Review Summary: XXXtentacion's latest project, punctuated with moments of stripped down emotion, is tinged with violent and troubling overtones.
XXXtentacion begins his new album with a lo-fi personal message:
“By listening to this album you are literally - I can not stress this enough - I mean literally entering my mind.” He ends the 55-second monologue with this: “I put my all into this in hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression.”
On his latest project the Broward County, Florida rapper stays true to this heavy-handed opening message and delivers a 22-minute emotional letter to his fans. The album is genre-bending and beautifully experimental at its best. At its low moments it is overwrought emotional writhing. X is having his moment in the sun thanks to his fervent fans who have pulled him from the teeming pits of Soundcloud rappers into the national hip-hop discussion. His first Soundcloud track was released in 2014 and since then he has amassed over 400 million listens. His most popular track, “Look at Me,” features a Migos-inspired triplet flow and blown-out, over-produced bass, but X is a far more versatile artist than this track lets on. On 17 he shows this versatility and employs an emo-rap style that relies heavily on backing vocals and naked, minimal guitar.
An inescapable element of 17 is Onfroy’s looming and persistent legal troubles. As he discusses in an extensive 2016 No Jumper interview he was raised in a single-parent home outside of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and was constantly in trouble with teachers, administrators, and eventually the police. X has spent time in jail for home invasion and aggravated assault and is currently under investigation for domestic battery of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Onfroy is pleading not guilty to the charges and is awaiting a trial. The story is an unsavory one to say the least and has cast a shadow of violence over his latest release. There is a longer discussion to be had about whether it is OK to like the art that is produced by morally questionable artists. To make a deep rabbit hole shallower, I do not come to an album looking for moral guidance and can evaluate 17 as a piece of music before I consider the morality of its creator. The territory is sticky, however, because every stream on Spotify is pushing his name higher on the charts and giving him a larger platform. These ideas competed in my mind throughout the project and remain unresolved.
As a piece of music, 17 peaks early and then limps to an uninspiring end. The Trippie Redd feature on “*** Love,” the eighth track, is horrendous. Trippie Redd’s whiny voice makes the hook nearly unlistenable. Luckily “*** Love” comes after three extremely strong tracks at the top of the album. “Jocelyn Flores,” “Depression & Obsession,” and “Everybody Dies in Their Nightmares” are all excellent tracks. Shiloh Dynasty, an anonymous Instagram vocalist, is sampled heavily in all three and blends perfectly with X’s flow. Dynasty’s voice is elegant and creates a gentle background that meshes with the darkly emotional verses from X.
It’s true that the allegations from X’s ex-girlfriend are still exactly that, allegations, but when X addresses the situation directly on “Revenge,” “Save Me,” and “Carry On” I have trouble with his lyrics and overall message. The amount of anger and calls for violence against his girlfriend in these three songs are not something I can nod my head to. His singing on “Save Me” is a serious weakness and could have been much stronger if he sampled Shiloh Dynasty again for this track. On “Carry On” Shiloh’s vocals are perfect and ethereal, but X’s victim narrative has worn thin by this point in the project. On “Everybody Dies in Their Nightmares” he is rapping more aggressively and impressively, but on “Carry On” he is lagging in both energy and pathos with the listener.
The 22-minute album raises more questions than answers moving forward. The hip-hop community will continue to be polarized over X’s checkered legal past, but it will also continue to discuss his releases and new music. On 17 he gives us a taste of how easily he can defy the label of Soundcloud rapper and evolve beyond the generic xanax-fueled bars of many of 2017’s momentary stars.