Cleopatra Bernard, the mother of late rapper XXXTentacion, is perched on a barstool in the parlor of a penthouse in Midtown Manhattan. It’s two and a half months before the release of her son’s second posthumous album, Bad Vibes Forever, and she is on the phone, talking about minor tweaks that need to be made to one of the songs.
Bad Vibes Forever, the follow-up to 2018’s posthumous album, Skins, will arrive a year and a half after Jahseh Onfroy’s June 2018 death, and the core team behind it—manager Solomon Sobande, producer John Cunningham, EMPIRE founder Ghazi Shami, and Bernard (who serves as executive producer)—have been tasked with finishing the project and preparing it for release.
As Bernard wraps up her call and discusses other small changes to the album, it becomes clear just how long the road to Bad Vibes Forever has been. “There are some songs that he had made himself in 2017, and there are some songs that were from 2018,” Cunningham points out. “As far as putting together the album and coalescing which songs became part of Bad Vibes Forever, it’s been about a year-long process. But creatively, this is something he had been talking about for a couple of years, all the way back to even 2016.”
The project, which will arrive on December 6, was first announced by X as the title of a mixtape in 2016. He had initially planned to drop it that year, but instead released his debut album, 17, in August 2017. The following fall, he circled back to BVF, announcing it as a full-length album. One month later, he leaked the titles of three albums on Instagram Stories: Skins, Bad Vibes Forever, and ?. While BVF appeared second in the chronological list, the order was later flipped in a strategic decision Cunningham says was made because X “wanted to save them for a certain point in his career.”
“I think he saw how fast his image was growing and how the world was just catching up to him,” Cunningham explains. “The perception that these are leftover songs is in fact kind of the opposite [from reality]. With a lot of these songs, he felt like the world wasn’t ready to hear them, because he was turning the corner, and he was finally breaking in terms of a global sensation. These songs could have easily been on projects in the past, but he was the one to say, ‘No, let’s save them.’”
X recorded a majority of the album in the Sunset Marquis and his Florida home studio while he was on house arrest in relation to his 2017 trial for aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. Much of the music was written in the midst of heavy backlash due to reports of detailed allegations of domestic violence. The creation of Bad Vibes Forever was cut short when X was fatally shot while shopping for motorcycles in Deerfield Beach, Florida, but he left behind notebooks and voice notes outlining the direction for the album.
“I'd say it ranges from some [songs] that were 100 percent done and some that were maybe half-done,” Cunningham says. “Using the word ‘found,’ like we found these songs, is kind of a misnomer, I think. All of these songs were from him, and we were aware of them, and we had been making them throughout the process of ? and Skins and all this stuff. There were a lot of other songs being made. A lot are ending up on this album, so I feel like it was more about a collecting process.”
Despite having guidance, thanks to X’s notes, Sobande says the team ran into some roadblocks when securing features. “There was some challenges getting features, not necessarily because the artist didn’t want to do the features, but just because of the conditions of certain artists,” Sobande explains. “For example, Vybz Kartel was a fan of X, and he was locked up [serving a life sentence for murder], so it took a lot of coordinating and trips to Jamaica to make that feature happen.”
“I'd say it ranges from some [songs] that were 100 percent done and some that were maybe half-done. Using the word ‘found,’ like we found these songs, is kind of a misnomer, I think. All of these songs were from him.” - John Cunningham
Aside from tracking down artists, the team says it didn’t take much convincing to get big names on the project. Shami says an impromptu FaceTime call to Joyner Lucas led to his appearance on “NorthStar (Remix).” Other featured guests on the album, including Blink-182 and Rick Ross, agreed to lay down verses out of respect for X.
“[All of the features] happened organically,” Cunningham says. “I think people that wanted to work with him in the past may not have worked with him because they may have been afraid or hesitant for the sake of their own careers. Once he wasn’t around and people started to understand what he was trying to do—and that he was maturing and changing as a person—a lot of people wanted to lend their support and help his legacy grow.”
There were other minor challenges with mixing the album and “getting the audio where he needed it to be,” Sobande adds, but the emotional aspect of working on posthumous music was more difficult. Some records were painful to play back. Solomon recalls specific conversations he shared with X about different tracks. “Everything triggers something,” he admits.
For Bernard, hearing her late son’s voice struck a chord. “I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness while making this album,” she confesses. “Although there was a driving force of determination to get everything finished the way Jahseh envisioned, the particularly challenging part was hearing his voice notes and hearing about his plans for the future.”
Despite her obvious grief, Bernard appeared upbeat while playing the album. From the moment she entered the Manhattan penthouse, where she played back an almost-finished version of Bad Vibes Forever in late September, she gave out hugs and happily made small talk about a recent drive from Florida to New York City. Shami says Bernard’s energy and ability to work through sorrow was a driving force for the creative process of the album.
“She made a quantum leap as a person, and her contribution to the album is tremendous,” he says. “Anybody else might have just curled up on the couch and stayed there. She went out and grabbed the bull by its horns and said, ‘I’m going to make sure that my son’s legacy is right. I’m going to make sure I get these records out.’ I’m truly impressed by what she’s contributed and what she’s done in the last 18 months.”
The experience wasn’t all somber, though. “Finishing some of these songs and putting it all together was first and foremost some kind of coping mechanism,” Cunningham reveals. “The thought of the person comes into your head and you start to go down this dark mental spiral, but we were able to remember things like, he talked about putting drums on this one song, so let me go do that. In that process, it’s kind of a duality. I’m still overcome with emotions for those reasons.”
