Jahseh Onfroy, a.k.a. XXXTentacion, was named “The Most Controversial Man in Rap” by SPIN and received the 2017 XXL Freshman Class honor as “the most controversial XXL Freshman of all time.” Arrested back in 2016 on robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and aggravated battery of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, the nineteen-year-old Florida rapper was released from jail this past March, wherein he used his post-prison interview to call out Drake for allegedly stealing his flow from his breakout single “Look At Me!” on the More Life track “KMT.”
Crafting the image of someone who raided all of the clothes at the local Hot Topic, the scary teen rapper has gathered a cult following over the years like he’s some son of Satan. Most notably known for his lyrics, his XXL freestyle displayed the type of horror and dread that his angsty fans have come to love: “I’ma sell my soul and say some shit that fuckin’ bothers you.” Despite his criminal reputation and downright morbid lyrical material however, he rapped a cappella in his XXL cypher, bent down on one knee, like some self-important satanic messiah.
Nonetheless, what was advertised about XXXTentacion was not the full picture. His debut album, 17, is a depart from the aggression and hate that we had been used to hearing. It was a sound most commonly referred to as “SoundCloud rap,” a purposefully poorly mixed, raw sub-genre that grew on the online streaming platform. It’s an angsty style meant for teenagers to blast out of the sub-woofers they’ve illegally installed into the backs of their cars. To detail the intent further, Pitchfork‘s Meaghan Carvey pointed out that the first user comment on XXXTentacion’s breakout single “Look At Me!” is “MY EARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
On 17 however, XXXTentacion takes a more mellowed approach, often rapping over stoner samples like on “Jocelyn Flores,” singing and playing guitar on “Depression & Obsession,” or just wailing on “Save Me.” Regardless of what you may think of XXXTentacion as a human being, he makes a point to declare this specific record apart from all the controversy—simply containing “his pain and thoughts put into words,” crafted “in the hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression,” as he says on the intro, “The Explanation.”
What follows is a project more emo than aggressive, full of dark and overly emotional material that deals with suicide and depression. It’s not necessarily a “rap album” by any means, but it fits the M.O. of “SoundCloud rap,” as we hear the gain-clip of every vocal plosive against the microphone and every bedroom-recording blip of one-take unfiltered vocals and guitar. It’s an interesting record that teeters on the line between overly-dramatic or introspective, heavily affected by XXXTentacion’s controversial past, celebrity persona, and previous musical releases.
It’s a conundrum that I face with a lot of artists today, wherein I refuse to condone or accept their behavior outside of the music (or with some even lyrically), but still enjoy listening to their music. I can’t deny or forget that XXXTentacion was arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated battery of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and I can’t speak highly of his behavior as of late either, but I can admit that I do really enjoy a good amount of this record.
17 might have its cringe-worthy moments, such as on “Save Me” or “Fuck Love,” but overall it’s truly a surprising and generally enjoyable project. Even Kendrick Lamar promoted the record, tweeting “listen to this album if you feel anything. raw thoughts.” XXXTentacion, purely in conversation with his music, currently represents a different side to rap’s emerging punk angst over the past two years—a darker, cathartic niche that solidifies a potential, highly influential experiment for rap’s youngest generation.
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.