How XXXTentacion Fits Into the History of Young Listeners Embracing Problematic Artists

XXXTentacion
Jack McKain

XXXTentacion

South Florida alternative rapper XXXTentacion is unmissable on the Billboard charts this week. He's topped the Billboard 200 albums chart with his second full-length LP, the ambiguously titled ?, which moves 130,000 album equivalent units and also notches seven songs on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. The highest of those, "Sad!," jumps from 19-7 this week, becoming his first top 10 entry on the all-purpose listing. 

This chart omnipresence may come as something of a shock to listeners who mostly know the artist born Jahseh Onfroy for the non-music headlines he's been involved in since his mainstream breakthrough in late 2016, with the crossover SoundCloud smash "Look At Me!" The 20-year-old artist is currently awaiting trial on charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering (as well as 15 additional felony counts relating to the case), and was held under house arrest from late December through March 21. (The court testimony from Onfrey's alleged victim -- widely circulated last September -- was particularly harrowing.) The stories have, understandably, led many to wonder how the music-listening community could continue to support such an artist.

But these headlines have not slowed down XXXTentacion's career momentum at all. Despite virtually nonexistent radio play -- XXX has yet to appear on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Radio Airplay chart as a lead artist -- as well as minimal label promotion and no recent tour dates, ? scored one of the year's best debut weeks thus far, thanks almost entirely to streaming: The set's 106,000 streaming equivalent albums moved is second only to Migos' Culture II for the biggest streaming week for an album this year, equating to roughly 159.4 million on-demand audio streams. Those numbers are up from his previous set, 17, released in August 2017, which moved 87,000 equivalent album units first week, albeit with fewer total songs to stream -- ? is 18 tracks long, where 17 runs for just 11.

These numbers paint an uncomfortable truth for many about XXXTentacion's current place in youth culture. He's not a figure being market-tested and pushed on kids as the next big thing -- his success has come almost entirely outside of the realm of pop's Big Machine. Instead, listeners are actively seeking out his music across new-media platforms, while rushing to his defense on Twitter and in comments sections, and devouring his sparse contributions on Instagram (where he currently has 6.9 million followers but just two live postings). He is, quite simply, a star. 

In many ways, this is as old a story as can be found in the rock era of popular music, in which a sense of danger, lawlessness, and operating outside of the mainstream has always been a part of the success stories of ultimately iconic artists -- particularly, it should be said, of such male artists. Across the generations, parents have believed that everyone from Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Guns N' Roses and N.W.A to Eminem and Tyler, the Creator would be responsible for the crumbling of society's fabric, for a range of real and imagined sins ranging from relative trivialities like long hair and loud volume to legitimately harmful behavior like prejudicial slurs and domestic violence. While controversial (though exceedingly popular) in their own time, history has traditionally shone favorably on all of these artists' music, with their sense of real-life rebelliousness inextricably baked into their reputations as musical innovators and envelope-pushers.

Whether or not XXXTentacion belongs in that lineage, it certainly seems like he's attempting to position himself as part of it. The most frequently mentioned artist when discussing XXX's relationship to current youth culture is the late Nirvana frontman and grunge icon Kurt Cobain, the patron saint of teen angst. The artist is frequently namechecked in hip-hop culture, but more rarely invoked and emulated quite so directly: Onfroy has said that Cobain is the only artist that inspires him, and his music has drifted further and further towards underground rock in recent releases, to the point where the album's spoken-word features the artist openly classifying his work as "the alternative sound." The press release sent out by AKW PR for ? even explicitly states, "Fans have taken the charge now and made him the post-millennial Generation Z’s answer to Kurt Cobain." The wording there is telling, and speaks to at least one relatively inarguable truth: No artist can convincingly call themselves the voice of a generation without that generation echoing it en masse. 

Positioning XXXTentacion as this generation's Kurt Cobain is a logical narrative for the artist and his camp to try to write, since it casts him as the troubled, volatile genius whose music is a reflection of his difficult upbringing and his subsequent alienation from society. It also lets him play the underestimated outsider, putting up numbers comparable to the most mainstream pop stars while clearly still operating from an underground space, like Nirvana's Nevermind famously knocking Michael Jackson off the top spot of the Billboard 200 in 1992. And it also allows for XXX to deflect any form of criticism as further evidence of his being "misunderstood," creating an endless loop of feedback that only serves to further incense his critics and to fortify his fanbase's devotion. 

Of course, Kurt Cobain would undoubtedly blanch at the comparison, and at XXX in general. Though the artists indeed share a troubled backstory and a musical inclination towards haunting expressions of inner turmoil, Cobain was an avowed feminist for the majority of his career, outspoken in his support of female causes -- writing in the liner notes to Nirvana's Incestiside compilation about "two wastes of sperm and eggs" who assaulted a woman while singing the band's rape-themed "Polly" ballad, concluding "I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience." But not even Cobain himself can be totally excluded from this narrative: The Nirvana frontman was arrested in 1993 on suspicion of domestic assault, with a police report that included the singer-songwriter pushing wife Courtney Love to the floor and choking her. Love asserted that the two were simply wrestling, and no charges were ultimately filed, but it seems possible that news of the report would cast Cobain's legacy in a much different light if it was released today. 

