Monday, March 19, 2018

album review: '?' by xxxtentacion

The key word of this review is enablement - because while I've gone off a number of times on Billboard BREAKDOWN how given the changing times and cultural norms it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense that a rapper like XXXTENTACION would have a career, much less flourish the way he has. You'd think given the domestic abuse charges and how so much of his art has not just referenced it but coaxed it through a blurry haze of malformed self-loathing to seemingly justify or excuse his actions that he would have thrown to the curb... and yet he accumulates hip-hop cosigns from artists you'd think would know better and ever-increasing chart success.

But I know the answer - and even if you're not a fan and you're just here to see me rip this record to shreds, you're probably not going to like my answer, because it's the sort of uncomfortable indictment of our relationship to artists that especially younger audiences probably aren't ready to address and why their defense of said acts in the face of critics like me seem so much angrier - just like it was with nu-metal nearly twenty years ago, just purified down by a social media environment that gives us the feeling that we are closer to the artist than ever before. But with certain Soundcloud rappers like XXXTENTACION it runs deeper - you don't aspire to be XXXTENTACION so much as you relate to him, reinforced by the homegrown, amateurish style that lets you imagine and project yourself onto him as the artist using the excuse of deeply held art to excuse your own acts. And it becomes personal, a siege mentality when critics or the rest of the world calls it out because by extension they're calling out a part of you out, a part you feel you already have to repress in the larger world, especially against a rising tide of culture that speaks against it. And thus come the blind eyes and the free passes en masse and as the success grows with the culture it nearly always becomes toxic for the artist with any self-awareness given the groundswell of enablement, and thus you see one of three cases: they turn on their audience outright, they acquire the means to ascend past their audience and sacrifice some of their relatability, or they burrow into that niche, an ever-shrinking ouroboros that will eventually consume itself. And if you think this hasn't happened before in artists that haven't trafficked in relatability, especially trending towards darker impulses, the stream of examples can seem endless with the benefit of history. Eminem. J. Cole. So much of nu-metal and pop punk and emo. Taylor Swift. 

Of course, there are cultural consequences to all of this, and the list of artists that realize it is slim indeed - hell, Eminem got it as early as the first Marshall Mathers LP and has been making self-conscious reference to it ever since. But for XXXTENTACION, he has nothing to pull him out of that spiral of enablement except when his audience gets bored and moves on when the music doesn't engage further - the fickle price of maturity and a refusal to evolve artistically in favor of doubling down, which is dangerous but expected when riding the subtle tides of cultural backlash... unless, of course, XXXTENTACION pulls a fast one and surprises his audience. Unfortunately, we're still in the midst of that wave's ascent and my role here is the critic who must smack this down as the amateurish dumpster fire that it's likely to be... but in theory I get the appeal of a record like this, and if it provides me the constructive context to address it properly, we might be able to address this properly. So fine, what did we get on ? ?

So okay, here's the thing: I normally script out my introduction before I dig into the record proper, sometimes before I listen to it in full, sometimes off of just one or two listens before I give it another four or more to refine my opinion. And remember how I said artists in a position like XXXTENTACION's either double down on their formula, turn on their audience directly, or work to ascend out of their niche? Much to my astonishment, X tries the last of these options and ? is a step towards more diverse sounds and ideas, definitely stepping out of his comfort zone... somewhat. I'll say this, ? is an apt title for this project, because it's clear that this is a record intended to confound expectations from fans and critics alike, but in trying to split the difference across all the sounds he's explored in his career plus more, the only thing consistent about it is how undercooked, basic, and grating it is. Again, the key word is enablement, because the only reason he's getting a pass from anyone is that relatable cult of personality who are seizing on this mess as a 'sign of his diversity' and that 'he can do anything', not a near total lack of focus. And even then, I can see some fans not liking this nearly as much as 17, even though I'd argue in terms of pure technical skill XXXTENTACION is showing improvement - not enough to save this from being pretty bad, but there's something there.

But before we get into that, let's talk about what hasn't really changed since 17: song construction. Again, having short songs isn't necessarily a bad thing if you're capable of conveying a complete cohesive thought or you can cram real visceral detail or character into it - and if we're looking for the base problem with this record, it's that XXXTENTACION for the most part doesn't do this. He tries to pass it off with a weak excuse in his intro by saying that he's trying to do more with less, but if your verse is half the length of your repetitive hook, you don't have a complete song! You have a fragment, and when your entire record is made up of fragments that don't flow together whatsoever, it contributes to a scattered feeling of incoherence that is more reflective of an artist flailing wildly to hit any idea with little greater attention to detail. Again, this record is eighteen songs just over a half hour, which rounds to less than a minute and a half per song, and there's nowhere close to the momentum or intensity that could at least make that tolerable in hardcore punk! Oh, there are moments, sure: 'Floor 555' tries to bring back some of the blown-out lo-fi trap that he used to push, and 'schizophrenia' actually has a halfway decent buildup into some metal-adjacent feedback swollen guitars... all of which is pushed midway to the back of the mix along with X's shouting, because nothing here is allowed to get truly visceral. And that decision would be absolutely mystifying if it wasn't abundantly clear whoever mixed and mastered this project was just about as incompetent, with 'Pain = BESTFRIEND' being the most blatant example: you get Travis Barker of Blink-182 for a screamo-esque climax on the second half of your track, and not only do you bury most of your screaming, you keep the same limp guitar lick that compliments nothing? 

