XXXTentacion: Obituary of a confusing mind

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The life of US rapper XXXTentacion (also known as X) was cut tragically short at just the age of 20 earlier this week, after he sustained multiple gun wounds to the lower body. XXXtentacion (born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy) was on judicial parole to perform on his tour and while leaving a motorcycle dealership in Miami was robbed and shot by an unknown gunman. Following his death many tributes have come in from such giants of the music world as Kanye West, J Cole and P. Diddy, who, like me, were shocked by the death of Onfroy. I have always found it hard to place his music, best described as a hybrid of rock, R&B, hip-hop and heavy metal, in any particular genre.  Did he really change his industry? Though he was neither the first nor the  only rapper to address the issues that he did, he left his mark on the hip-hop community, and the growth of his career from 2014 to 2019 is as staggering as it is deserved.

Onfroy had a tough upbringing, littered by trouble with school and the law. His father, Dwayne Onfroy, was absent during his childhood and his mother, Collette Jones, struggled as a single parent. As his mother fell into financial difficulties, Onfroy spent much of his childhood sifting between different guardians before moving into his grandmother’s house. During this time Onfroy attended three schools, Maragate Middle School, Sheridan House Family Ministries and Piper High School, being expelled from both Maragate and Sheridan.  and dropping out of Piper High School in 10th grade at 15. It didn’t take him long to end up in trouble, and he was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention centre on account of armed robbery in 2013. I, like many other fans, see this as the most important stage in his career as it was here that he met friend and lifelong collaborator Stokely Clevan Golbourne (aka Ski Mask the Slump God/Ski Mask) who encouraged Onfroy to get clean and pursue his ambitions in music.

In June 2013 Onfroy released his first track, titled “News/Flock”, produced from within his juvenile detention centre. Despite the amount of times I’ve listened to the song, it never seemed to grow on me. It displays juvenile flows, a lack of ability to catch the beat whilst his characteristically deep voice didn’t seem to match the backing track. However, after this release Onfroy released another song, regarded by many as one of his most thought-provoking. The track never fails to remind me of my 14-year old self, poring over the lyrics whilst contemplating his theories of the devil and redemption. The song is entitled “Vice City” and is his first official piece under the title of XXXTentacion. This song is still on his SoundCloud account today with over 19 million streams. The song plays heavily on the theme of depression and outlines what he believes to be mankind’s only two goals, women and wealth, a theme that repeats itself often throughout his music. The next two years were the most commercially successful of X’s career and earned him a cult following. They are now regarded by many of his closest fans as producing Onfroy’s best music, as he experimented with introducing new genres into his already eclectic sound.

He released his first two albums, Members Only Vol. 1 and Members Only Vol. 2, in 2015. The music was heavily inspired by indie and heavy metal, and ranged from singing and whispering to just outright screaming in his iconic fashion. Many of his songs within these two albums are experimental. This backfired in cases such as his “Forever Freestyle” which is incredibly repetitive, but worked on other occasions such as “Jason vs Freddy” where he finds himself in a duo with Ski Mask as they bounce lines off each other in a style that suits the beat perfectly and shows lyrical skill alien to other rappers at the age of 17.

Despite his success and his best two years of music 2016 ended in a way that we have grown accustomed to, with Onfroy in jail. After he quit his job at a call centre due to the success of his music career, he moved in with his friend and fellow rapper Denzel Curry, ended up becoming entangled with crime, and was arrested in October 2016.

2017 saw a new chapter for X, as he went from being in jail to releasing an album that contained 7 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 before retiring from making music for the rest of the year. The first half of the year started off positively. From jail he re-released his second most popular song, the infamous “Look at me”. This song helped him gain masses of popularity due to Canadian rapper Drake releasing a song by British rapper Giggs entitled “KMT”, widely seen to plagiarise X’s lyrical style in “Look at me” and resulting in backlash directed towards Drake. “Look at me” was already a song that had vulgar lyrics, but the Drake fiasco directed far more attention and controversy towards the artist from outside his fan base.

The hype earned him a deal with the label Empire Distribution, which released his first major-label debut commercial project, “Revenge”,  in May 2017 (though this mix-tape included 8 previously released songs). The 26-date “Revenge Tour” soon followed. It seems wherever the tour went however, trouble seemed to follow. It was called off within a month following a fellow rapper being assaulted, Onroy being knocked out on stage by one of Rob Stone’s associates (a big rival of X and Ski Mask), an audience member being stabbed, Onfroy being thrown into the barricade by security as well as being involved in an altercation with a fan. 

All this controversy seemed to only add fuel to the fire however. On the back of this disastrous tour, he received one of the most esteemed awards within the hip-hop industry, the coveted tenth spot on the XXL Freshman List, with the public deeming him the most exciting breakthrough artist in 2017. This came as a surprise to many, who claimed that he didn’t deserve it because he wasn’t a pure hip-hop artist. This award also came as something of a shock to me, as even though I loved X’s music during that period, I voted for Ski Mask because I felt that he was the mastermind behind much of X’s success and went under the radar despite his lyrical superiority. Many others had also thought that Ski Mask deserved the tenth spot, but he vowed to get on the list in 2018, which he did.

