PUBLIC DOMAIN Rapper XXXTentacion was in jail when his single “Look at Me” took off.
XXXTentacion (aka X) is an unlikely creation — an array of disparate characteristics that had to fit together perfectly in order to form him. He is a part of the Soundcloud rap era, an independent artist who got discovered online.
He is also on the extreme end of this new wave of rappers who talk about depression. This first entered the mainstream in the 90’s with tracks like “Suicidal Thoughts” by Biggie and albums like Mobb Deep’s The Infamous and DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.
The trend was kept up in the underground during the ringtone rap era through artists like Joe Budden, and now it has reached the limelight (popularized by Future). X has something that most members of this genre don’t have: a significant interest in punk and emo.
X was inspired by the emo era of the early 2000s and cites Papa Roach, Three Days Grace and the Fray as his greatest influences.
On Aug. 25, X released his first album, 17, after a wave of hype from the Soundcloud loosies he made into a mixtape. That tape was headlined by his distorted, speaker-blowing track “Look at Me.”
I am going to be frank. 17 is not a good album. The first hint should be the horrible cover art. Rap is notorious for ugly album covers, but this one is especially bad. It’s not aesthetically disgusting, but it is so shallow, yet takes itself so seriously.
The writing on the assorted pages strewn about is filled with these revelations that sound like parodies of middle school emo kids’ notebooks — “To the pain you must be numb!” and “I’m f****** tired. When will it end.”
The opening track is the second huge red flag. Rap has always suffered from questionable album skits. Especially notorious are the prolonged sex skits that always surprise you when your phone is on shuffle and the wrong person is listening.
I would rather hear XXXTentacion and an assortment of random women moaning and gasping rather than “The Explanation” — in which X uses his quiet, Slytherin-inspired voice to whisper some pretentious, sinister and unnecessary thoughts about the album.
“By listening to this album, you are literally, and I cannot stress this enough, literally entering my mind,” he murmurs, as if that exclamation somehow serves the project. No, X. We are not literally in your head.
The first song on the project, “Jocelyn Flores,” is actually a breath of fresh air after a horrible first impression. The beat is sparse and beautifully off-kilter. X sounds coherent and enunciates the words rather than just falling into a mumbling rant with heavy assonance.
I think this is exactly the type of song that X wants people to know him for —wounded and slow.
I would not call “Jocelyn Flores” a great song by any means, but there is something unique in the way it proceeds. Unfortunately the album soon takes a major nosedive into cringe and dullness. For the next few tracks, X gives up on the rapping and focuses on his singing which, to put it simply, is not good.
“Depression & Obsession,” the next track, is a lumbering, stilted emo track. X should realize that his voice is not built for singing, or at least the type of singing that he’s trying to pull off. It sounds nasally and weak.
The wailing on “Save Me” is horrible. Just objectively bad, off key and grating on the ears. There is a similarly terrible performance of a hook on “F**k Love,” with a couple random bars from Trippie Red, the Great Value Lil Uzi Vert. Even bigger problem than the poor musicianship is the lack of structure.
XXXTentacion decides to ignore basic format of songs and creates little snippets instead. He lays down a hook or half of a verse, repeats a few of the lines a couple of times and then lets the track just fade out.
This kind of style works for beat tapes, where there are a lot of different themes and ideas presented, but here it makes no sense to have no coherent tracks. The album sounds like the mix that an impatient kid would form after a difficult break up. It also explains why the album is a meagre 21 minutes long.
Now there are times when faults like these are ignored simply because the beats are so hard or lush that you can just fall into a zone listening to the music. Famous Dex is an example of a fairly terrible rapper with a cult following because of wild beats.
This is not true for 17. The production on the ablum for the most part is sparse, bare and boring. The beats build this atmosphere of artificial sadness with melodramatic samples over weak drums.
I think that XXXTentacion’s best point of comparison is Earl Sweatshirt. Earl does everything that X wants to do but better. Both maintain a persona of detachment, aloofness and loneliness. Both create music that is dark and depressing. The difference is that Earl uses his verses as canvases on which he presents his pain in an interesting and nuanced way.
Earl uses his lyricism to describe the kind of depression that troubles him through metaphors, similes and turns of phrase. He also doesn’t take himself so seriously, interspersing his verses with little jokes and asides. Earl’s approach to his own struggles with mental illnesses has a relatable casualness to it. He does not ask for pity so much as he just tells his own stoy.
By the end of Earl’s phenomenal 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, you feel like you’re stuck inside with Earl.
XXXTentacion’s style of expression is far less human. He does not describe the day-to-day aspects of mental illness coherently, instead focusing on the extremes of emotion.
17 is an album devoid of specifics, absent of metaphors and free of any soul. X’s lyrics sounds like the writing of a first year poetry student, who still doesn’t understand the point of poetry and hasn’t been taught the “show don’t tell” trick.
Earl will weave something like, “Lately I’ve been panicking a lot/Feeling like I’m stranded in a mob, scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop.” XXXTentacion will simply say, “I’m in pain/Wanna put 10 shots in my brain.” There is no nuance, nothing that distinguishes his sadness from anyone else’s.
In “The Explanation,” X says that all he cares about is our acceptance but gives us nothing to accept or reject. He goes so far as to say that he hopes that this album will cure or numb depression. The only takeaway I got from this album is that XXXTentacion feels sad sometimes.
This is a bad project. I want to reiterate that statement so it is clear. Regardless I want to end the review by saying that I see potential in X. He is a talented rapper with a good voice and a willingness to experiment. This is great to see in the present rap climate where the same cookie cutter beats with the same pounding 808s and ringing keys and nonsensical lyrics keep topping the charts.
X’s problem with his recent output is that he fell into the trap of playing to his character instead of just developing some real music. X is the artist who wrote the lyrics “Ayy, you put a gun on my mans/Ayy, I put a hole in your parents.”
He is also best friends with a guy named Ski Mask the Slump God. XXXTentacion does not have to take himself as seriously as he does. Hopefully with his next few projects, he grows out of this embarrassing emo phase and finds a better way to express himself.