Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
XXXXTENTACION’s story was one of the most polarizing to grace hip-hop in some time. At the core of his meteoric rise, X helped usher in a genre-blending, sonically distorted brand of DIY rap to blaze a new path navigating the industry. The grungy “Look At Me!” provided the impetus, after surfacing on SoundCloud in December of 2015, and taking on a second life in mid-2017, when it was finally uploaded to streaming services.
With the muffled track’s unmixed and unmastered nature, combined with X’s disturbing legal rap sheet (aggravated battery, domestic violence, assault and robbery charges) and the lyrics’ sexually explicit and violent content (“That little b–ch got her throat f–ked”), DJs and streaming service playlists were reluctant to wrap their arms around the abrasive track.
Still, kids across the country ultimately got their fix, whether that was running up streaming numbers on SoundCloud or via digital download. The rapper’s legal troubles even added another layer to the story by legitimizing the rebellious track’s lawlessness. A year later, “Look At Me!” notched XXXTENTACION his first Hot 100 entry, peaking at No. 34 in April, 2017.
Looking back, the slow-burning “Look At Me!” would be at the forefront of a changing of the guard in hip-hop, as a new generation of artists blossomed from SoundCloud and flipped their middle fingers to the music business’ status quo.”The biggest lesson out of that song is to teach kids you don’t need anybody and you can do it yourself,” says Rojas, who co-produced the track. “You don’t need a big studio, mix, and master, or spend big money on a mic to make a hit.”
Co-producer Jimmy Duval echoed a similar sentiment, feeling that sometimes not following the trend going around actually gives you more of a shot to stand out amongst the fodder. “It’s such a backward approach to making music, but it was at the perfect point where that became the cool thing to do,” Duval explains. “People have seen the same s–t so many times, it was almost lame to try that hard. So do the exact opposite, have your master super distorted, have your artwork not make sense, have a name nobody could pronounce. All those things mattered.”
It was quite the unlikely recipe for success for X, who was locked up on assault charges in early 2017, and also engaged in a public feud accusing Drake of stealing his flow from “Look At Me!” for More Life’s “KMT.” Triple X’s manager, Solomon Sobande, would then make the shrewd decision of turning the track’s artwork to his client’s menacing mugshot. “You either loved it or hated it, you either understood it or you didn’t know what the f–k you were looking at,” Sobande says. “We never really chased the industry.”
X’s star power burned bright and fast prior to his June 2018 murder outside a motorsport dealership in Deerfield Park, Fla. at just 20-years-old. The extreme circumstances of his death have led to his cult-like following canonizing him as an icon and something of a generational martyr, while debates continue to rage on about how or even if an alleged abuser’s work should be remembered in history.
No matter how you felt about XXXTENTACION and what he and his success represented, the music’s impact was undeniable: Look no further than fellow hip-hop compatriots 6ix9ine and Tay-K, who also found similar success with abrasive, lo-fi music amidst alarming criminal charges of their own. ”It let people know that everything was changing,” Sobande continues. “The rules we thought, aren’t the rules anymore.”