XXXTentacion gives us more questions to answer
I probably just don’t understand politics, so feel free to email my editor, but dating back to Marx or whoever started it, the quest to formulate a single, radical theory of art hasn’t done much more than unify a bunch of contradictory ideologies. Like, for example, how can so many people be functionalists? Take Marcel Duchamp, a total nihilist who famously punked the avant-garde by submitting a urinal to their snooty exhibition room. That guy was saying a lot of things, but his “good art is useful art” bit is the bedrock for some pretty dissimilar movements—such as AIDS-era club survivors who celebrated disco as practical, utilitarian music. (Life is short, and you can dance to it!) I don’t understand how an asshole ironist, who died having mocked progressives everywhere, could end up making the same anti-elitist argument as a group of basically sincere, communist homosexuals in the eighties. And you know what? Lil Pump doesn’t really get it either.
Over the last two years, that’s what I most admired about the short, single-minded, is-it-even-rap-music born from South Florida’s DIY Soundcloud scene: it was art so populist that it essentially declined to be political. Lyrically puerile and deliriously repetitive, these songs really only had one use—to rile you up—and they valiantly refused to incorporate any element that might weigh down or distract from this goal (verses consisting of more than hooks, hooks consisting of more than three words, words consisting of meaning, mixing that enabled one to actually hear any of the above, etc). It was a denial of all the hard-fought genius that made rap a dominating cultural contender, which even when it was “dum,” had at least always sounded expensive. What you were left with was art that carried all the punkish, back-to-the-shack signifiers of revolutionary music, but with a dopey grin peaking out where the ideological motive would normally go. In an interview with Noisey, Smokepurrp defined his scene’s philosophy as “ignorance,” and that sounds about right. It was functional music without a middle ground; you could use it or you could ignore it, but it was impossible to just think about it.
Recently, however, one of the scene’s key figures, Broward County’s XXXTentacion, often referred to as X, has been stretching the thoughtless confines of the scene he birthed—and not without some contention. Time and distance has revealed his song “Look At Me!”, recorded in 2015 when he was still 17, to be the genre’s most foundational and archetypical text—probably more influential than any song with the lines “Got, like, three bitches / I’m Mormon” should be expected to be. But whereas his contemporaries continue to mine the track for its blown-out, lo-fi production and mastery of economic phraseology, X swiftly revealed his intention to stray. Ensuing singles swapped out the larynx-shredding scream of “Look At Me!” for a confessional approach—highlighting his warbly, pretty-boy, sob of a voice. This was met by lyrics tilting away from exhibitionist hedonism and towards a no-less showy brand of existential despair (“I’m so depressed/What good is sex?”).
All this vulnerability came in contrast to allegations more heinous than any circling his peers, with the artist facing charges of beating a pregnant ex-girlfriend and holding her hostage. Although the incident has gone distressingly unaddressed in industry circles, with many in hip hop as high up as Kendrick still offering their cosigns, it was wielded by critics as a final evidentiary brickbat, implicating the entire Florida scene. Meanwhile, the tortured dualism of X’s persona took on its ultimate expression, as is often the case with pop-stars, in his celebrity hairstyle—a bundle of stalky corn-rows, symbolically dyed half black and half blonde.
Still, for all the muddy waters, his music still clings to the clarity of use that signifies all of Florida Soundcloud. Last year’s debut album, 17, a bruised, half-formed collection of acoustic balladry, began with a spoken word track called “The Explanation.” A kind of ‘love-me-or-leave-me’ manifesto, it promised listeners that the album “would cure or at least numb their depression,” but only if they were “willing to accept [X]’s emotion and hear [his] words fully.” That X should demand special engagement from such a notoriously unthinking audience was read by many in terms of ego and insecurity, but the move, in truth, was rather confident. By making his art a package deal with his tainted personhood, X was staking a bet that his “genius” (his term) could outweigh any ethical baggage—that the music was powerful enough to function. Whether that’s true was a question I intended to answer with last weekend’s despairing follow-up—an untitled work with, amusingly, a question mark for an album cover. It began with “instructions” telling me that with careful listening the album would “open” my “mind,” creating a bond I might “listen to it anywhere.” Always one for a challenge, I placed in my vision an image of X’s abused girlfriend to keep steady as I moved from location to location (as per X’s advice). If the album were truly successful, I might see her and shrug.
To its credit, the sounds of Question Mark, as the untitled album is referred to, are indeed evocative. Taking it outside to the reliably depressing landmarks of my everyday—sushi restaurants and cans of diet Dr. Pepper lodged in the snow—I was satisfied with the album’s ability to mirror its surroundings. Some of that is low effort—it’s no trick crafting such hoary, monochromatic synthscapes—but Question Mark also makes unexpected counterpoise with its ambitious use of guitars. Fitting for an artist whose listed inspirations include Nirvana, Papa Roach, and the Fray, the album ultimately wears its influence in its rock instrumentation. In bombastic moments, they recall the soaring electric-line sound Mike Dean has developed for Kanye West in songs like “Hold My Liquor” and “Wolves.” When X adds an icy, subliminal atmosphere, he does so in the fashion immortalized by The Cure on their albums Faith and Seventeen Seconds—angular guitar lines slither through his tracks like snakes in water. It’s all an endearingly reverent, even pie-eyed homage to musical heroes, and it left me wondering if the listener was even remotely as valued. Not that I require constant innovation, but the truth is the surface sonics on Question are too slick and visible to allow personal connection, whereas the comparatively rudimentary “Look At Me” had me rushing to read different writers interpret its unrecognizable, bass-boosted Mala sample. Here, only one response seems possible—the height of functionality, sure, but not in the way X would appear to intend.
Forging an intimate sonic relationship is therefore unlikely, which leaves most of the heavy lifting to X’s words. His stated goal on Question Mark was to “provide comfort”—a mission that sees X peeking out behind episodes of terminal depression (“And every single year/I’m drowning in my tears again) to reassure us of its illusory nature (“Ooh ahh/love yourself”). This wisdom often draws its authority from X’s first-person reminiscence, but sometimes involves something like character roleplay, as on the lush and gently trap-inflected breakout hit “Sad!” Here, X enters the mind of a tentatively suicidal girl (“Who am I?/Someone that’s afraid to let go”), though his insights stop well short of the penetrating (“I’m sad, I know, yeah / I’m sad, I know, yeah”), and mostly recall the annoyance of high-schoolers who claim they can control their dreams. Such is the supercilious nature of Question Mark’s insights; the “learned survival skills” come off like unproven guru junk—dispatches to the helpless passed down from a plane only X can reach. Finding no comfort, I thought back to one classic album also mired in depression: Joy Division’s Closer. There, trapped in the specificity of his own torment, frontman Ian Curtis explored the outer limits of his tortured soul with little hope of a solution (indeed, he famously took his own life following the record’s completion). Enduring X’s attempt to invade mine with his “remedy for a broken heart” (“Mix a little bit of weed/with a little bit of cash”…thanks) helped me understand why one album eased my mind and the other didn’t: I fundamentally don’t care how much you think you know about me. It’s inevitably less than I know about myself, so show me what you understand about yourself. If it’s a lot, maybe I can place my trust in you as a fellow human traveler. X’s confidence that he might outpace his ethical baggage by ignoring it suggests he has a lot left to learn before he makes useful music. But, also, like, who cares.