Review Summary: Please don't throw your love away.
There's always been something that captivated me about XXXTENTACION. My introduction to him was "Caution", an absolutely vicious song lasting about one minute and featuring some of the most righteously pissed vocals I'd heard in a rap song at the time. It's funny, but reading the lyrics to the song, including the repeated refrain of "What's up?! F*ck that!" dominating the last lines of the song, you'd assume you're listening to some sort of angsty, angry high school kid from the projects. And then you realize you are, and somehow it all clicks in a way that's hard to describe.
Then after some searching, not only do you realize this kid is really good at this screamed, raging, bass-heavy, explosive trap that sometimes borders on industrial hip-hop, he's also got another side to him that one would never have guessed after hearing something like "Gnarly Bastard" for the first time. He's got this affinity for indie and R&B and hard rock artists that often appears in his tracks, most notably the ethereal "I Don't Wanna Do This Anymore" and the brooding "Never". The kid himself stated that he would love to work with artists like Lorde if given the opportunity, showing a strong ambition and at the same time acknowledging the versatility that makes him who he is as an artist.
This dichotomy between these two sides of his music can be explained by his suffering from bipolar disorder (or something on that spectrum), an affliction which has manifested itself both as creative music and destructive behavior. He met his best friend, fellow rapper $ki Mask THE SLUMP GOD, in a county jail, where he allegedly beat a man very badly just for looking at him funny. Because his struggle with this disorder is so often reflected in his music, it gives it an authenticity that is quite palpable. On many occasions, this authenticity about his feelings lead his music to deal with depression and suicidal ideations, and it's these types of feelings that 17
is all about.
The bulk of the record is spent in a decidedly moody and often gloomy atmosphere, and while there are songs that dabble in indie rock, indie folk, and singer/songwriter piano ballads, where XXXTENTACION, and by extension the record, is best is within the admittedly beautiful alternative R&B style of sing-rapping that he'd proven more than adequate at in the last couple of years. While few things here scream originality, it's the range of styles that are performed here that allows for a nicely varied listen sonically, while the atmosphere and the lyrics keep the album very cohesive.
Perhaps the two best examples of this material are found in opener "Jocelyn Flores" and "F*ck Love". The former is a dark, but ultimately gorgeous piece of work that showcases not only XXXTENTACION's surprisingly great vocal chops, but his ear for solid melodies and the better side of his downtrodden lyricism. The latter, with a wonderful chorus sung by Trippie Redd, sounds like an impressive attempt at a song that one could easily see Lil Uzi Vert doing, with its powerful vocals and melodicism dominating the track.
This ear for melodies also save songs that would otherwise be pretty unremarkable. Take for instance "Revenge". It's based on very simple and almost nondescript acoustic guitar riff and light drum beat, but manages to be an enjoyable track because of the swell vocal melodies peppered throughout. It's similar with "Orlando", a piano-based track that almost works as a vocal version of Hans Zimmer's "Time", as the song is buoyed by a couple of really nice melodies in the verses and chorus.
When he chooses to go sparse with one instrument, the results are a mixed bag. For instance, "Depression And Obsession" is easily the plainest song on the album, featuring X with an acoustic guitar, with nothing really of note happening musically or lyrically. It sounds nice, but that's about it. On the other hand, "Dead Inside", which sees XXXTENTACION move to the piano, is done much better. The vocals are noticeably pained (which is to say that the dude sounds like he's about to burst into tears), and the vocal melodies are quite good as well over the relatively simplistic piano chords.
You can't forget about the production either, as it generally does a great job setting the desired mood and even provides some minimal-yet-memorable moments on songs like "Carry On" and "Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares". One of XXXTENTACION's greatest strengths, stretching back to when he first appeared in the underground, is that he has a fantastic ear for the right producers and a feel for production that is quite impressive.
One of the best things about the album as a whole is that it's very easy to tell that the kid put his soul into it, not only from the way he sounds vocally and the spoken word intro that opens the album in "The Explanation", but because the issues sung of here are issues that plague not only him, but much of his fan base as well. He's not saying anything novel or profound or even cryptic, it's basically just him extending a hand to those people who relate to his struggle with mental illness and saying "I understand what you're going through and you're not by yourself in all this".
Thus, it's easy to see why some of the teenage angst and cliches that pop up in his music can be forgiven: this is a snapshot of his mindset between the ages of 16-19. Angsty? Certainly and almost unavoidably so. Authentic? You bet. Being authentic doesn't necessarily mean that your music is good, but in this case, the music has added weight to it that helps solidify the record.
The main drawback of this project lies squarely on the notion that if you're not invested or even remotely interested in who XXXTENTACION is as a person or what he's attempting to say, much of the music here may just sound like decently done, darker R&B and teenage angst marrying each other, or even just a kid's misguided attempt at a moody indie album. Surely, the somewhat lo-fi production that so characterizes the project lends a bit of an amateurish vibe to it, and the album barely breaks the twenty minute mark, which may further reinforce that notion. And, lets face it, there are some lines here that it would not strain credulity to call "eye-rollingly cliche", with "Save Me" in particular leaning very heavily on tropes both musically and lyrically.
Certainly, audiences will be split over this record in the same way that they are split over the rest of his material. Garnering controversy from your musical escapades doesn't always mean you're a fantastic artist or even a merely decent one, but it usually does mean that you're worth talking about and by extension listening to. That he understands this at such a young age, combined with his strong ambition, is why he's been able to gain relevancy despite coming up from basically nothing.
All this said, there's no reason to think that XXXTENTACION won't be around for a while, not only given the loyalty of his fanbase, but also his penchant for unpredictability and his status as one of the poster-boys for the "SoundCloud rapper" movement that has gained a ton of traction as of late. Reportedly, his next endeavor, Bad Vibes
, will be an album full of that intense and hard-hitting trap/industrial hip-hop mentioned before, but that's another story in the saga. For now, 17
is as good of a reminder as any that XXXTENTACION is officially here, and as long as he has an outlet for his creative vision and said vision stays quality, he's not going to leave anytime soon.