Music
Tune in and turn up
Bad Vibes Forever / EMPIRE

No rating.

Jahseh Onfroy, or XXXTentacion, possessed a rare ability of being able to channel the fragility of young people’s mental health through his music, which routinely moves from tenderness to anguish in a way that feels relatable. His songs are both beautiful and ugly. Take the urgency of “Supra,” a song where Onfroy unflinchingly raps about suffering from mental health issues and feeling isolated: “It seems like all the fucking voices in my head/ are trying to see me dead before I see my mother wed/ and I remember way back when, when I was dead/ broke/ I was a fucking joke/ and nobody wanted to fuck with me!”

These underdog lyrics are delivered with Tupac-esque venom and illustrate an empathy for young people’s inner struggles, helping bring invisible scars to the surface. Yet just as quickly these bars are delivered, Onfroy moves on to rap grotesquely about women in a flippant tone: “I remember bitches acting like old nuns/ now they pop that pussy like porn stars if a nigga wants some!”

Onfroy’s music is schizophrenic in nature — the reactionary thug (“Members Only Shit”), the soothingly-voiced emo kid (“Fuck Love”), the supporter of women (“Jocelyn Flores”), and the sexually dominant reactionary (“Look At Me”), each split personalities he embodied to the nth degree. X wore these moral contradictions like a badge of honor, something that felt reassuringly human to his fans and was respected by peers such as Kendrick Lamar.

This incongruity is perhaps best reflected on ? – the final album released while Onfroy was alive – with the double-edged sword of “the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love)” and “Floor 555.” One song is a heartfelt piece of introspection, where Onfroy reassures his young listeners “We’re going to be alright” over a lush, guitar-driven melody. The other is centered around hellish, distorted bass, as Onfroy screams about putting his enemies in coffins and inciting mosh pits with a carnal brutalism that sits somewhere between Eminem’s “Kim” and Nirvana’s “Milk It.” The fact they sit side-by-side feels intentional, a showcase for Onfroy’s infinite range.

These exhilarating shifts in tone continue on Skins, the first posthumous album since Onfroy’s death back in June, when he was robbed and shot to death in Miami, Florida at the age of just 20. Songs such as “whoah (mind in awe)” and “difference (interlude)” are gentle in nature, Onfroy’s delicate vocals coming straight from the heart. Yet “One Minute” features visceral screams designed to unsettle.

The record, which is barely 20 minutes long and based on recordings Onfroy didn’t get a chance to complete before his death, captures the raw, unpredictable artistry that made XXXTentacion’s star shine so brightly in life. Yet as good as this music is, there’s a feeling that it shouldn’t exist, a nagging sense that this an attempt in death to mold Onfroy into a mythical, legendary figure; a move which feels wildly irresponsible.

It’s impossible to review Skins fully without first trying to make sense of Onfroy’s past. His mother was just a teenager when she had him in 1998. Unable to cope with raising a child alone, she drifted in and out of his life, with her son’s childhood emotionally stunted. Largely brought up by his grandmother, Onfroy would act out at school, using violence as a method to win his absent mother’s attention. After his mother advised her son to stand up for himself, Onfroy said he “slapped the shit” out of a female classmate. “After that, my mother realised how seriously I took her!” he told the Miami New Times.

In an interview with the No Jumper podcast, Onfroy graphically brags about violently beating up a homosexual cellmate while serving time at a youth detention center, using the slur “faggot” in every other sentence and laughing at how he drew blood out of his victim. His cellmate’s crime? He stared at him in the wrong way. This violent behavior was also exacted on those closest to Onfroy; his girlfriend Geneva Ayala was brutally assaulted while pregnant, her eyeball dislodged from its socket, and also subjected to threats from Onfroy that are said to have included cutting her tongue out and raping her with a barbecue fork. Onfroy, who publicly denied these allegations, privately threatened witnesses. He even egged on his fans to discredit Ayala, who subjected her to abuse both online and in the streets, practically turning her life into a daily nightmare.

In phone recordings unearthed after the controversial rapper’s death, Onfroy can be heard admitting to assaulting Ayala. “I put my source of happiness in another person, which was a mistake initially, right? But she fell through on every occasion until now. Until I started fucking her up, bruh,” he reveals. “I started fucking her up because she made one mistake. And from there, the whole cycle went down. Now she’s scared. That girl is scared for her life.”

In nearly every other profession on earth, somebody would be fired if this kind of deplorable behavior was made public. Yet somehow in the murky world of hip-hop, these brutal crimes only aided XXXTentacion’s ascent, with violence a currency Onfroy was able to exploit in order to appear like a tortured visionary. The fact he was able to continue making music unchecked also highlights a wider disdain for black women’s pain and suffering, which is often dismissed on a whim. Sure, Onfroy could make complex music brimming with diverse themes and thrilling musicality, but there was an unshakable feeling that he was profiting from an entertainment industry where controversy is used as fuel to fire up a budding career and to get a name trending.

Unfortunately, if it can get at all worse, Skins is clearly seen by the XXXTentacion estate as an opportunity to absolve the late artist of all his sins and re-paint him as a woke revolutionary. For example, for the album’s release party last week, there were murals of the rapper painted as an angel and new Kanye West-approved T-shirts hoping to turn his mournful face into something as meaningful as Tupac Shakur’s or Bob Marley’s. West even spits a lengthy guest verse on Skins-track “One Minute,” where he ham-fistedly defends Onfroy’s actions, claiming: “Cause even after death/ they throwing rocks at your grave!” He also discredits Onfroy’s victim, adding: “Now your name is tainted, by the claims they painting/ the defendant is guilty/ no one blames the plaintiff.” It’s the cherry on top of a disastrous year for West.

Skins wouldn’t be the first time a deceased artist has been repackaged in death as something more PG-friendly. However, in 2018, it feels like the music industry should know better — there appears to be a complete lack of awareness that presenting XXXTentacion as some kind of angelic mentor to young people only serves to further a damaging narrative where a man’s talent is more important than a woman’s pain. It is dangerous revisionism that tells a whole generation of people that some men deserve a pass.

My nephew is only 7-years-old, but he already knows who XXXTentacion is. He and his friends sing “Sad!” on the playground. When I asked him why he likes X so much, he responded: “He’s a legend, who cared about people.” Interestingly, my nephew wasn’t aware of any of the bad things Onfroy had done, and you can bet if this kind of revisionism has already filtered down to the playgrounds of primary schools in the British countryside then XXXTentacion’s estate is winning the battle in terms of re-shaping the troubled artist in death as a beacon of positivity and hope, as opposed to a man who in life abused women and gay people like it was his God-given right. Perhaps this successful PR strategy is reflected in Onfroy’s huge 2018 streaming numbers.

Admitting that XXXTentacion made good music has become a tough thing for a music critic to do, but it’s something we must address. It’s our job to try to understand why this music meant so much to so many people and simply refusing to acknowledge it feels lazy and impractical. But just because Onfroy’s music was good doesn’t mean that it deserves to exist, or that his death should act as a shield for criticism. Skins is a record that should never have been released by a responsible major label, with XXXTentacion’s upwards trajectory setting a dangerous precedent where men can openly abuse women and still maintain healthy careers.

Subsequently, Skins doesn’t deserve an official rating, as XXXTentacion doesn’t deserve to be legitimized in such a way.

XXXTentacion’s ‘Skins’ can be found here. For more of our album reviews, head here.

Words by Thomas Hobbs
What To Read Next