Ultimately, much of what most separates XXXTentacion's example from the stories of these other problematic, youth-beloved artists comes down to two things: Timing and exposure. The horrible things that Axl Rose and Dr. Dre were accused of having done at their commercial peaks didn't come to light concurrently with their rise to fame, and they weren't widely disseminated to the point where the most horrific details of their bad behavior were already publicly known by most non-Day One listeners by the time they first heard the artist's music. And in the broader sense, XXX's alleged offenses have been revealed in a time when abuse of women is -- at least in some corners of the media and society -- more abhorred than it's ever been, with legitimate and lasting career consequences befalling powerful film and TV figures like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Woody Allen, who've all been accused of varying degrees of sexual misconduct. 

There have been examples of this to be found in the music industry, too. R&B star R. Kelly canceled tour dates in the wake of reports that he was holding women in a "sex cult," while Billboard 200-topping emo favorites Brand New canceled their entire tour after frontman Jesse Lacy was accused of sexual exploitation of minors, and critically acclaimed punk outfit PWR BTTM were not only dropped from their Polyvinyl label, but had their most recent album pulled from stores and streaming services, after reports circulated of member Ben Hopkins being a "known sexual predator." However, the #MeToo moment has yet to materially disrupt the momentum of a newer artist as galvanizing as XXX -- and if it hasn't happened yet with him, after accounts of such terrible violence by his hand have become common knowledge, it's hard to see what further revelations could happen at this point to derail his career, especially as the numbers show him still trending up, if anything. 

The career arc of Chris Brown is an obvious precedent here. Unlike XXX, Brown was already well established as a superstar by the time news (and photos) of his domestic assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna went public, but the details of that incident were similarly horrifying -- and came at the expense of a fellow major artist who fans were already exceedingly familiar with. But while Brown's pop star status waned in the short term, and arguably never quite reached the same status again, he remained a fixture in the musical mainstream in large part thanks to the unwavering devotion of his #TeamBreezy fanbase, and nearly a decade later remains a regular presence on the charts -- even debuting in this week's Hot 100 top 10 via his appearance on Lil Dicky's "Freaky Friday." It's not hard to imagine XXX's fanbase bunkering down in a similar fashion, keeping him an unignorable commercial factor no matter what the prevailing wisdom about him is in the larger music world. 

But of course, that was a decade ago, and the dissonance caused with XXXTentacion's continual rise feels particularly jarring in 2018 -- and particularly following this weekend, when news of his topping the Billboard 200 was published just a day after the March for Our Lives protests occurred nationwide, a movement in large part inspired by, organized and led by young people. The American public has rarely trusted in the country's youth in such a way as they have in response to this tragedy, with teens venerated for the maturity of their responses to the unthinkable events of the Parkland shooting, and even looked to for guidance, to serve as the country's social conscience at a time when many adults seem to agree that they've failed the next generation.

Yet it's much of that younger generation that's turned XXX into a star -- and perhaps eventually, an icon -- despite the allegations of his wildly destructive behavior. And XXX himself has even attempted to play a part in the movement, dedicating the ? track "Hope" to "the kids who lost their lives in the Parkland shooting," while also holding the A Helping Hand benefit concert for victims of the shooting. For listeners outside his bubble (and likely above his age range), the disconnect can be perplexing. 

And if you look to the lessons of rock and rap history, you might very well conclude, well, that's how it should be. Again, parents and other older listeners not understanding the youth's decision-making when it comes to electing their generational icons has been a central tenet of popular culture for about as long as it's existed. The kids -- even these kids -- not caring about the moral imperatives the media and adult world places on their music-listening would be the furthest thing imaginable from unprecedented. XXX's example is undoubtedly an extreme one; extreme enough that many publications who would otherwise give feature coverage to an artist of his type would refrain from doing so, that venues he would likely sell out would decline to book him, that radio stations who could traditionally benefit from his star power wouldn't risk playing him. But is it extreme enough to undo the relationship between art and youth culture that's existed for 60 years, if not far longer? 

Maybe it is. Maybe the video that surfaced this week of what appears to be him striking a woman in the head -- his lawyers claim the act was in jest -- will serve as a tipping point for his fanbase. If not immediately, it's certainly possible that the longer XXXTentacion's popularity subsists, the greater the crusade becomes to counteract his prosperity, and that eventually his presence in the pop sphere becomes so toxic that non-traditional avenues to success are no longer made available to him, and even the kids stop listening. There was a time when behavior like Harvey Weinstein's was glumly assumed to be just the way of the world, when people wondered if R. Kelly's misconduct would ever have an impact on his enduring popularity, when no one would've thought to actually let the Parkland high schoolers be the spokespeople for their own tragedy. The world has changed in such great and unanticipatable ways in the last two years that it would actually be naive to think an artist like XXX's continued flourishing is in any way guaranteed.  

Really, only time will tell if he simply becomes the latest example in the lineage of artists with problematic but ultimately celebrated narratives, or if he becomes the example that proves just how broken that general narrative is, forcing music fans to reckon with the ways in which rock and rap iconography has always been poisonous. But in March 2018, the numbers don't leave much room for a question mark.

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