Within the 2017 XXL, X turned many heads and had the second most viewed freestyle that newspaper had ever released. It was his verse  in the Freshman Cypher, a chance for the ten young artists to freestyle which each other, though,  which proved the most controversial. X chose to cut the beat and recite a pre-written verse that was written from the perspective of the devil, telling X to kill everyone within a building and then proceeding to explain how to cover up the incident. This was an extremely significant event in his career, opening the way for friendships with future collaborators such as PnB Rock, as well as showcasing his apparent relishing of the scandal and outrage he invariably left in his wake.  

The second half of 2017 saw the start of a new chapter for Onfroy, and one he struggled to accustom to: mainstream success. On 25th August XXXTentacion released his first ever major-label debut album, “17”. The album debuted an No.2 on the Billboard Charts, selling 86,000 units within the first week, and included songs such as “Jocelyn Flores”, hitting 34 of the Billboard Top 100, and “Revenge”, which hit 77. The whole album was lyrically intelligent and thought-provoking. Not since Eminen’s “Stan” had a hip-hop artist more sensitively portrayed issues surrounding emotions and depression.

Despite the album’s commercial success, there was always a sense that the album under-performed in the charts. The finger was squarely pointed by X’s fans towards the recent release of Lil Uzi Vert’s new album, Luv is Rage 2, which contained one of the most streamed hip-hop songs ever in “XO TOUR Llif3”.

“17” still touched millions of people though, and is the reason for his large teenage following today. More importantly, it proved a point to the industry: Onfroy wasn’t too controversial to be a mainstream hit. The album’s success could have provided X the platform to continue making music. In typical fashion however, Onfroy was once again involved in a blunder that resulted in his retirement from making new music.

After the success X decided to release music videos for his past songs, funded by a $6 million deal with the record label Caroline. He first released a music video for “Look at me”, but that largely went unnoticed. The reaction to the music video for his 2015 song “Riot” was quite the opposite, though perhaps for all the wrong reasons. The video included X hanging a white child while forcing a black child to watch – sickening and gratuitous violence whose meaning appeared to extend no further than a lynching role reversal. This, and the surfacing videos of X being beaten up by rap group “Migos”, saw X receive a backlash that he had never seen before, especially from his long-term friend Ski Mask the Slump God, which resulted in X begging for Ski Mask to forgive him and then retiring from music. Ski Mask promptly forgave him and promised to support him during this period.

Onfroy signalled a return to music after releasing previews on music only a month after he announced his retirement. X then stated that he wanted to release some music for “core fans only” a promise which didn’t disappoint. He released the EP “A Ghetto Christmas Carol” on 11th December. It was a vision of the real Onfroy, containing songs that saw him express his humorous and vulgar side in the track “UP LIKE AN INSOMNIAC”, but also an emerging political consciousness; the lyrics in “hate will never win” openly attacked the Trump administration.

Onfroy also decided that he wanted to show the side of him that the celebrity, sensationalist media never cared to represent: the compassion and kindness which so endeared him to his audience. He got the #HELPINGHANDCHALLENGE to over 1 million mentions on Instagram (an idea proposed by him and a fellow rapper Joey Badass, revolving around giving instruments and other equipment to foster homes). Onfroy also released the song “Hope” on his SoundCloud account in February 2018, a touching song in dedication to the victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting.

The same night he revealed the release of his final album “?”, sharing the track list and revealing features from the like of PnB Rock and Joey Bada$$. The album was released on March 16th 2018 and debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200; his best album and greatest commercial success, announcing X as not only the future of hip-hop but also as an industry giant in the present.

The album included aspects of his old heavy metal links in “floor 555”, as well as links to the more modern lofi hip-hop in songs such as “infinity (888)”. The most impressive song is the masterfully created “moonlight” echoing the idea that the only reason he holds the spotlight is due to the moonlight (his dark past) that connected him with so many people. In December 2017, X promised us three albums: “?”, “Bad Vibes Forever” and “skins”. Though we only ever got to hear one, it did give a glimpse of why this man was regarded by most as something unbelievably special.

So, I suppose it’s time to deal with his final chapter: his death. On June the 18th 2018, Onfroy was leaving a motorcycle dealership in Miami when he was shot by two gunmen. This took a while for my mind to actually process and it still hasn’t properly. The great irony surrounding his death is that he didn’t die immediately, but was instead left where he lay in agony as bystanders and “fans” photographed his final moments. It seems a fitting final contradiction for a man whose life was so fraught with tragedy and trouble – the fans that he cared so much for were in no small way to blame for his death.