to steer clear of it. In his essay about XXXTentacion, another controversial young rapper, my colleague Micah Peters concluded that there are an infinite number of artists more deserving of your attention than a man charged with heinous crimes. However, consciously avoiding 6ix9ine isn’t as easy as shuffling to the next SoundCloud page.
Because of his physical appearance, unrefined musical aesthetic, and rapid rise, 6ix9ine has been lumped in with XXXTentacion and the emergent SoundCloud crop. But 6ix9ine’s Brooklyn bona fides remain his dominant gene. In New York, validation arrives in the form of Flex-dropped bombs; being “the king” is a tangible achievement, not just an internet abstraction. 6ix9ine thus occupies the center of the Venn diagram connecting the disparate worlds of SoundCloud and NYC rap—and it’s a space he has all to himself.
“Like many recent young rappers, [6ix9ine]’s been castigated as an augur of the death of ‘real’ hip-hop,” wrote Vulture. I’d disagree; 6ix9ine is an unconventional New York rapper who is abiding by New York rap conventions in a way that demands the attention, if not the respect, of its gatekeepers. (Swizz Beatz and Fat Joe are two of 6ix9ine’s veteran cosigns.) Shock-value artists are content with infamy; 6ix9ine’s goal is ubiquity, which puts him in line with every rapper who grew up where hip-hop lives. So 6ix9ine is more similar to fellow Brooklynite Bobby Shmurda than he is to Lil Pump. And like Shmurda, who’s serving a recently extended prison sentence, things may yet end badly for 6ix9ine.
Even with a spare 27-minute run time, Day69 grows tiresome quickly. Its strength—repetitive brute force—is also its weakness. The best songs— “Billy,” “Gummo,” “Kooda,” and “Keke”—verge on great; the bad are nearly unlistenable. At a certain point, it becomes less like music and more like an angry young man yelling incessantly into your ear. It’s a mixtape that suggests potential but is a work in progress—in other words, a debut.
Whether or not 6ix9ine is fit to be the new savior of NYC rap, or is even worthy of praise at all, is another matter altogether. If he eludes prison, there’s a vision of 6ix9ine’s future in which he leans into the controversial aspects of his past as fodder for his music, a DMX for the SoundCloud generation. There’s another in which he becomes the new Stitches, screaming profanely into oblivion. Either way, 6ix9ine will never escape his past; it’s endemic to his story.
He is both promising and problematic, an increasingly common paradox that only intensifies his relevance, in rap and in the culture at large. In the Times, Caramanica wrote that “knowing the details of [rappers’] alleged criminal behavior makes listening a charged act.” 6ix9ine’s music is so urgent that it already feels charged, despite the context. Try as we might, it won’t be so easy to scrub “Gummo” from memory.