Back in June, there was a rumour that XXXTentacion, aka Jahseh Onfroy, who had been killed in an alleged robbery at the age of 20, was in fact still alive. This is the kind of conspiracy theory usually reserved for an artist whose cultural impact has been so seismic it seems impossible for some to accept that they could be gone forever. Elvis Presley. Tupac Shakur. But a rapper who had only been famous for a year, barely beyond his teens, with only two albums to his name, one of them 21 minutes long? Well, XXXTentacion’s impact on rap has been undeniably massive.
Through the simple act of combining the introspection of emo – along with its grunge and punk influences – with the aggression of certain strains of hip-hop, he helped to pioneer SoundCloud rap, a movement that sees tinny blasts of DIY noise convey rhymes about mental health and, often, nihilism. Ski Mask the Slump God, Smokepurrp, Lil Xan – you may dislike what these young rappers have to say, but you can’t deny that they resonate with their audiences: ‘Skin’ is poised to reach Number One on the US Billboard Hot 100. The move to fold streaming figures into official sales has transformed the charts, arguably making them more egalitarian, as teenagers with rudimentary recording equipment can now become megastars.
This tearing down of the cultural barrier has created something of a moral panic, and – uncommonly among moral panics – it seems justified. What does it mean that fans are hoovering up a record from an artist like XXXTentacion, who, at the time of his death, faced charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman? Who had boasted in an interview about brutally beating a man whom he suspected of being gay? Who had, it appears, actually admitted on tape to the former alleged crimes? ‘Skins’, the rapper’s third album and first posthumous release, completed by his estate after his death, does not attempt to answer these questions.
Instead, it represents a move to rehabilitate his memory. Like its predecessors, this year’s ‘17’ and 2017’s ‘?’, the 10-track album opens with a spoken-word introduction, this time delivered by a robotic voice. Where Onfroy used to the first track on ‘?’ to inform his listeners how to hear the music (“Open your mind before you listen… It can be played anywhere, preferably your room or your car”), this one promises “release” that will “inspire your soul”. The track that follows, ‘Guardian Angel’, is an elliptical, sub-two-minute snippet of backwards-looped percussion, as ghostly voices – including Onfroy’s – can just be made out imploring, “Oh, don’t break my heart”. The ‘?’ track ‘Jocelyn Flores’, a tribute to a friend who committed suicide, burbles away in the background. Eventually, Onfroy breaks through with a minute of rhyme, insisting, “I never been a piece of evil”.
The album is scattered with similarly hushed tracks, including the quietly beautiful ‘Whoa (Mind In Awe’), on which ethereal xylophone is overlaid with distorted snare, Onfroy largely silent, leaving the track space to breathe, the quietude interrupted only by his whispered, wordless croon. ‘Difference (Interlude)’ is a sparse acoustic guitar number that combines slow finger snaps with a reprise of that wordless croon and the lyrics, “Girl, I’lI be different”. This suggests an attempt to atone for his transgressions; it’s been reported that he donated $100,000 to a domestic violence charity before his death, for what that’s worth.
‘Skins’, though, through a smattering of outbursts, spans a broad thematic spectrum across its short running time. Like the author’s life, it’s brief, difficult, complicated, restless and, ultimately, dispiriting to observe. You’ll know by now about Kanye West’s appearance on ‘One Minute’, a lumpen rap-rock riff stretched out into three minutes and 17 seconds of music, capped off with Onfroy shrieking, “One minute one minute gone”. West continues his journey from flawed genius to Twitter troll, rapping, “Now your name is tainted by the claims they paintin’/ The defendant is guilty; no one blames the plaintiff”. This has been taken as an explicit defence of XXXTentacion, but could equally be a comment on #MeToo in general; either way it’s sad and unnecessary.
That it’s followed by the repentant, fragile ‘Difference (Interlude)’ only makes it sadder to listen to. ‘Staring At The Sky’ opens with strained emo vocals and acoustic guitar, before lurching into clumsy metal pastiche. The abrasive ‘Train Food’, hooked around a single, sinister piano stroke, concludes with Onfroy imitating Eminem’s bug-eyed delivery, babbling, “Now it’s here / Death has now arrived / Time’s finally up”. As with ‘17’ and ‘?’, the nihilism becomes cloying. On the final track, ‘What Are You So Afraid Of’, Onfroy sings over acoustic guitar, reflecting on the risk of romance: “What are you so afraid of? / Is it love, or wasting your time?”
It’s been said, in relation to XXXTentacion, that you can’t separate the art from the artist because his fame was bound up with his alleged crimes, his artistry entwined with controversy. On the spoken-word coda of ‘Guardian Angel’, he says of Flores’ suicide, “I guess I’m at a loss for words / To feel so close to someone, and for them to be gone the next day / I guess you never realise how permanently damaging that is”. The lines feel like an excuse for his alleged crimes, which of course they are not. As a piece of art that interacts with the world around it, ‘Skins’ is a moving, depressing, inventive – though slight – body of work.
Despite his estate’s apparent intentions, it’s not the work of a flawed genius whose contribution to the canon atones for his alleged crimes. It’s the work of a talented young man who had a shit start in life, reportedly did terrible things in his teens and was dead at 20. Not a martyr who’ll rise again, or needs redeeming. Some of ‘Skins’ is good, some of it is not good. Musically, the tone is, mostly, consistent and effective, and the album’s overall effect is that of a sickly, vivid insight into a troubled life. And there’s not much else to say about it.