Review Summary: Give up.
Here’s a question: Why?
It’s such a big, empty, meaningless question. But it’s an important question to ask; Why, for instance, do we listen to XXXTentacion? Why do we discuss his new album? Why do we forgive it for being better than 17
? Why does he continue to garner co-signs from bigger, better artists? What is the ‘Why
?’ of XXXTentacion? Why
As someone who writes about music a lot, and for whom this business of art and expression is of at least some consequence, I genuinely try at all times to have empathy not just for subjects but those who listen to them. It’s an extension of deferring to subjectivity as an explainer, but also an effective device for avoiding overt displays of cynicism in assessing music that I might have overseen. In effect, though I try to have some authority over what I’m listening to and what I’m saying, I try to leave some room for opinions to squirm, adapt, or shift. Sometimes, though, I listen to music so obnoxiously and obviously bad that it’s hard to abide by those principles. As a recent example of this, Eminem’s Revival
managed to irritate my critical faculties and move me towards expressing my opinions in the form of shi
t, inarticulate ranting; however, I did still try to provide a measure of distance by heeding the fact that, yes, Eminem did have some career and narrative that could provide context and perspective on this bad album that stood before me. In contrast, XXXTentacion’s ?
has no obvious piece or argument against which I can measure its quality. 17
was a bad album, and that’s that. There’s just no way of observing this prism of poor taste beyond simply and unequivocally communicating that it is bad.
I know that it might be difficult to read that statement as self-evident— what with this inarticulate, frustrated, and childish man admitting to attacking homosexuals and his girlfriend for no apparent reason, and then promoting those occurrences as inspirational or moments of pride for him both in conversation and in song— so, in the interest of compelling the widest readership possible that ?
is not worth more than the most cursory of thoughts, I want to try to address the exact ‘Why?
’ of XXXTentacion, whether that be his career, this album, or his listenership. And I want to do it whilst restraining myself from passionately and rhetorically becoming exacerbated with the ridiculous phenomenon that is XXXTentacion.
Here’s the thing, though. I can’t do it. I really can’t. It is honestly just far too ***ing difficult for me to suspend my emotional faculties for too long without seeing that ?
is succeeding in any way at all, whether that be critically or commercially. For me, to see that ?
is gaining even a modicum of equivocation and qualification from critics is the most disappointing aspect of all of this, and although it’s retaining a relative critical backlash— nobody is pausing for this disparate atrocity— there’s a narrative building that ?
is somehow an improvement on 17
. Which it isn’t. It isn’t better than 17
is bad, but it’s possible to listen to both and recognize that they’re both bad. This exercise in granting credence to emotionally stunted, bad musicians is something that is truly stunning to bare witness to.
Mind, this is all without even discussing ?
as a piece of music, which is itself a task of patience and perseverance that, again, I would argue XXXTentacion has not earned nor should we accord to him. But in the interest of reviewing the music, the explanation of ?’s
badness is plain: he is a musically inept, emotionally challenged, uninspired narcissist, totally bereft of the ability to incorporate influences into songs driven by melodies and rhythm, and for whom instead bad simulacrum of bad songs becomes a songwriting skillset. In execution, his performances and compositions hue close to the amateurish, barely noticeable, laptop generated beats found somewhere in the margins of SoundCloud’s ‘type-’ beat section. The songs noodle on endlessly, and unlike, say, Chief Keef, who contemporaneously reinvented genre and musical convention with his unschooled production techniques, they possess no charm or potential for reinvention. ?
merely houses songs that are poorly written to an almost comical degree.
Take for instance “Sad!,” which, if you can ignore the obvious reference and the horrendously mean-spirited lyrics (‘Suicide if you ever try to let go
’), doesn’t do much beyond dawdle aimlessly past a repeated chorus and bridging verse. The inflection on the melody is perhaps of slight interest, but that’s without ceding that it doesn’t shift, change, or emphasize itself at all in the space of under three-minutes— a long, laborious, difficult three minutes. As an archetype, it represents the bulk of ?’s
intrinsic faults, being that XXXTentacion is so incapable of writing music that is simply tasteful that he fails to meet even the secondary qualities of passable. ?
is less than 40-minutes long, boasts a wealth of variety in instrumentation and genres explored, and gives XXX enough space in which to try new things with his vocals. The problem however is that he does almost nothing with all of this free space, and instead leans into a style that any teenager with a computer could muster if they too had an attention problem; for an album where “Sad!” is the single and choice cut, that’s rather poor.
Which is fitting, because ?
is a poor album. Much like 17
, it features an introductory explainer that serves to explore the themes of the record; however, instead of ‘literally entering [his] mind
,’ he implores the listener to, ‘open your mind
.’ Opening to the mind what, though, is a mystery, because the salad of styles on display here run a relatively minor spectrum between nu-metal, midwestern emo, trap, boom bap, and pop rock, and don’t offer much in the way of a major shift from XXX’s either hyper-aggressive or sulky-miserable style he’s explored prior. The more inquisitive listener might understand that introduction to be an excuse rather than a disclaimer, a verbal signal that XXX cannot let his music speak for itself either because he isn’t capable of writing music so basically passable that it can speak for itself, or because he is readily aware that most people would not want to actively listen to bad music. Either way, he’s right; an open mind is just about the only thing that can shepard a listener through “Pain = BESTFRIEND,” a laughable lunge into screaming and digestible punk music; it’s the only thing that would make “I Don’t Even Speak Spanish Lol” not sound like a completely laughable and unaware attempt at a sleeper dancehall hit; and, moreover, it’s the only thing that could make anybody want to bother with “Changes,” an obvious aping of The Script that gives XXX space in which to channel his melodramatic whining. One can only imagine that if they were to open their mind in this context, then they would be doing a disservice to themselves first and foremost.
Believe me when I say that it causes me both intellectual and emotional pain to finish an argument by encouraging listeners to close their minds, but when the alternative is so brilliantly crude and inept, I feel as if I have no other choice than to do exactly that. I had to ask myself when reviewing ?
; [/i]Why[/i]? I still don’t think I can answer that question. The ‘Why?
’ that surrounds XXXTentacion’s existence and continuing commercial and critical existence confounds me, as much as I am aware of how I must be providing at least some degree of infamy in airing my grievances with him. For that, I apologize. However, I do so because I don’t want others to have to listen to albums like ?
; albums that inexplicably receive praise and plaudits despite being so obviously and self-evidently not good. I can state my case in as many words, trying to write rhetorical ellipses around my argument, but I can just as simply say it simply: please do not listen to this album.