It’s an annual tradition: XXL collects a mixed-bag gaggle of young rappers, all of whom think they’re already too big for this rigamarole. Together, they all pose for the magazine cover and submit to goofy public-relations stunting, all of which are engineered to boost both their own social media profiles and that of the aging magazine. So these rappers, these kids, are separated into groups and made to rap halfheartedly into a camera together.
Last year, one of them went differently. While Playboi Carti, Ugly God, and Madeintyo did their own supremely halfassed verses, cheering each other on, XXXTentacion lurked in the background, silent. When it was his turn to rap, the beat abruptly cut off. He crouched to the ground, froze, and grumbled, “If the world ever has an apocalypse, I will kill all of you fuckers.” The other rappers weren’t sure what to do. They stood there reverent, or maybe scared, or maybe just puzzled, while their supposed peer gave his slam-poetry jeremiad about annihilating humanity. It remains a strange fucking moment.
XXXTentacion shouldn’t have been there. The people in charge of XXL have talked about how they had to cajole authorities just so that the Florida rapper would be able to travel to New York for the shoot. They believed in him. They endorsed him. They shouldn’t have. XXXTentacion was, by many accounts, a dangerous and disturbed person. Less than two weeks before his death, the Miami New Times published a fascinating and searching portrait of XXXTentacion’s rise, and of the crimes he was accused of committing. Those crimes are generally sickening and horrifying. Geneva Ayala, XXXTentacion’s ex, speaks at length about all the abuses that he allegedly committed — beating her up, keeping her locked up without her phone, threatening to kill her and her unborn kid, threatening abuses so vile and sickening that I don’t even want to type them onto this website.
Those details weren’t all known when XXL put XXXTentacion on its cover, but enough of them were. He’d been arrested for a long list of charges, including domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. XXL knew about all of this. Everyone who was paying attention knew. At the time, I wrote, “We should not continue to make him famous. XXXTentacion should not be on this cover.” And since then, as we’ve learned more about XXXTentacion, we’ve discovered that things were worse than we could’ve anticipated. Those alleged assaults against Ayala seem to be part of a larger pattern; that New Times piece also has an anecdote about XXXTentacion supposedly mercilessly beating a juvenile-detention roommate in a fit of homophobic rage. And Ayala has talked about how his fans have continued to stalk and torment her, both online and in person, making it impossible for her to even hold a job: “I can’t even go to the mall or Walmart without being noticed and eyed down.”
Any account of XXXTentacion’s death needs to look at the pain that he may have caused in his life, the photo evidence of remorseless beatings, the venomous denials that he’d ever done anything wrong. The way he apparently conducted himself in private life — aggrieved, violent, paranoid, in love with his idea of his own victimhood — extends to his public life, too, and to his music. He ended his 2017 album 17 with a song called “Ayala,” warbling that “she showed me fake love.” That same album included “Revenge,” a sort of gypsy-folk song about inflicting himself upon an uncaring ex: “I’ve dug two graves for us, my dear.” And on “Carry On”: “I’m cut open, her fingers in all my stab wounds / And if she could, she’d probably dance on my grave.” He was still talking like this on ?, the album that he released earlier this year, despite his insistence, on the intro, that the album would be “comforting.” XXXTentacion will never get his day in court — he was facing possible decades in prison — but I see no reason to disbelieve the woman who’s said that he tore her life apart, especially after he depicted himself as the type of person to do that shit.
Any account of XXXTentacion’s death also needs to take into account his magnetism, the quality that drew so many kids to him in the first place. That’s what’s on full display in that XXL video: a young iconoclast so determined in his own ideas that he could make the entire institutional structure around him look absurd. Those of us who watched that video, or who watched the rest of XXXTentacion’s ascension, ended up feeling much like the other rappers in that video: bewildered, nervous, unsure what the right reaction might be. Because XXXTentacion was a mold-breaker. He had a context; he didn’t start the raw, unkempt South Florida underground sound that came to define SoundCloud-rap, the genre offshoot that has so captured the imagination of young America. (Denzel Curry, a former XXXTentacion roommate, has a better claim to that.) But he pushed it the furthest, and he became the biggest star doing it.
