Why The Contradictions Of XXXTentacion Are 'Difficult To Square'

Jun 24, 2018
Originally published on June 25, 2018 9:50 pm

On Monday, June 18, rapper XXXTentacion was shot and killed in Florida. The fallout from his death has been complicated given the rapper's dark past. In 2016, he was charged with aggravated assault and battery and false imprisonment of a pregnant victim. But in the span of time from then until the present, he had amassed a fan base of millions online with his music. With the release of two albums, XXXTentacion became known as one of the most prominent rappers of the Internet age, and his 2018 song "SAD!" broke the single-day streaming record on Spotify a day after his death.

Music critics often mark the death of major artists by evaluating their public and private selves, but this artist has sparked some unusually conflicted reflections.

Lindsay Zoladz, music critic for The Ringer, explains that it was this union of artistic vulnerability and infectious melody and production that resonated with so many young fans. "There's a real pop sensibility," Zoladz says. "He had a sense of melody that was a way to package these darker themes he was exploring in a way that would stick in your head."

But what's dividing many people in the wake of the rapper's violent death is how his personal life contradicts his message to his fans.

"There's a message of positivity and a message of talking about feelings and depression and anxiety that almost feels like a harbinger of new type of masculinity in hip-hop," Zoladz says. "But then, at the same time, I think that's what made the violent behavior in his personal life that much more disappointing and that much more striking because for someone to be so in touch with talking through emotions on the one side but acting out a classically violent, patriarchal, misogynistic worldview, I think that's the part that's difficult to square."

Zoladz notes that XXXTentacion was an artist of his moment in every way, but, like many others, she has not yet found a way to reconcile his legacy in hip-hop given the accusations against him.

"We're reckoning with the connection between art and artist in a way that we have not done as thoroughly before and I think, obviously, the #MeToo movement and the social moment that we're living through has a lot to do with that," she says. "So at this moment in time, it feels really difficult to separate the behavior from the art, especially when they do feel in conversation with each other in his lyrics."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You might have heard about the death of rapper XXXTentacion earlier this week. The 20-year-old, whose given name was Jahseh Onfroy, was shot and killed in Florida outside a motorcycle dealership on Monday. On Wednesday, a 22-year-old man was charged with the killing, which authorities are suggesting was an attempted robbery.

Now, if you only know about this artist from news reports about his death, then you might have heard about his disturbing history. In 2016, he was charged with a violent assault on his pregnant ex-girlfriend. That's just one issue. But you might have also heard about the huge outpouring on social media and from major artists acknowledging the work - work that entered into unfamiliar territory for rap - depression and anxiety and suicide but also personal growth, self-love and acceptance.

Now, music writers often mark the death of artists by evaluating their public and private selves. But this artist seems to have sparked some unusually conflicted reflections. We wanted to talk about that, so we've called Lindsay Zoladz. She's a staff writer at The Ringer. It covers pop culture. She wrote one of the pieces that got our attention.

Lindsay, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LINDSAY ZOLADZ: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let me play a bit of his song "SAD!" which set a streaming record the day after his death. Let me just play a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAD!")

XXXTENTACION: (Singing) Who am I? Someone that's afraid to let go. You decide if you're ever gonna let me know. Yeah, suicide if you ever try to let go - I'm sad, I know, yeah. I'm sad, I know, yeah. Who am I?

MARTIN: Lindsay, what do you think it is that struck such a chord with people? In fact, you wrote - in the piece that you wrote about, you said, it sits uncomfortably with me, too, but it's true. Something about what he was doing was really getting through to people and very young people in particular.

ZOLADZ: Well, I think you can hear in that song there's a real pop sensibility. And he had a sense of melody that was kind of a way to package these darker themes that he was exploring in a way that would really stick in your head and would be sticky in that way.

MARTIN: And he also had a real connection with his fans who streamed and shared these videos that he would put up - say, on Instagram. And I just want to play one of them. This is where he's addressing his fans. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

XXXTENTACION: If I'm going to die or ever be a sacrifice, I want to make sure that my life made at least 5 million kids happy. Or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life - regardless of the negative around my name, regardless of the bad things people say to me. I don't give a [expletive] because I know my goal in the end, and I know what I want for everyone, and I know what my message is. So I just wanted to say I appreciate and love all of you, and I believe in you all. Do not let your depression make you.

MARTIN: You know, he's got a very - you can see there's sort of a lot of vulnerability there. And he seems to be, you know, speaking to kind of the inner thoughts of a lot of young people. On the other hand, we have to address the reason why he was such a controversial figure. I mean, one of the other writers called some of the behavior stomach-turning. He bragged about, you know, a vicious assault on a gay fellow prisoner at a time when he was locked up. Now, I don't know whether that actually happened or not. But the reality of it is, he discussed it in this very graphic, you know, fashion - kind of bragging about it.

So let me ask you about this. Do you think his fans know about this side of him? Is that part of his appeal? Or is it sort of a contradiction there?

ZOLADZ: It's definitely a contradiction. And I think it's something that makes it really difficult to square these two sides of him. Because in that clip you just played, you know, there's a message of positivity and a message of talking about feelings and depression and anxiety that almost feels like it was a harbinger of a kind of new type of masculinity in hip hop. But then, at the same time, I think that's what made the violent behavior in his personal life that much more disappointing and that much more striking. Because for someone to be so in touch with talking through emotions on the one side but then really acting out a very classically violent, patriarchal, misogynistic worldview - really, I think that's the part that is difficult to square.

And, you know, you - there are strains of that in his music, too. There's a lot of - you know, the song you played, "SAD!" - there's an abuser logic to the lyrics to that song, which are basically threatening suicide if his partner leaves him. So it's all wrapped up there.

MARTIN: But on this whole question of - again, going back to your piece - you wrote, I believe the survivor's horrific accounts of his abuse. I believe that they will be forever tied to X's legacy. But if we act as if he never existed or as if he was not as popular as he was or as if his fans didn't see some articulation of their own hurt and hopelessness in his music, we're lying to ourselves. You know, what's the way forward here? I mean, do you have any conclusion about this? I mean, what should we think about this?

ZOLADZ: I think, like I wrote in that piece, you just have to look at the fact that he was getting through to a lot of young people who I think are really hurt and confused about what's going on in the world right now. He had a song on his final record that he dedicated to the victims of the Parkland shooting.

So I think there's something there, too, of just the teens that were gravitating towards his music. It was a very young fanbase, and I think that we have to look at why they're gravitating towards such expression of hurt and confusion and depression and anxiety. Which is a sad thing to realize, but I think that's a takeaway of really looking at what his fans were feeling when they were seeking out his music and how we can maybe find music like that with people who were being a little more responsible with their status as a role model.

MARTIN: That was Lindsay Zoladz. She's a writer at The Ringer talking to us about the recent death of XXXTentacion. She wrote about it in a piece called "The Unsolvable Difficulty Of XXXTentacion's Death." She spoke to us from New York.

Lindsay Zoladz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZOLADZ: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.