Last night I listened to XXXTentacion for the first time, at least intentionally, not long after the 20-year-old rapper was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Born Jahseh Onfroy, the artist's music is lauded by many, including industry titans like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. However, beneath his accolades and large fan base, the man himself lived a life of grotesque violence.
A quick Google search reveals a history of battery, assault, robbery, violent homophobia, and if we can qualify the most disturbing, charges of aggravated battery, strangulation and false imprisonment of his then-girlfriend while she was pregnant with his child. As these charges piled up, his sophomore album ? hit number one on the Billboard charts. This is why I had refused to lend him my ears. I couldn't, in good conscious even give him the paltry cents-per-play awarded to streaming artists. That has since changed, as I now feel a morbid justification.
Having taken in his oeuvre, what strikes me the most is his obvious musical talent. It isn’t hard to see why he accrued the following that he did, nor why those in the industry respected his music. X and Lil Peep (another recently deceased musician, 21-years-old at the time of death) essentially created the new wave of lo-fi emo rap that’s dominating SoundCloud. Kendrick Lamar co-signed X’s first record, 17, by tweeting “Listen to this if you feel anything. Raw thoughts.”
His lyrics often dealt with the deep depression and suicidal ideation he battled with publicly, as well as his struggle to find some semblance of happiness amidst an existential despair. If you were somehow blissfully unaware of his reality, you may find yourself relating to this sad teenager crooning over his guitar and some chopped up 808s. But I knew, making the difficulty of listening a greater concern than how interesting the music may have been.
Aside from but also including a strong condemnation of these acts of cruelty, there remains many directions I could take this piece. There’s the eternal, internal dilemma of whether one can separate the art from the artist, but given the severity of Onfroy’s crimes, such a conversation may inevitably devolve into a sadistic game of whataboutism and one-upmanship with artists past.
In the growing pantheon of musicians gone before their time, Onfroy is a unique case. It is nigh impossible to build celebrity without attracting controversy, so when someone dies in unfortunate circumstances, there is usually someone online calling them out for their past transgressions. With Onfroy, his crimes went beyond simple difference of opinion, and helped propel him to greater fame and notoriety. Sure, in March he said he would donate $100,000 to domestic abuse charities, but there is no evidence he actually did. His is the first post-mortem remembrance where many if not most might think, “Maybe we’re better off without him.”
Yet, and this should not be taken as a revelatory statement, murder is wrong. Onfroy’s crimes should have been met with real justice, meaning a trial and jail, not a TMZ video of him slumped lifeless in his car. No one deserves to die, not at twenty or forty or sixty. Online reactions reveling in his death reveal a different kind of cruelty, one that I want no part of.
Your reaction to his murder likely comes packaged with your answers to other questions, ones that transcend the consumption of popular music. Do you believe in the possibility of redemption? Karma? Even vengeance? He’s probably not going to be the deciding factor in your answers, but at the very least he makes a good case study.