Review Summary: reaching comparisons abound
The last two-odd years have not been kind to Florida-based hip-hop collective Members Only. We learned that XXXTentacion is not the least controversial person ever—although one that does suffer from serious mental health problems; Ski Mask the Slump God was accused of sexual assault; and basically all the other members—excluding Wifisfuneral—faded into irrelevance. However, on May 18, we were blessed with a tape from one of those forgotten members: Craig Xen.
Xen’s new album, "Hell Bent," is his first in several years, although he put out a steady stream of singles in the interim. Despite his affiliation with Members Only, Xen is originally from Houston, although his music is deeply influenced by that Floridian SoundCloud wave, which has become so successful years after SpaceGhostPurpp essentially invented it (allegedly).
The album’s name kind of says it all really, particularly for a guy whose style sounds like a mash-up of Meek Mill and Gorgoroth. I mean that in incredibly positive terms, as I am personally a big fan of Craig Xen. His music, more than any of the more popular "SoundCloud Rap” is evocative of hardcore punk and metal, both in its intensity and emotional content.
On tracks like 'FWM God,' Xen is nihilistically defiant, while on others like 'Success in One Song' he is far more revealing and introspective. Such varying extremes remind me of—stay with me here—some of Black Flag’s later work. Albums like My War and Family Man mixed heavy-riffs and screaming with a pained rage, both in the music and lyrics.
On Hell Bent, Xen calls upon Wifisfuneral ('Murder' and 'Midday')—the other not-so-problematic member of Members Only—and Yung Bans ('Killa'), the rookie Atlantan rapper who has recently been the subject of attention and praise from critics and audiences. These features, although minimal in terms of the album as a whole, are well-placed. Yung Bans offers a restrained contrast to Xen’s aggression on 'Killa' and Wifisfuneral is arguably the most lyrically talented rapper to come out of the “Soundcloud” movement in South Florida.
Lyrically, Xen himself isn’t really mind-blowing; not to say his lyrics are bad, but they aren't god-tier. But like a lot of his contemporaries, he makes up for a certain lack of substance with cadence and delivery. My man raps aggressively as *** about really intense things—from hyperbolic murder fantasies to mental illness—and it pretty much works for him.
For me, that’s exactly what I want out of this type of rap. Tracks like '1 Deep” and “Masochism,' as well as some of the ones mentioned earlier, are of the type that motivate you to flail about wildly amongst a group of sweaty strangers. Intellectual and poetic hip-hop is cool, but so is "Hell Bent," with its simple, straightforward aggression. Consider also that Xen incorporates narratives about personal flaws and vulnerability, making the album something more than just a study in thrash.
Like I said, "Hell Bent" feels a lot like old hardcore; flawed people making flawed music, which ends up being good because it’s flawed.