XXXTentacion’s Death Deserves More Than Indifference

Even if you don’t mourn for the controversial, violent rapper, his story, and his fans, shouldn’t be casually dismissed.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Miami Dade County Corrections via Getty Images.

Jahseh Onfroy, the 20-year-old rapper, singer, and songwriter who was better named by his sobriquet XXXTentacion, was shot to death near Miami in the middle of the afternoon on Monday, an abrupt and violent end to a short and brutally violent life. If you’re outside of a certain age range and demographic, there’s a good chance that you have only a vague and probably unpleasant idea of who XXXTentacion is. (The nom de rap is pronounced “ex-ex-ex tentación,” as in the Spanish word for temptation.) Perhaps you read the immensely disturbing details obtained by Pitchfork last fall of the charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering brought against him by Miami prosecutors. Perhaps you read about his ban from Spotify playlists under their “hateful conduct” policy, which was later rescinded after artists such as Kendrick Lamar complained. (Earlier this morning, Spotify had XXXTentacion in a featured position on their homepage, in case anyone had any lingering doubts about corporate moral fortitude.) Perhaps you have read the outstanding, unflinching profile of the artist and his abuse victim penned by Miami New Times reporter Tarpley Hitt just two weeks ago, which is where I’d recommend starting, provided you have the stomach for it.

It’s also quite possible that you’ve never listened to his music, at least not intentionally, which is understandable, because XXXTentacion probably didn’t make music for you, nor for me for that matter. I never loved nor even much liked his work, and while I wish I could say that that dislike was entirely the product of moral conviction, I suspect at least part of it was also the product of the fact that I’m in my late 30s and graduated high school a year before Jahseh Onfroy was born. There were many, many people to whom that work spoke, though, and while maybe that’s a sign of a generation that’s irrevocably lost its way, take a moment to think about how many times that claim has been made about young people and their musical tastes.

It’s difficult to eulogize an artist who, by all available evidence including his own frequent admission, was a deeply troubled and sometimes monstrous human being, so I won’t really try to do that here. I do believe that all people are capable of rehabilitation and redemption under the right circumstances. Maybe Jahseh Onfroy would never have gotten there even if he’d lived a long life, but now he’ll never have a chance. Another thing that should be said is that XXXTentacion was both undeniably talented and absolutely huge. He only released two official albums over the course of his career, last year’s 17  and this year’s ?, with the former peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard chart and the latter debuting at No. 1. He was an artist who blended genres in interesting if sometimes awkward ways and was clearly possessed by a fanatical need to express himself through music. Most of his work was perched at the intersection of DIY R&B, hip-hop, and emo, and would often draw promiscuously from all three genres within a single, two-minute song. (XXXTentacion was prolific, but he was never long-winded.)

He was one of the biggest names to emerge from the vague and messy landscape of “SoundCloud rap,” a catchall term for hip-hop or hip-hop–adjacent artists who use the open-access streaming platform to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of the music industry. He first rose to prominence with “Look at Me!”, a distortion-drenched squawl of DIY shock-rap that cracked the Top 40 in early 2017, more than a year after it had been first released on SoundCloud. When the track began its unlikely rise, XXXTentacion was in prison for violating a house-arrest agreement, and word soon circulated through the hip-hop underground of his lengthy rap sheet, which also included charges of armed home invasion, robbery, burglary, possession of a firearm, and possession of oxycodone.

In the wake of “Look at Me,” XXXTentacion’s career took off like a rocket, unmistakably fueled by the notoriety of his violent, criminal behavior. This prompted a spate of pieces wondering about the ethics of covering the artist, which only intensified when he was named to XXL magazine’s vaunted “Freshman Class” in summer of 2017. When 17 came out in August of that year, it was hard to know how to respond to it: It was an album whose rage at the world was rivaled only by its maker’s own evident pain and self-loathing. XXXTentacion’s music proved capable of moments of startling emotional depth (the suicide rumination “Jocelyn Flores”) along with sickening fits of violent nihilism (the virulently misogynist “Revenge”). Pitchfork critic Meaghan Garvey described it as “an album whose disparate influences dissolve in an acid bath of raw feeling” but went on to note that “it is impossible to navigate the line between cathartic solidarity with his listeners and valorization of rage, to the point of excusing the reprehensible behavior it can inspire in those who don’t see a way out.”

By the time ? came out this past spring, the lines had been drawn: XXXTentacion’s rabid fans made it the No. 1 album in the land, while many mainstream publications declined to cover it. Its first single, “Sad!,” was a dreamy, ethereal riff on suicide that was coursing with undertones of abuse. It was also the clearest indication yet that the artist’s penchant for jagged emotional unpleasantness was congealing into a brand. It reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, the biggest hit of his career to date, even though many radio stations kept the song at arm’s length. XXXTentacion, ignored by all of us who didn’t want to help make him famous, had become one of the most popular musicians in the country with both a lyrical sensibility and a lifestyle seemingly rooted in violence, rage, despair, and pain in all directions. What happens when the “problematic” evolves into an actual problem? For once no one seemed to have an answer.

When news of XXXTentacion’s death reached social media yesterday, I saw more than a few tasteless jokes and self-righteous suggestions that he had it coming, which, I don’t know, I have trouble mining any feelings of superiority or “justice” from the killing of a 20-year-old, no matter what he did in his life. Not too long ago, that was someone’s actual child. Moreover, these public performances of indifference send a message to a whole lot of people who are hurting today that their pain doesn’t matter or somehow constitutes its own failing, a message that probably feels to those people like it comes from those who couldn’t have been bothered to learn anything about the broader cultural constellation that produced this artist’s music while he was still alive.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of our “woke” pop cultural moment is a belief that the consumption of certain art and artists is, on its own, a moral and political act, and that there exists a one-to-one relationship between the (presumed) rectitude of the creators of art and the rectitude of those of us who consume it. XXXTentacion did horrible things and now he’s dead, but we should reject the premise that anyone and everyone who enjoyed his music, who took meaning and pleasure and solace from it, is necessarily a bad or irredeemable person, at least any more so than someone who posts Childish Gambino videos to Twitter with the caption “THIS” is necessarily a good person. You may know more of the latter than the former, but the numbers would suggest you might know more of the former than you think. Those people just lost an artist who was important to them, who spoke to and for them when no one else seemed to, who just died in an act of brutal violence, and almost all of us of at any age know what that’s like. We don’t need to celebrate or mourn XXXTentacion today, but we can donate to his alleged victim’s GoFundMe or another domestic violence charity and maybe try to turn our thoughts to the people he left behind. As a song older than nearly all of us goes, this is a mean old world to live in by yourself.