Should You Listen to XXXtentacion’s ’17’?
Musically excellent, morally problematic
Here’s the question about XXXtentacion, billed as the most problematic rap artist out: Should you listen to his new album? Or does spending any time with it only support his role in the trendification of suicide, alleged status as a guy who beat up his pregnant girlfriend, and the trail of violence that follows him at shows? He apologizes for nothing and all the negativity has only built his rep. Where is the effort to help his victims? And if we pay him attention, are we enablers?
I’m not giving X a pass, but I’m also not going to put him next to R. Kelly or Woody Allen or Bill Cosby, who spent years perfecting abuse tactics and trying to work counter-programming into their art. X is 19 and while he’s fucking up massively in several categories, there’s a hope that he can end up like Tyler, the Creator: hateful but eventually leaving that behind and prioritizing the art over the hype. That said, the violence needs to stop immediately. My line is that if I see the pattern continuing after this album, 17, I’m done.
So to turn to the music, let’s get it out there that 17 is musically excellent.
X is at the forefront of the current rock & roll twist on hip-hop, along with his homie Trippie Redd and related musicians like Gothboiclique and Lil Uzi Vert. Here he constructs an emo record that calls on some of his past work (the guitar stuff) but completely leaves behind his popular turn-up style and distortion bass that initially made him go viral along with his underground cohorts from Florida (there is nothing here like “Look At Me!”). And his Diplo-approved festival EDM chamber is completely annexed, seeming like it came from another person entirely.
17 instead is mostly acoustic guitars and piano-driven songs in the mode of his previously released song “Garette’s Revenge,” recalling the stripped-down ballads of Seu Jorge or early Perfume Genius, some suicidal form of Jack Johnson surfer music, Pink Floyd guitar and mental anguish, and the woodsy rap ramblings of Modest Mouse.
“Jocelyn Flores” mixes the rapping and singing best, about a woman who killed herself in his hotel room, containing raps about X’s uncle flirting with suicide. Set to a spare guitar strum and echoey vocals, it’s unlike any other music out. It’s the strongest song on the album, along with “Carry On,” and both sample Shiloh Dynasty, a basement Sampha whose voice works perfectly with the scratches of guitar strings. “Fuck Love” with Trippie Red knocks in a more traditional sense, with both rappers crying out for love.
In general it’s a short and delicate album of half-finished songs that sound better left that way. If it weren’t for the back story, I’d have no problem recommending it wholeheartedly.
This is a strange place for rap to end up, but here it is. The current SoundCloud rap class seems to be competing for who can be the most depressed, who can have the most fucked-up life, and who can lay out emotionally uncomfortable art that also strangely captivates. It’s a place where indie rock went about 20–25 years ago, when anti-stars like Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith convinced everyone they were authentically fucked up, then dramatically killed themselves.
Here’s hoping the music is therapy enough that doesn’t happen to X, and that he stops the misogyny and violence which record companies are too spineless not to capitalize on as marketing.