Of course, that's when this album decides it wants to have any real power, when for the most part it's either more interested in X's intolerable, mostly off-key moan-singing imported from his debut, or more conventional hip-hop leaning tracks that feature some really ugly mixing of their own. Is there any reason why those chirping fragments of melody had to be paired with that trap skitter that's right at the front of the mix on 'Moonlight', or how sharp and overpolished the oily tones of 'going down!' and 'SMASH!' are, especially when PnB Rock's autotuned delivery doesn't even try to match with it? And that presumes there was much thought given to the instrumental progression at all - I've already talked about how underwritten and basic both 'SAD!' and 'changes' are on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but the acoustic balladry of 'ALONE, PART 3', 'the remedy of a broken heart (why am I still in love)', 'NUMB' and 'before I close my eyes' gets intolerable fast, half due to X's moaning warble that reminds me more of 'I Fall Apart' by Post Malone than anything, and half because the acoustic lines just feel undercooked and slapdash - which might be part of the appeal, sure, but tell me how we're supposed to buy into the sincerity or authenticity of them when placed adjacent to the moments that are more trap or screamo... even if I didn't quite mind the sizzling knock that builds out of the middle of 'ALONE, PART 3' and goes nowhere. We'll get more into this in a bit, but the lack of internal consistency utterly destroys any sense of atmosphere or pacing for the record as a whole, and that's not even counting on the two biggest out-of-nowhere choices on this record. The first is the most publicized, the team-up with Joey Bada$$ on 'infinity (888)' for some self-flagellating flexing... and while Joey is far more competent against this horn-infused, almost boom-bap production, XXXTENTACION at least can hold his own in his flow and shows a rapper who could be far more interesting and compelling than he on nearly every song here! What's more stunning is the song 'i don't even speak spanish lol', which is literally a reggaeton song with three uncredited artists handling the track - with Judah contributing a pretty solid hook if I'm being honest - with X tacking on a really ugly autotuned verse at the end. And not only does it feel like the sort of blatantly commercial pop concession that I can't imagine any XXXTENTACION fan liking, it puts the lie to any of his 'instructions' to open your mind to alternative music, because not only is not alternative or experimental by any means, it causes real damage to any veneer of relatability he's cultivating if he's hopping on this bandwagon!

And now we get to the content, and here's the thing: I get the feeling that XXXTENTACION knows this project is unfocused and all over the place, he referenced it in the introduction - but that's also where he referenced his 'genius' multiple times, and if there's evidence someone is reading his own hype, it's here. And then he has the nerve to call other people basic... no, I'm not going to mince words with this, I've read middle school LiveJournal and Tumblr posts that have more color and detail and emotive pathos than the sadboy songs on this record, most of which if you give them a second of closer thought utterly come apart, and that's before we the lines threatening suicide if and when she leaves, absolutely charming. But if so much of XXXTENTACION's pathos comes in numbing this pain from this ex, then when do we get songs like 'Pain = BESTFRIEND' where it's clear he's still saying 'pain will always be my friend', which a more mature writer would actually explore or highlight some form of dramatic contrast? But again, this is where awful sequencing completely neuters any form of dramatic arc, where you might have even excused X defaulting to by-the-numbers flexing and actively screwing other girls if it wasn't interspersed between songs where he's moaning badly about it. Incidentally, of course we get our fair share of bad lines in said flexing, typically around killing people, expensive sunglasses and watching, fucking your neighbour's daughter at Best Buy, and such gems as 'I'm the shit, need a diaper' and 'spin on the dick like a beyblade' and how he wants to eat the pussy of your auntie, your grandma, and your sister! And that's not even touching on 'SMASH!', where he brags about how much he likes her lemonade - and I think if you all remember the classic internet video 'Amazing Horse', you all should know how that lemonade is made! 

But there are two much bigger problems that need to be addressed with the content here, the first surrounding how much one ever really indulge in self-pity when you outright abused said ex, and while it's not referenced nearly as much as it was on 17, it's still subtext that makes any relatable or faux-deep framing turn from insufferable to genuinely toxic, especially when placed opposite a bunch of songs loaded with violent rhetoric that shows no evidence that anything will change down the line, or even provide a trace of insight or deeper self-awareness or even contrition for it! But it's the violent text that feels especially discordant, normally par for the course from X... until we get to 'Hope', a song where in the intro he dedicates it to the kids that died in the Parkland shooting. And there are two major issues with this: one, the majority of the song is self-obsessed angst that ends the hook by stacking cash and that any 'envisioning of a better life' is painfully flimsy - and lacking any direct reference to guns. And secondly, it rings as screamingly disingenuous when not only is this song juxtaposed with an abundance of your own violent imagery - made all the muddier through following that song with 'schizophrenia' - but then coupled with framing to excuse your real life domestic abuse charged through self-pity and sentimentality, it makes such a gesture at best incredibly misguided or cynical and at worst the sort of gross enablement and excuses that might be the worst contributions to this conversation I've seen yet, especially since the majority of XXXTENTACION's audience are teenagers just younger than him. 

So this is where we are - and no matter what I say here, this record is going to move disgusting amounts of units, and thus it is enabled; it enters and becomes a part of the cultural conversation. If XXXTENTACION was intending part of this record to take on a lighter tone or serve as redemption for him, it is one of the most utterly misguided and misplaced attempts since Chris Brown's Graffiti in 2009 - and at least Chris Brown can sing on-key. And I know this review isn't going to change anybody's mind - although again, I reckon there'll be some XXXTENTACION fans who won't quite think this is as relatable as 17, especially given its wild genre flailing - but if you're looking for someone to calmly dissect this amateurish, badly sequenced, sloppily produced, self-serving and basic record... might as well be me. And while for me it's an extremely light 3/10 and no way in the Nine Hells I could recommend it - the Joey Bada$$ verse and heavier moments saved this from a much worse score - I get why some will still defend it. So here's my challenge to you: if you find yourself relating to this, ask yourself why. Take the time and really dig into those emotions... I'm sure you'll find it interesting what you find.

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