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I pressed play, hoping what I was about to hear would be complete shit. But, as I moved from song to song on XXXTentacion's now Billboard chart-topping album ?, I slowly came to the realization that these songs were actually…good. Really good, in some instances.
Under different circumstances, I might be happy for XXXTentacion. He’s a young man of color who’s made his way through self-described depression and suicidal thoughts by creating unconventional art that is reaching an engaged, mainstream audience.
But, as you know, this is XXXTentacion, and he’s not someone I can root for. Shortly after “Look At Me!”—his destructive breakthrough single—was released, shit hit the fan. Shocking allegations of an assault of a pregnant ex-girlfriend emerged. By September 2017, the more sordid, disturbing details were public. The offense became crystal clear, and forced (some, not all) listeners to pick a side: are you for this alleged abuser, or against him?
As a woman, I was horrified at the thought of him reportedly doing something so heinous. As a fan, I was still conflicted.
Two years ago, I stumbled across “Look At Me!” and spiraled down a rabbithole, eager to hear more. What I found was a thought-provoking teenager who was using his voice in a way that many rappers weren’t. I found songs that were gentle yet punk, and harsh yet hip-hop. In the midst of my own crippling anxiety and depression, it made me feel alive. The actual content of the music—the beats combined with the screaming—was like a salve over my emotional state. I felt like I understood him. I was all in.
When the preliminary reports lined themselves up in front of me, I couldn’t quite bring myself to pivot from X. With my bucket of hopes and dreams for him in tow, I vacillated back and forth across the line that was drawn in the sand early on. But when the specifics came out six months ago, I couldn’t pretend to not care about the legitimate crimes he was accused of committing. I had to cut him off.
I should have written this months ago. This conversation has been kicked around by music fans and writers many times over since XXXTentacion first emerged on SoundCloud and, later, the charts. But I thought the allegations and criticisms would overcome the hype.
Instead, something else happened: the music got better. After a few listens of ?, the hollow, forgettable songs that appeared on his debut studio album, 17, fade to black. While many have been focused on ignoring his efforts, X has been steadily improving and, simply going by the numbers, collecting new supporters. He’s still moving along the same trajectory that his fans, past and present, had always seen him traveling along. In less time than your average artist’s album cycle would take to wind itself down, X has let the conversation about his polarizing existence die, and reignite. If you’re invested in having the difficult conversations that come with listening to an artist like him, round two of this cultural fight is just beginning.
Not only did X debut at No. 1 of the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, he’s broken into the coveted top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 with ?’s lead single, “Sad!” Like many of the tracks on ?, it’s an evocative song, and a prime example of the rapper’s sharpened songwriting skills. The production sounds like a contemporary pop song that’s been quickly run through the machine that delivered mainstream punk hits in the 2000s. It’s just formulaic enough to fit the top 10, and never teeters into boring territory by keeping its runtime to a brief 2:46. On musical terms alone, it’s deserving of its slot on the charts. But when you listen to the lyrics of “Sad!,” things get uncomfortable.
Who am I? Someone that's afraid to let go
You decide if you're ever gonna let me know (yeah)
Suicide if you ever try to let go
I’m sad, I know (yeah); I’m sad, I know (yeah)
The chorus—threatening suicide if your partner leaves you—is ripped directly from an abuser’s playbook, set to poppy synths. If nothing else, XXXTentacion is straightforward about who he is, even at his most palatable. (In the process of writing and editing this story, footage of X allegedly assaulting yet another woman surfaced.)
Aside from a still-unfulfilled promise to donate to domestic violence shelters, the 20-year-old is unapologetic about the details that have come to light, claiming that his name will be cleared despite the evidence to the contrary. X prizes authenticity, but his truth is crippling to listeners with a conscience. It’s a sickening feeling to have to pick oneself apart in order to enjoy music without feeling guilty: Do I go with my gut and allow myself to revel in what moves me? Or do I let my brain take heed of the myriad reasons why supporting X is flat-out wrong?
What’s happening now, and has happened with other outrageous abuse cases in rap, is a process of normalization. We’re beginning to accept the music, in part because it is good—it was easier to ignore X when the music was still bad—and in part because the longer this argument goes on, the less passionately it runs to everyone except his fans. Furthermore, when artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and The Weeknd look at a flawed artist like X and see the future, it complicates the lines we’ve drawn. They get smeared, and perspectives are reassessed. But let’s be clear: the arguments against him are the same as they’ve always been. The only thing that’s changed is a new batch of songs.
At this rate, X will become a star in no time. We’ll be looking at him at the top of the charts, wondering how he got there. Oh wait—there he is now. And he’s not going anywhere.