XXXTentacion’s albums are strange, staggering wallows in personal misery, and they follow their own rules and sets of logic. He opened his two studio albums by telling you how he wanted you to hear those albums: “I put my all into this, in the hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression. I love you.” He became famous with “Look At Me!,” a giddy tantrum of a song with a title that doubles as XXXTentacion’s central message. He went long stretches without rapping at all. Some songs sound like Modest Mouse. Others sound like Latin pop. There’s a three-song stretch on ? where XXXTentacion went from a basement-hardcore rage-out to something that sounds like a Klonopin-addled broken-speakers Nelly Furtado ballad to one where he and Joey Bada$$ take turns over a ’90s-sounding New York boom-bap jazz loop. You’re not supposed to do any of this stuff, and he was doing all of it.
More to the point, he was rapping about depression and anxiety and mental illness with a raw-nerve vulnerability that few other rappers have ever attempted. That’s what so many kids heard in him. That’s the basis of all the tearful tributes I’ve seen on social media since XXXTentacion was gunned down yesterday. That willingness to talk about sadness in music excuses nothing. If anything, it makes his success even more disturbing. He talked about his episodes of dangerous rage the same way he talked about depression — as if they were things happening to him, rather than decisions he was making. Kids need to be heard and seen, to understand that their more prominent peers are going through the same things they are. XXXTentacion’s alleged crimes contributed to his fame, but I don’t think they’re the reason he captivated people. I think he did that by mirroring kids’ feelings back to them. I would prefer it if they did not get that release from someone accused of breaking other people to pieces, of destroying their lives. But I’m not in charge. Neither are you.
XXXTentacion did things that no rapper has ever done. He came out of nowhere to completely alter the sound and direction of his genre in a profound way. He recorded a #1 album in his house, while under house arrest. He broke every genre rule, and in doing so, he exposed how arbitrary and pointless so many of those genre rules are. He became a pop star while making blown-out, noisy, often-unlistenable music. None of these things make him a good person. None of them make him an even worthwhile person. But even if he was a monster — and, let’s be honest, he probably was — that will not diminish the pain that the kids who loved him are feeling today. Those kids might be misguided, but that doesn’t diminish their pain, either.
I never wrote much about XXXTentacion. After calling out XXL for contributing to his fame, I didn’t want to do the same thing. In my mind, any critical consideration of his music would amount to normalization. It would mean that his alleged crimes were secondary to his artistry. They weren’t, and they aren’t. They aren’t secondary to his death, either. And yet I now feel like I was wrong — like I was derelict in my duty as a music critic. XXXTentacion was a hugely popular and transformative force, whether I or my music-press colleagues liked it or not. (And if this burst of energy and creativity had come from a less toxic artist, I would’ve been all over it.) Maybe I made the wrong decision there.
Do you believe in the death penalty? I don’t. Along with all the sad tributes to XXXTentacion, there have been plenty of people on social media talking about how he deserved to die, how his murder is a karmic repayment for the crimes he appeared to have committed. They aren’t. XXXTentacion was 20. Plenty of people much older than him, people who have committed crimes just as horrible or worse, have come to understand that they were wrong, made amends, and turned their lives around. XXXTentacion didn’t get a chance to do that. And his death wasn’t a result of his depression, or his recklessness, or anything else. Maybe we’ll learn more about it later, but right now, police are investigating it as a simple robbery gone wrong. There is no greater meaning to it. It’s a simple, stupid, sad, fucked-up ending to a complicated, stupid, sad, fucked-up life story.
Another rapper was murdered on the same afternoon that XXXTentacion was killed. A thousand miles away, in Pittsburgh, Jimmy Wopo was shot to death. Minutes before dying, he’d been talking to Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang about signing a contract. Jimmy Wopo was one year older than XXXTentacion. Both of them were shot in broad daylight, in public, in similar ways. Jimmy Wopo was a hard, antic street-rap traditionalist. He was nowhere near as popular as XXXTentacion, though time might’ve changed that. He was practically working in an entirely different genre. Musically and culturally, XXXTentacion and Jimmy Wopo had basically nothing in common. (Kendrick Lamar liked both of them? That seems to be it.) And yet they both met strikingly similar fates on the very same day.
If anything, these two twinned deaths are signs that rap music is so fucking important. It’s a platform, an amplification, for young people who might never otherwise get to leave a footprint, to tell their stories. It’s a churning, seething, constantly changing culture, a sound in constant flux, and it makes people feel less alone. Sometimes it elevates people who should not be elevated. I don’t feel any richer for having had XXXTentacion in my life. I think his influence may prove to be, in many ways, actively harmful. He did a lot of things in his exceedingly brief time in the public eye, and many of those things appear to be terrible. We’ll be sorting through it all for a long time to come. But he didn’t deserve to die at 20. Nobody does.