The Dark Side of Rap: XXXTentacion’s Final Album, ?

Editor’s Note: For those unfamiliar with XXXTentacion’s musical stylings, you can listen to the album that informed Regala’s paper here.

When suicide and depression come up in a discussion, what are some immediate reactions? When openly discussing a person’s mental health, speaking up and being honest is not easy. Television shows and other media outlets often portray depression through the perspective of a troubled teenage, white girl, usually showing issues such as online bullying, or “slut shaming”, that push the young teen to the edge. Yet, there is one perspective the media fails to portray. The media rarely displays mental health through the eyes of a young African American man. Specifically, mental health was thought of as taboo in rap music culture and was not a topic that was normal for rappers to incorporate into their music. Recently deceased rapper XXXTentacion broke these barriers that separated mental health from rap music, shocking listeners with his candid views on a sensitive topic. Through his explicit lyrics and graphic visuals, XXXTentacion’s album, ?, has resonated with millions of rap music fans and musicians while transmitting the message that depression and suicide are topics that should be openly discussed.

In the music industry, every artist has a certain image to maintain that represents their genre of music. During the late 1980’s going into the 1990’s rap music focused on gang affiliation with famous rappers such as Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls. Record labels pushed artists to display a rough, masculine side. Nowadays, many rappers shy away from signing with major recording companies and stay independent, thus relying on the internet as their main outlet. Rappers that claim to not belong to any large record labels are called “alternative rappers”. Being independent gives them the freedom to be more aggressive and creative than mainstream rappers. XXXTentacion was among this group, not signing to a label until his last album. Although alternative rappers have creative freedom, it seems that their music genre has a specific image that separates them from other musicians. Multiple facial tattoos, dyed hair, and gold chains became the distinct look for alternative rappers. While still pertaining to this image, XXXTentacion had a mysterious, sinister appeal, making him stand out from mainstream and alternative rappers.

In his previous albums, XXXTentacion covered depression and suicide, with one song “Jocelyn Flores” written as a tribute to his late friend who had committed suicide. This paved the way for his next album, ?, to further center on these topics. XXXTentacion’s music was a part of a new generation of rappers who were scarred by self-doubt and anguish. Danielle Schmid, a writer for East Carolina University’s newspaper, argues that, “The way rap artists discuss suicide or depression today is portrayed as something so casual. It’s gotten to the point where you can’t even be an alternative rapper if you don’t have anxiety or if you’re not depressed”. Alternative rap’s popularity has drastically increased becoming built on the idea that discussing sensitive topics such as depression and suicide is a societal norm. The ability to shamelessly speak about mental health is what strongly distinguishes XXXTentacion from other well-known rappers. The popularity of his album ? is a direct example that mental health has become a standard subject in rap music.

Before the success of ?, rappers such as Kid Cudi and Kanye West also argued that they had incorporated mental health in their music. On the contrary, their songs only subtly describe anxiety and depression, whereas XXXTentacion’s music does not lightly address this issue. One of the most popular songs on his album, “SAD!”, contains controversial lyrics, he raps;

“Who am I? Someone that’s afraid to let go, uh

You decide if you’re ever gonna let me know (yeah)

Suicide if you ever try to let go, uh/

I’m sad, I know, yeah, I’m sad, I know” (XXXTentacion).

Unlike mainstream rappers and some alternative ones, XXXTentacion does not imply that he is contemplating suicide. Instead he states that he is “sad” and is straightforward when discussing the dilemma. These lyrics surprised listeners with its sincerity on a dark topic. Similar to many of his other songs on ?, “SAD!” was one of the few that showcased XXXTentacion’s ability to seamlessly incorporate an oppressive social issue into a popular rap song.

Aside from XXXTentacion’s album, ?, many different sources of media have discussed depression and suicide. One popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why sparked controversy among viewers with a graphic scene of the main character, Hannah Baker, committing suicide. Although the series is very popular, the show is not based on actual people, making it fiction. Compared to the way suicide and depression is portrayed on television and movies, XXXTentacion is an actual person dealing with the difficulty of drug addiction, alcoholism, and depression while facing pressure from his fans and the media. According to Schmid, “A lot of people in this alternative rap crowd, whether it be artists or fans, tend to get caught up in the wrong things and then are unable to get out of these unhealthy stigmas that the industry has created.” Regardless of the money and fame his music brought him, XXXTentacion discussed to the public his feelings of self-doubt and death. He sought comfort in creating music, further evaluating his thoughts through his album ?.

