Is Radio Starting to Embrace XXXTentacion?

Jack McKain
XXXTentacion

"I believe he’s going through a transformation, growing as an artist and as a person," says one radio PD of the controversial rapper.

XXXTentacion has achieved legitimate hip-hop stardom over the past 18 months, despite the harrowing controversies attached to his name. The 20-year-old Lauderhill, Florida, native's last two projects (? and 17) debuted on the Billboard 200 albums chart at Nos. 1 and No. 2, respectively. His latest single, "Sad!," also gave him his first top 10 on the Hot 100, as it vaulted to No. 7 (March 31), after "Look at Me" and "Jocelyn Flores" each entered the top 40 last year with hardly any radio impact. For XXXTentacion, streaming has been a saving grace: His legal drama -- including a litany of charges stemming from his 2016 domestic violence case -- has not stopped a large population of listeners from pressing play. Now, it seems as if radio is beginning to join the bandwagon.

Although "Sad!" sits at 2,000 lifetime radio spins compared to 145.3 million streams since its early March release, according to Nielsen Music, the song debuts at No. 31 on Rhythmic Songs, its first time on the airplay chart, and was up 91 percent in weekly plays for the week ending April 8. As XXXTentacion tries to rehabilitate his public image and continue to court a young fan base who seem willing to overlook the violent allegations, there is evidence that radio is increasingly open to giving his music a shot.

"X is talented and knows how to connect with his audience 24/7," Thea Mitchem, Power 105.1 WWPR-FM New York's program director, tells Billboard; Power played "Sad!" 32 times during the latest tracking week. "I believe he’s going through a transformation, growing as an artist and as a person -- as he should, he’s 20 and he will have to learn some lessons the hard way."

The Beat 105.5 WBTT-FM's program director, Eric Rosado, echoes Mitchem's sentiment, and has added "Sad!" to the Fort Myers, Fla. station's rotation, playing the record 24 times of the latest tracking week. "XXXTentacion has not only been one of the biggest names in the streaming world, and to the younger end of our demographic, but a South Florida artist from across the state, a little over an hour-and-a-half away from my market," says Rosado. "He carries a huge following in this part of the country, and while this may seem like a stretch to those that are not his core fan base, he is somewhat looked like as a Tupac of this era for many of the youth out here -- and now nationally."

As X's commercial might has continued to grow -- he moved 131,000 album equivalent units of in its debut week last month -- he has continued to make headlines based on disturbing personal behavior. On March 27, an undated video surfaced online that depicts X punching a girl on the side of her head. His attorney, Jaclyn Brody, attempted to debunk the nature of the footage, citing it as "aged and staged" when speaking to Billboard. On April 11, news surfaced that X is suing the alleged victim for fraud and defamation. 

"While there is a controversial past, sometimes, you can’t overthink it. You just have to look at the music. A hit is a hit, period," says Rosado, continuing the comparison between Tupac Shakur and XXXTentacion. "Tupac, as we know, went through some heavy allegations and spent time behind bars, but went on to have the strongest part of his career and most mainstream appeal after that controversy. If a song is big, a song is big."

Even after graphic details from his accuser's deposition were published by Pitchfork in September stemming from his domestic violence case in 2016, X has received mainstream co-signs. He has collaborated with Noah Cyrus, and gathered artists like Joey Bada$$ and Travis Barker on his latest album; last year, Kendrick Lamar cited X's "raw emotion" as his greatest attribute.

"He is very open about his life experiences and that hits home to many that can appreciate his authenticity," adds Rosado. "'Sad!' is his most radio-friendly record to date, it has the winning formula, is catchy, and sounds great on the air. It’s nothing too crazy that I can’t play all day."

Of course, XXXTentacion is not the first artist to succeed despite allegations of violence. For Mitchem, the lifespan of "Sad!" -- and the appetite for XXXTentacion's music on radio -- will ultimately be determined by fans.

"The audience will decide if 'Sad!' becomes a mainstream hit across all platforms. But with all artists who have challenges, I believe it’s about the music," she says. "It would be a mistake to put a litmus test on who is 'worthy' to play. Music is about emotion, love, hate, anger, joy, it’s storytelling -- and ultimately, it can be about evolution and redemption."

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