For the past week I’ve listened to XXXTentacion‘s chart-topping album ? through Spotify’s Private Session. The option, which prevents others from seeing a user’s musical choices, isn’t something I cared to use until XXX’s sophomore album. By now, I was no longer a fan of the 20-year-old Florida rapper. But I was curious about ?, and how an album made by one of the most polarizing artists in contemporary rap was number one in the country.
But I also feared being perceived as endorsing or supporting XXX, an alleged abuser. The paranoia of being called out was why I listened to ? on private in the first place. I was unprepared, though, for how this listening experience would simultaneously intensify my guilt and enjoyment of the album, resulting in a necessary moment of internal reflection.
I’ve had a tempestuous relationship with XXX’s music since I first heard “Look At Me.” Aware of the charges against him, I still listened to the track on SoundCloud out of curiosity. I enjoyed what I heard. The aggression, chaos, disregard: “Look At Me” was reminiscent of the grindcore — a sub genre combining hardcore punk and thrash metal — music scene I was a part of as a teenager. The moshing, punching, pushing, screaming, stomping — the camaraderie of angsty, destructive brotherhood. “Look At Me” evoked those times.
So did his other songs: “Snow,” “WingRiddenAngel,” and “I Don’t Wanna Do This Anymore.” Where “Look At Me” was reminiscent of teen anger, the others were reminders of other adolescent problems — confusion, depression, isolation. The music was consoling. Good. But in my enjoyment came internal conflict. I wasn’t a teen of emotional extremes anymore but an adult striving for emotional balance and maturity. I could relate to what XXX was conveying, but I couldn’t condone him as the person I’m trying to be now.
Listening to XXX’s ? on private session only intensified this conflict between my teen and adult self. I felt like a kid again, aware that I was doing something bad but still doing it anyways. However, the idea of engaging in something bad wasn’t what I found fascinating about listening to this album that way. Instead, I found the isolation comforting, reminiscent of my younger self listening to music from a CD player with the headphones on full volume in my bedroom.
But that barrier of secrecy only did so much for me. I was still unable to detach XXX the artist and Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy the person, because they’re so intertwined.
It’s difficult to listen to lyrics like “I dug my nails into my arms / She turned and laughed at all my scars” (“Alone, Part 3) or “You decide if you’re ever gonna let me know / Suicide if you ever try to let go” (“Sad”), and simply disregard them as performative emo dramatics. This is emotional manipulation veiled as vulnerability. Lyrics that are troubling not just because the subject matter, but because they reflect XXX’s real life abusive tendencies.
Last year, Pitchfork released a report of the testimony from a woman (XXX’s ex-girlfriend) who endured routine abuse by the rapper throughout 2016. XXX has been charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering in regards to the assault. He is currently facing trial for the charges and, if convicted on all four counts, he faces up to 30 years in prison. Recently, a video surfaced of XXX appearing to hit a woman. The woman attacked in the footage spoke on the leaked video (which is presumed to be old), saying she was “terrified” to come forward once it surfaced.
Still, I could see how a teen, whether aware of XXX’s wrongdoings or not, might still be a fan of his music. ? features a song dedicated to the students who were murdered during the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida (“Hope”). 17, his debut album from last year, even featured a track dedicated to a friend who suffered from depression and died by suicide (“Jocelyn Flores”). It’s easy to use these instances to deflect the criticisms XXX faces, but empathy and self accountability aren’t the same.
This juxtaposition is so clear on 17‘s last track “Ayala.” Named after his ex-girlfriend who he’s accused of assaulting, the song speaks to the heartbreak XXX feels following the end of their relationship.
There’s no acknowledgment of guilt — no reckoning with himself and how his actions contributed to their relationship’s end. Instead the blame is placed entirely on the woman.
I thought about this while listening to ?. My teenage self might’ve — probably — dismissed XXX’s wrongs. To see a young black person speak to insecurity, depression, and mental illness in a way I resonated with was something I sought out. I still do. But XXXTentacion fails not only the youth that look up to him but himself by not manifesting this into accountable and healthy introspection. There’s no unpacking where this comes from and how it contributes to the intense display of emotions shown throughout the album. To some, that may be a lot to ask of someone his age. But that’s where the cognitive dissonance comes between my teen self and adult self. Understanding that the commentary XXX provides is necessary but doesn’t absolve him of confronting the root of his own problems and how it affects those around him.
I wasn’t expecting the internal reassessment I had after listening to ? on private. But in doing so I realized that XXX has failed to have his own reevaluation. That he’s directing the question of who he is onto his listeners without facing the question himself. And, unfortunately, it seems unlikely that he’s going to do so anytime soon.
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