Popular music has never known a story like that of South Florida rapper Jahseh “XXXTentacion” Onfroy.
In his final month as a 17-year-old high school dropout, he uploaded a song to SoundCloud that – almost single-handedly – changed the way hip-hop looks and sounds. He hit the charts with no record label besides his own imprint, no radio play and a near-total press blackout. Soon, it felt like the world’s most culture-shifting rap superstars were taking notes from him. Within a year, he would amass a legion of fans and become the face of a burgeoning subgenre – despite the fact that it seemed like the only photo of him was his 2016 mugshot. Within two, he would have a Number One album that sounded like nothing else on the charts, save for imitators in his wake. By 20, he was dead. Not since Ritchie Valens in 1959 has a musician carved such a huge cultural path, only to be cut down before they reach 21.
XXXTentacion’s achievements as a zeitgeist-grabbing, industry-defying, boundary-destroying phenomenon are overshadowed by reports of the abuse he inflicted on his pregnant ex-girlfriend. A deposition excerpted by Pitchfork and reporting from the Miami New Times pointed to a history of physical and mental violence that’s monstrous by any standard – most notably the allegations of beating her so severely that he damaged her optic nerve. During his life, XXX was callous about the accusations, even mocking. News media and social media made attempts to silence, de-platform and otherwise cancel him, but his impact on music will be felt for years to come nonetheless.
His debut single “Look at Me!” is one of the most unlikely, lo-fidelity, broken-sounding, blown-out songs to ever fling itself across the Billboard Top 40. Not even two and a half minutes, it plays like an alternate universe where circa 1989 cassette-hiss indie rock bands like Sebadoh or Tall Dwarfs could compete for chart stature against Bad English and White Lion. It’s vulgar and graphic (“I took a white bitch to Starbucks/That little bitch got her throat fucked”), but it’s harder to imagine radio playing it because of its sonics than its content – the track is distorted to the point of sounding like it was recorded from a car stereo blasting a block away. If the computer-produced, internet-distributed songs of Soulja Boy and Lil B were hip-hop’s original D.I.Y. punk revolution, then this was hardcore, ratcheting up the violence, shortening the attention span, and embracing the underproduced. Producer Rojas said XXX recorded it in 15 minutes.
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“It was like the worst recording set up, [but] you could set it up anywhere and that was the wave we were on,” cohort Ski Mask the Slump God told Rolling Stone about the gear they used at the time. “The raw energy of that – the distortion – is our specialty and we used that to our advantage.”
Shortly after the success of “Look at Me!,” XXX would release his debut LP, 2017’s 17, a pivot to narcoleptic songs that dealt openly with depression, heartbreak and suicidal thoughts on an album that was less than 22 minutes long. They still felt like first drafts, but these were tunes that sounded more like My Chemical Romance unplugged over a trap beat. With no real label beyond a distribution deal with Empire, and no physical version to speak of, it reached Number Two on the charts. Seven of its 11 songs charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
At points before and after signing a $6 million deal with Caroline in late 2017, publications like Pitchfork, Noisey and Uproxx ran articles with headlines like “You Don’t Have to Listen to Abusive Rappers“; “No Matter How Good The Rapper Is, Talent Shouldn’t Trump Human Decency“; and “XXXTentacion Is Blowing Up Behind Bars. Should He Be?” But the rarely spoken truth was that XXX didn’t need traditional media interviews, reviews and features to blow up – and those institutions ultimately didn’t succeed in tearing him down. Until the Caroline deal, XXX’s success seemed completely outside of the machinations of the music industry entirely – no label, no press, no radio, no late night TV spots. He was managed by a YouTube star with face tattoos. Streaming giant Spotify eventually formed and subsequently redacted a policy for him. The Billboard charts recently changed their algorithms in a way that – by accident or design – will likely prevent artists like him from succeeding again.
While XXX’s alleged crimes made him poison to much of the industry, it was generally assumed that they weren’t important to the teenagers streaming his music – or that they only added mystique. He was an ethical nightmare who used the democratic nature of the internet to work outside a system that has been in place for 80 years. His second album, titled ? – Caroline deal intact – topped the charts with ease.
The closest analogue for XXX’s short career – in terms of trajectory, not offstage conduct – may be Darby Crash, singer for punk pioneers the Germs. Crash drained his battered brain for his art, splayed his emotions, squalled noisily in a way that made even the underground feel overproduced, and was dead at 22 in 1980. Now imagine the tiny indie Slash Records somehow got “Lexicon Devil” to the Top 40 and Andy Gibb was saying things like “[L]isten to this album if you feel anything. [R]aw thoughts,” like Kendrick Lamar did of XXX last year.
Like the Germs, XXX’s bloody, exposed music is already highly influential. You can see it most obviously in labels signing rappers who also have a lo-fi, scribbly, emo-centric sound, but don’t come with the huge amounts of problematic baggage. Fellow Floridian Lil Pump, SoundCloud rap’s breakout star, was recently spoofed in an SNL sketch. The current Billboard Hot 100 features the acoustic strum and splatty bass of Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams,” Lil Pump’s noisy “Esskeetit” and Lil Skies’ SoundCloud-Rap-as-pop “I Know You” – songs that all owe something to the door kicked open by XXX. They likely won’t be the last.
Both of the recent albums from Kanye West, Ye and his Kid Cudi collabo Kids See Ghosts, have a diaristic, sketchpad, openly depressive feel that recalls XXX’s work. “Rest in peace I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here thank you for existing,” West tweeted yesterday.
Though XXXTentacion is gone, its hard to imagine a scenario where his musical influence won’t be looming large for at least the next few years. His recordings helped signal a new era of post-streaming, post-genre teenagers as likely to shout out Tupac as Papa Roach, and willing to be as loudly emotional as either. A generation of artists with colorful hair and face tattoos will be able to cite “Look at Me!” as a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment, exposing the world to a distorted, angry, proudly demo-quality underground. Though his life story will – justifiably – focus on the grisly details of the domestic abuse allegations, his look, sound, feel and raw emotion will still be touching nerves in rap’s bleeding edge.