In addition to these negative feelings, XXXTentacion dealt with racial identity issues. Being a young African American man with a history of arrests and cases of physical violence, XXXTentacion lived in a world where men like him had to maintain these masculine stereotypes. The Los Angeles Times observed that, “There’s a belief in some communities that you’re just supposed to be strong and handle your business and not talk about it or that it’s somehow your fault. These ideas have been perpetuated for generations, in part by media and through social circle.” (Brown). XXXTentacion’s reputation of violent outbursts and multiple assault accusations have clearly taken a toll on his mental well-being. The pressure put on him by the music industry and media continued to push him towards a downward spiral, making the late rapper’s music his only escape from harsh reality. Despite XXXTentacion’s violent reputation, the rapper expressed a side of vulnerability through his music, exhibiting to his fans and the public that even a man of his image deals with mental health issues.

Music has the power to persuade and influence the hearts and minds of their listeners. His fans argue that XXXTentacion’s music has had a positive impact despite the violence and despair depicted in his music videos and songs. One fan commented, “When he put all that feeling and emotion in his music, it’s easier to relate to—’Cause you can tell, he’s gone actually through it.” (Holmes). The realness of his lyrics and visuals in his music videos capture a raw emotion that not many artists can portray. Fans are drawn to the grim, mysterious, appeal XXXTentacion created. Henry Camden, staff reporter for The Fauman noted that, “For some listeners, the music has become their “therapy session” because of a level of relatability.” (Camden). XXXTentacion fans feel a connection to the rapper’s struggle with suicidal thoughts and depression. Fans find comfort while listening to ?, no longer feeling as if they are the only ones struggling with these inner thoughts and troubles. XXXTentacion’s album ? provides fans a liberation from their depression and anxiety, showing them that these feelings are something that no one should try to hide.

Before XXXTentacion’s untimely death, he traveled the country endorsing ?, playing concerts that sold out within minutes of tickets being on sale. Then on June 18, 2018, XXXTentacion was gunned down during a robbery while leaving a motorcycle dealership. The rapper’s sudden death left millions stunned. Shockingly, two hours before his murder, through the popular social media app, Instagram, the rapper addressed fans on the legacy he hoped to leave, “”If I’m going to die or ever be a sacrifice, I want to make sure that my life made at least five million kids happy or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life regardless of the negative around my name, regardless of the bad things people say to me,” (France). Despite his negative reputation and spiteful criticisms, the rapper’s main goal in life was to make a positive change in the discussion of mental health. Unknowingly to critics, XXXTentacion’s music transmits a subtle message of finding self-love and acceptance through the dark times one will face.

Cases of domestic abuse and physical violence scorned XXXTentacion’s reputation. In spite of these incidents, fans highly praise the rapper for his musical work. XXXTentacion’s destructive behavior is a clear result of the strain that the media can put on one’s mental well-being. Music was a way for the late rapper to channel his emotions through his lyrics and visuals. Overall, people were not influenced by XXXTentacion’s vicious outbursts and multiple arrests. They were truly inspired by his ability to boldly discuss mental health, a sensitive topic in the hip hop and rap community. XXXTentacion’s album ?, has provided people dealing with mental health issues the encouraging voice they need to hear, reassuring them that in times of despair and self-doubt one does not have to face these problems alone.

Works Cited

Brown, August. “Young Rappers Are Getting Honest about Doing Battle with Depression, Drug Addiction and Suicide.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 25 Jan. 2018, www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-hip-hop-depression-20180128-story.html.

Camden , Henry. “Becoming and Being a Hip-Hop Scholar.” Hip-Hop Headphones, 13 July 2018, doi:10.5040/9781501308239.0008.

France, Lisa Respers. “Rapper XXXTentacion Foreshadowed His Own Death.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 June 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/06/19/entertainment/xxxtentacion-predicted-death/index.html.

Holmes, Charles. “What’s the Appeal of XXXTentacion’s Music?” Complex, Complex, 1 June 2018, www.complex.com/music/2017/08/what-makes-xxxtentacions-music-appealing.

Onfroy, Ricardo, Dwayne, Jahseh (XXXTentacion). ? Caroline Distribution 2017.

Schmid , Danielle. “Appendix 1. Political Rap Songs.” Pulse of the People, 17 July 2018, doi:10.9783/9780812291131-008.I