EDITOR’S NOTE: Even though the home page currently indicates that we switched to bi-weekly updates while working on a new design and layout, I know that many people will be skeptical about a review of XXXTentacion’s “?” coming out one day after he was shot dead in Deerfield Beach, Florida. It is an unfortunate and morbid coincidence that can’t be helped. The opening paragraph is to let you know that had this not occurred XXX would have actually been this week’s featured review, one I already felt was overdue given “?” came out three months ago. I’m not looking to cash in on increased website traffic at his expense though, so I made the executive decision to feature Apollo Brown instead, while still publishing this review as part of our regular bi-weekly rotation. I want to offer our condolences to his older sister, younger brother, all of his family and relatives, and many fans around the world. The full review as originally planned follows.
Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy better known as XXXTentacion (sometimes spelled in “All Caps” like DOOM) is one of the more controversial artists of the current trap x drill x wavy x gangster hip-hop generation. His circumstances might not have led to him being anything else. He has the all too familiar “broken home” story, growing up in the care of his grandmother, being kicked out of one school after another for bad behavior, finally turning to music as a way to deal with depression and get out his dark energy. He surprised a friend he had made in juvenile detention who thought they were going to go on a robbing spree by buying a professional microphone instead, encouraging said friend to pursue a music career as well, and if you know XXX then you know that friend is Ski Mask The Slump God. Like XXX he’s another artist we’re a little bit overdue in reviewing and I plan to get to his work in due course.
Onfroy never seemed to be able to fully give up on his criminal ways though, and despite his rising popularity on the mixtape/download scene he often had to record between bids in the pen. A familiar pattern emerged for XXX of being arrested on new charges while out on bail for his previous charges. Despite or perhaps because of this notoriety though his star continued to rise, leading all the way to his major label debut “17” in 2017, released on his own Bad Vibes Forever imprint with distribution by EMPIRE. Things have changed up a little bit for his sophomore release “?” though as this time Caroline is getting his CD into stores and digital distribution channels. This pattern is likely to repeat itself going forward given he ends up in one bad situation after another and is likely scaring off people who would otherwise be happy to profit off his artistry. The irony of “?” is that despite his scary reputation, songs like “Sad!” reflect a tender emotional side of the troubled young man.
“I gave her everything
She took my heart and left me lonely
I’ve been broken, heart’s contentious
I won’t fix, I’d rather weep
I’m lost then, I’m found, but
It’s torture being in love
I love when you’re around
But I fu—ng hate when you leave”
I think the only way to properly understand XXXTentacion’s popularity is to study the dichotomy between his soft spoken singing and his reputation as a violent, abusive, misogynstic young man. There’s little doubt that his hard knock life gave him little self-control, leaving him to find that any violent impulse he had tended to make him feel better and often solve his problems short term even if they created bigger ones long term. It’s perhaps apt that he named this album “?” because what we hear here is XXX questioning whether or not he can go on following his cruder instincts. “My heart can’t take this damage, and the way I feel I can’t stand it” croons XXX on “Changes,” and while he’s talking about a broken relationship it’s not hard to read it as a metaphor for Onfroy yearning to escape from an endless cycle of abuse and violence.
There’s also an element of punk rock to XXXTentacion’s music, evidenced by both the short length of many tracks (the whole album is only 37 minutes long) and the heavy guitars and screaming of songs like “schizophrenia.” It’s not often that you see a young artist growing on an album right before your eyes, but his willingness to experiment with his sound and style is impressive, leaping across whole genres in a single bound in the process. I could see XXXTentacion doing anything from a heavy metal album to gospel and making it work for him.
Despite this album’s short length XXX manages to squeeze in quite a few guest apperances. Joey Bada$$ gives a sterling cameo on “infinity (888),” Travis Barker lends his drumming to another rock crossover in “Pain = BESTFRIEND,” and the similarly styled PnB Rock duets with XXX on “SMASH!” Production ranges from Onfroy himself to John Cunningham to Robert Soukiasyan, with various combinations of those three met with the occasional guest producer joining in or replacing them entirely — such as on the surprisingly fresh “I Don’t Even Speak Spanish LOL” laced by Z3N.
At this point I really do need to emphasize the “young man” part of this review, because despite his lengthy rap sheet, Onfroy is not even old enough to legally buy a beer at the store yet (though I’m sure any member of his entourage would willingly get him some). Therefore even though Onfroy has had a troubled life up to this point, what I hear on “?” leads me to believe that his potential is unlimited. I also have say that even though he is by definition a rap artist, the fact of the matter is that he’s got more in common with Miley Cyrus than Scarface musically. That’s not meant as an insult to either of those young budding stars. In fact if Onfroy can get some therapy and maybe even some medication (he’s admitted to struggling with depression), something beautiful can emerge from the dank fertile Florida soil in which he grew. Here’s hoping for a bright future.