How Do We Begin Addressing the Polarizing, Problematic Legacy of XXXTentacion?

When we try to explain time period in music history decades from now, one of the first artists we'll point to is XXXTentacion -- the rapper born Jahseh Onfroy, who was shot and killed on Monday (June 18) at age 20. No matter what you thought of his music, or if you thought it was even worth having an opinion about his music at all, there's little denying that he embodied the sounds and debates of his moment in time more thoroughly (and often more uncomfortably) than anyone else in his generation. The music world of late 2016, when XXX’s mainstream breakout began, is already a thoroughly unrecognizable view from June 2018, and he’s mixed up in all of the reasons why.

The musical explanations for this are fairly plain. As a Broward County underground MC turned SoundCloud sensation turned alt-rap superstar, XXX's catalog is indicative of an overwhelming number of telling musical trends of late-'10s hip-hop: shorter song lengths, purposefully subpar mastering, genre-blurring songs and live shows that owe as much to punk and emo signifiers, and chart success achieved independently of radio airplay. Breakout hit "Look at Me!" might as well have been the sound of the hip-hop generation gap splitting in real time: older heads perplexed as to why anyone would want to listen to this crude two-minute missive, younger fans quickly memorizing every word. His music struck a nerve with teens for the same reasons teens have always loved polarizing artists: It was different, it was exciting, it was relatable in many cases, and it pissed off their parents.

But the cultural reasons for this are even more obvious. At a time when acts of violence against women and members of the LGBTQ community have never been more publicly abhorred -- or their perpetrators more publicly vilified -- XXX's stardom coincided with him being accused of some of the most vile deeds we've ever associated with a major pop artist. His ex-girlfriend, Geneva Ayala, testified that while she was pregnant with his child, he beat her until her face became unrecognizable and she lost vision, threatened her life, and essentially held her captive. He was also captured on video apparently striking a different woman, with the anonymous alleged victim saying she had previously held the video out of being "terrified for my life." Onfroy denied both accounts and sued the woman behind the latter claim -- he later dropped the suit -- but did admit in a No Jumper video interview from 2016 that while in juvenile detention as a teenager, he nearly beat a gay inmate he was rooming with to death for staring at him.

Onfroy's music interacted with his headlines in strange, often surprising and occasionally insidious ways. It was easy for critics to dismiss the riotous "Look At Me!," with its abrasive sonics and similarly ugly lyrics ("I took a white bitch to Starbucks/ That lil' bitch got her throat fucked"), as the work of a violent, sexist narcissist -- and the fact that it exploded in popularity following his arrest on a variety of domestic abuse-related charges only made it seem more odious. But subsequent albums 17 and ? were largely less-adrenalized, more atmospheric and unexpectedly gentle listens -- even tender in spots, as in the case of "Jocelyn Flores," a slow-paced acoustic ode to a friend of Onfroy's who killed herself, which currently rates as his most-streamed song on Spotify. XXX’s LPs portray the artist as smothered by his own emotional scar tissue, trying and failing to medicate the pain away. However, even on these albums, disturbing signs of victim-blaming, emotional manipulation and misogyny are clearly visible: most notably on "SAD!," XXX’s lead single off ? and first Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hit, whose catchy chorus consists of the singer threatening to kill himself if his girlfriend ever leaves him ("Suicide, if you ever try to let go").

Regardless of how deep you got into his lyrics, for his year and a half as a public figure, it was virtually impossible to engage with XXXTentacion's music without reckoning with the accusations and admissions that surrounded him. He wasn't the first or only artist to be connected to abuse in the age of #MeToo, but he was the most prominent example of an artist's stardom growing while the news stories about him became more and more horrifying: Onfroy topped the Billboard 200 albums chart earlier this year with his ? LP, the same week the video of him apparently punching the anonymous woman notably resurfaced. In the three months after the release of ?, a Miami New Times report on Onfroy revealed further chilling details and on-the-record testimony from Ayala, and Spotify pulled his songs from their playlists, citing a new "Hateful Conduct" policy. Yet reports of his misdeeds only seemed to further galvanize his fanbase, and on the day before his death, six XXX songs still rated across Spotify's daily top 200 chart.

It wasn't just his young fans who continued to stand up for XXXTentacion, either. He received wide support from across the hip-hop community -- not only from up-and-coming peers like Trippie Redd and Kodak Black, who appear on songs with him (and have their own allegations of violence against women to contend with), but from acclaimed genre veterans like J. Cole (who described him as “talented”) and Kendrick Lamar (who tweeted that his followers should listen to 17 if they “feel anything”). Even Erykah Badu was an avowed fan, controversially explaining her view to Vulture of artists like XXX (as well as Bill Cosby and abusers in general) that "sick people do evil things; hurt people hurt people."

Lamar’s camp also played a part in undoing the aforementioned Spotify policy, with TDE label head Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith threatening to pull the music of Lamar and his labelmates if it was not reversed. He deemed it “censorship” and pointed out the hypocrisy apparent in the artists who were affected by the policy and those who weren’t, decrying the constant “picking on hip-hop culture.” It wasn’t hard to extrapolate Tiffith’s feelings to those of many of XXX’s supporters in general about the calls for his removal, particularly from within rap’s inner circle. But the end result of these opinions -- that he was prodigiously talented, that his targeting was unfair (and set a dangerous precedent), even that his art came from a place of pain and depression that was eminently relatable for fellow artists and other young people -- was that in an era in which many powerful men in entertainment were finally facing career-altering (or career-ending) consequences for their abusive actions, XXX seemed uncancelable.

And now one of the many sad things about his murder is that the jarring cultural dissonance between his immense popularity and the gut-wrenching nature of his alleged abuse will now never be resolved. Rapper Kreayshawn provided an interesting source of perspective on XXX's death by sharing in a since-deleted tweet: "I was down to see X trialed and serve time... I’m an avid fighter against abuse and have done my fair share of defacing of his album advertising in the past but, all in all death is not an answer to a cycle [of] homophobia and abuse." His death provides no closure on any of the issues his success raised, instead merely giving his more outspoken critics the opportunity to callously cackle about his slaying, while his fans make him immortal as a martyr and a prophet, taken before his time.

For as long as popular music as we know it has existed in America, our culture has deified young male artists whose music is unconventional and whose public personas are confrontational. And when they die young -- as a truly shocking number of them have -- their image becomes embronzed in the public memory as a visionary, a rebel, a beautiful soul whose primary fault was being out of step with the society at large. But it's rarely, if ever, that simple, and in the case of XXX it's more complicated than ever. He's certainly not a prophet, but he also wasn't the devil incarnate -- he was a deeply flawed, often monstrous young man who made music that pushed a lot of boundaries and spoke to a tremendous number of other young people. Idealizing him as the former or dismissing him as the latter only serves to further obfuscate the contradictions in our society that his success pointed out in the first place.

If there's one way to derive some kind of positive from the awful ending to this truly miserable story, perhaps it would be to use the occasion of XXXTentacion's premature death to not view his legacy in such simplified extremes. Instead, we should acknowledge that he made impactful music that proved important to countless fans and feels particularly indicative of this moment in pop and hip-hop history, while further condemning the actions he was accused of (and in some cases admitted to) -- and challenging ourselves, each other and society at large to hold artists like him properly accountable for their abuse. It's the only chance we have of learning from the stories of star artists like XXX, and improving our discourse in time for when the next problematic hitmaker like him comes around -- as invariably, one shortly will.