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How Should We Listen to XXXTentacion?

The rapper, who faces multiple charges of domestic violence, saw his recent project, ‘?,’ debut at no. 1. The record is ambitious and riveting, but does that matter?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

While listening to ?, XXXTentacion’s latest invitation to the inner workings of his mind, I thought about the third episode of the NBC sitcom The Good Place. In the episode, Eleanor recalls a fight she had with her ex-boyfriend over a coffee shop owner who was caught on camera sexually assaulting a job candidate. Her ex, in the flashback, contends that they shouldn’t buy coffee there anymore as a moral imperative, but Eleanor insists that it’s around the corner and that her ex is not better than her just because he avoids the predatory man’s shop. “Shouldn’t we just try to do the right thing whenever we can?” her ex asks.

The scene is a neat depiction of the challenges to ethical consumption: the compromises people make; the things they choose to ignore; the ways in which they let themselves off the hook because of convenience, limited buying power, or because the thing in question is “good.” But in a piece of art, like music, what does “good” mean, exactly?

Does it mean “good” speaking strictly critically, in tweet length? “XXXTentacion’s latest is frustratingly well made, but it features no attempts to sketch out pangs of conscience” is what I would say, not that anyone would expect emotional maturity from hip-hop’s most controversial figure. What about the more capitalistic reading of “good,” meaning commercially successful: ? sold more than 130,000 total copies within the first week of its release and debuted at no. 1. But that version of “good” hides the moral problem that XXXTentacion’s commercial success creates. Kodak Black was facing criminal sexual conduct charges when 2017’s Painting Pictures debuted at no. 3; 6ix9ine also debuted at no. 3 with Day69 earlier this month after pleading guilty to three counts of use of a child in a sexual performance. ? was released while X, born Jahseh Onfroy, was under house arrest, awaiting trial on over a dozen felony counts, including domestic battery and witness tampering. He did pledge $100,000 to domestic violence programs in October, although that was after reportedly signing a $6 million record deal. Just Tuesday morning, footage of him hitting a woman surfaced.

Approaching XXXTentacion’s album, then, is an awkward proposition. I’ll start with the title, which, I’m assuming, is an honest attempt at classification. One thing you’ll quickly notice about ? is that you can’t really call it a rap album. Another is that, when writing a love song, XXXTentacion doesn’t beg or plead so much as offer ultimatums. “SAD!” was one of only two advance offerings of the album, and as a person who has suggested there might be other, less complicated stuff out there to listen to, I find the single more seductive than I’d like it to be.

What I was seduced by: sour guitar screeches, swallowed up by a bass line that throbs like an irregular heartbeat. It’s reminiscent of late-aughts commercial punk, when Lil Wayne was popping up on Fall Out Boy songs and wielding a bass he couldn’t actually play. This is my coffee shop around the corner. Why the attractiveness of “SAD!” is so complicated: the content of the lyrics, combined with the artist’s alleged history of sexual violence and clumsy, unyielding impenitence about said allegations. All of which serve to make X’s bruised singing monumentally unsettling:

Who am I? Someone that’s afraid to let go, uh
You decide if you’re ever gonna let me know (yeah)
Suicide if you ever try to let go, uh
I’m sad, I know, yeah, I’m sad, I know, yeah

Threatening to end one’s own life if a partner leaves is abuser logic, but then again so was Hawthorne Heights’ “Ohio Is for Lovers,” in a way. “SAD!” is one of the better approximations of emo hardcore by one of an emergent class of SoundCloud rappers who have desperately wanted to make their own version of it, in sound and construction. The Girl in this story makes the Boy feel love or hatred and virtually nothing else in between. The song also arrives four songs into ?, and I’ll level with you, this is exactly where I realized I’m at a loss for what else I can responsibly say about the album. Should I link to the timeline of accusations against him? To the harrowing testimony? Would it have been better to avoid the album altogether?

New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica wrote last week that the likes of XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine are benefitting from the negative feedback loop created by hip-hop’s outsider mythology and a scant critical record. The tree is still falling in the forest, essentially: they become more popular, their sound becomes more familiar, and they continue to stand out among a group of peers making aesthetically adjacent music, creating “circumstances for these artists to not only thrive themselves, but to become the ones influencing the shape of the genre for years to come.” This means that the future of hip-hop comes, on some level, down to personal choice. And to help order your thinking about that choice, you might ask me to tell you whether or not ?, in my estimation, is “good.” Am I supposed to assume the Disembodied Voice From the Mountaintop of Critical and Moral Objectivity, savaging the very idea of ? because of who made it?

It’s tough to say whether I—or any other critic—have earned that. I took an Uber this past weekend; I own several pairs of Nikes; I wrote part of this piece on an iPhone; I, like T-Pain, think Kodak Black’s “Roll in Peace” goes, although I, unlike T-Pain, am dubious about whether Kodak should be “set free.” Would you like to know about the duration? At 18 tracks the run time is a digestible 38 minutes, and that’s counting the two-minute user’s manual at the very top of the project, “Introduction (instructions).” Like “The Explanation” on 17, his 2017 debut, X offers a foreword, directing you to “open your mind” so that you can assemble all of his disparate ideas into something approaching a full picture. Accept his invitation. That’s his ask of you, the listener.

As for the consummate feel of the album, it wears an aesthetic that’s alternately intimidating, humorously indecent, and wounded. It’s teenaged, in other words. ? is also varied in its approach: “NUMB” is classic crying-at-the-food-court emo; “infinity (888)” is precise boom-bap that shows promising chemistry between X and Joey Badass; “Hope” is a tribute to survivors of the Parkland shooting fashioned into springy post-trap. “Feelin’ good, I’m feelin’ great / Tired of the fuckin’ hate, stackin’ cheese all on my plate,” he warbles over bright, bouncy production.

As a critic, I can say that the risks taken on XXXTentacion’s sophomore effort are often successful, each genre X tries on fits him startlingly well, and that 17 and ?, taken together, demonstrate not only musical talent, but progress. As a person who is tired, I’m not so sure any of that matters. Shouldn’t I also just try to do the right thing whenever I can?