The team’s main priority in completing the album was to finish the work that X had started. “This album lives amongst his best bodies of work. It shows the world that, although he unfortunately lost his life early, he wasn’t done yet,” Sobande says. “He wasn’t finished growing. He said plenty of times that he wanted to be the artist that literally conquers all genres. This album was him diving more into that. It shows that his music continues to touch people, and continues to help people going through whatever pain that they're dealing with.”
“I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness while making this album [...] The particularly challenging part was hearing his voice notes and hearing about his plans for the future.” - XXXTentacion's mother, Cleopatra Bernard
Bad Vibes Forever crosses multiple genres. Leading with sensitive acoustic ballads, it then rolls into uptempo tracks that are full of angst, and concludes with more introspective records. It amplifies X’s knack for experimentation, jumping from rap to heavy metal to alternative, and all genres in between. His team says the tracklist was constructed in a way to naturally guide listeners through all the different styles he was exploring over the last couple years.
Cunningham serves as co-executive producer on the album, followed by Ronnie J, who produced “Eat It Up” and “North Star (Remix).” X also earned his very first production credit on “Chase.” X and Cunningham had set up a Google calendar with three-hour windows for production lessons while they were living together, but never got a chance to finish. “I’d show him how to do this or how to do that, and then he would take the ball and run with it,” Cunningham says. “I’d be sitting there in awe, in terms of how quickly he was learning and the types of sounds he was making.”
One song on Bad Vibes Forever that will likely make headlines, on title alone, is “School Shooter,” which features Lil Wayne. The record was made in response to the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and faculty members. X recorded the song around the same time as “Hope,” in early 2018, and intended to release it shortly after the massacre, but ended up holding on to it as scrutiny continued to intensify over his allegations of abuse. His team says “Hope” was a more fitting song to release at that time.
Lil Wayne, whom Sobande describes as a “tremendous supporter of Jah,” adds a chilling effect to the track. “Wayne was an icon to a lot of young artists, Jahseh included,” Sobande says. “So he made a lot of sense to put on that record, especially because of him being a parent who understood how important the topic was.”
When Bad Vibes Forever arrives, it will likely be met with close scrutiny from critics and high expectations from X’s core fanbase. His previous posthumous album, Skins, topped the Billboard 200 chart in its first week, but received mixed reviews from critics, while some fans questioned whether the project lived up to X’s previous albums. Despite a handful of harsh reviews, Cunninham insists the nature of each project was intentional: Skins was always meant to be a shorter project—a teaser, of sorts—whereas Bad Vibes is intended to be a more well-rounded body of work. It’s like the differences between a mixtape and an album.
“He had plans to put out one short album and one very long complex, diverse, masterpiece album,” Cunningham says. “Not to say that Skins wasn't that, but we found his direction, in terms of putting together a short stream-of-consciousness project, which Skins kind of served as. And then this album, Bad Vibes Forever, will fulfill that goal that he had in his mind of this vastly diverse [project].”
There has been outside pressure from X’s intensely passionate group of fans, but his inner circle says they focused instead on the rapper’s wishes. Bad Vibes Forever, Bernard confirms, “is Jahseh’s last full studio album.” And although she says, “We love the fans, and they are the driving force behind all of his success,” Bernard points out, “This album was designed based upon the blueprint that Jahseh left for [them].” Speaking about expectations from fans, Shami says, “It’s really all about Jah, and not really about them.”
Still, this album will impact the rapper’s young followers who had connected with him on an emotional level. “He wanted to give guidance and hope for lost kids that felt like they didn’t have a way, or felt misunderstood,” Sobande says. “He wanted kids to know that they’re not alone, and there’s some music to help them cope.”
Cunningham is aligned with online conversations that have drawn comparisons between X and 2Pac. “In terms of cultural impact, I’m from Oakland, and I remember growing up, everyone was aware of how important [2Pac] was, and what he preached and the kind of positivity that he was all about,” he says. “So I think the comparison, at least in my opinion, is accurate there.”
“But musically, I think it does not do Jahseh justice to compare him to 2Pac,” Cunningham adds. “I think he’s a far more versatile artist. I think the type of world that he was living in, and the type of things that he wanted to do and wanted to accomplish musically, really put him in his own league. I’ve had trouble comparing him to anybody in the past, save for a band like The Beatles, maybe. And I know a lot of people I mention that to kind of look at me sideways, but truthfully—whether it’s 2Pac or Biggie, anybody like that—he never really considered himself a pure hip-hop artist or rapper. I don’t think I could do the same because he was so much more than that.”
To others, XXXTentacion’s talent is still overshadowed by allegations of abuse. His domestic violence case was dropped following his death, but some find it difficult to shake the court documents that point to a destructive past. It’s a part of X’s legacy that his inner circle is very aware of. And his team made a concerted effort to include Geneva Ayala, the woman who accused X of domestic abuse, in the album rollout. Ayala starred in the music video for “Heart Eater” in October.
As they move closer to the release date of Bad Vibes Forever, though, X’s team is focusing on what they can control: the music he left behind. “This album will make you laugh, cry, and go through a rollercoaster of emotions,” Bernard says.
“I just want people to know that this just him,” Sobande adds. “This is just what he wanted. This is his music and his thoughts. This is him, in the truest sense of the word.”