A new era has dawned in rap music, one fueled by the angst commonly associated with grunge acts such as Nirvana. And the 19-year-old Florida native XXXTentacion, along with the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, finds himself at the forefront of this new culture. What separates these young anti-label artists from rappers of the past is their unwillingness to be forced into taking on the label rapper, making music that at times sounds more like the metal, and simply not giving a damn about being well liked.
X, born Jahseh Onfroy rose to prominence with his single “Look at me!,” a club-turnup song based off a distorted Mala sample and a gnarled 808 which has garnered nearly 93 million streams since its release in 2016. Since then there has been no turning back for X, who even landed a set at Rolling Loud this year. His violent and dark lyrics seem to resonate with a generation of anti-establishment youth from all walks of life.
However, X’s story is not one of humility and peace that one would expect from a potentially generation-defining artist. Behind the success and empowering stage presence lies a violent criminal. X’s record displays charges of armed robbery, grand theft auto and, most notably, the brutal assault of his pregnant then-girlfriend. While “Look at me!” climbed the charts, X sat in a county jail cell awaiting release.
On July 30, 2017, X announced the release of his highly anticipated debut album, 17, sending a shockwave through the hip-hop world. X immediately indicated that his new material would be nothing like the mosh-pit worthy singles of his past: “If you listen to me to get hype or to not think, don’t buy this album, this one is for the depression, for the depressed ones, for the lost ones,” X posted on his Instagram account. And on August 25, coinciding with the release of his colleague Lil Uzi Vert’s long anticipated project Luv Is Rage 2, X delivered 17. In its first week 17 sold nearly 86,000 copies and even gained the endorsement of one of hip-hops most powerful voices, Kendrick Lamar.
If you can muster the strength to look past Onfroy’s numerous violent crimes, you will find an album filled with raw emotion and honesty, a true piece of art. Although succinct, barely crossing the twenty-minute threshold, X powerfully conveys his struggle with depression and suicidal tendencies.
Immediately following the release of 17, Onfroy once again found himself in a tidal wave of controversy. On September 12, X released a music video for “Look at me!” featuring a verse from an older song, “Riot,” boldly addressing police brutality and white prejudice in America. The director, JMP, juxtaposed videos such as Philando Castile’s shooting and the brutal beating of Rodney King with X’s music to create a piece that is truly evocative.
However, when the music in the video cuts, the viewer is left with a disturbing image: Onfroy standing on stage with both a black and a white child and a noose dangling between them. Onfroy then seems to offer the children a choice which ultimately culminates in the white child being hanged. The child is then shown struggling against his inevitable death, and given Onfroy’s history of violence, it seemed that he had crossed a line.
But one must ask, was the controversy surrounding this music video about Onfroy’s legal trouble or was it a direct result of white privilege and prejudice in American society? Further, had the video depicted a black child being hanged by X, would it have received the same backlash?
In my opinion, the viewers of the video sees a white child hung as non-existent “reverse racism” where as they would have seen a black child being hung as a historical reference. However, the reality is both scenarios intend to conjure thoughts of lynchings that have haunted the United States’ history. The music video, although carrying a potent message, was not delivered in the correct way. Had X not simulated the hanging of children, people would have been much more receptive to the ideas expressed.
Although Onfroy seems to have a sincere desire to act as an aid to those struggling with depression and as a political voice for change, his consistent association with violence prevents society from appreciating him. It seems that X is still searching for a way to communicate with a society that already stereotypes black hip-hop artists as “scary people” before hearing about their legal history. However talented XXXTentacion may be, and however important his statements are, his past along with his race may prevent him from garnering respect.
As X releases his collaboration with Joey Bada$$, an artist who has proven himself an advocate for civil rights in a widely appreciated way, in the coming year, (assuming he is able to, as he currently faces nearly 30 years in prison for witness tampering and the aforementioned strangling of his pregnant ex-girlfriend) his messages on race relations in America may finally break through. But unless he is acquitted, it seems to me that Onfroy will remain unlistenable to the majority.
Peter Buonanno is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.