BY PARKER KLYN
“Open your mind before you listen to this album,” XXXTentacion demands at the beginning of his latest project, “?”
“This album is far different, far more versatile, far more uplifting than the last.”
XXXTentacion, real name Jahseh Onfroy, is a rapper from Florida. His debut album, “17,” was a train wreck; it was my least favorite album of 2017, and one of my least satisfying musical experiences of the last decade. As a result, hearing him talk about how this newest record is meaningfully different from the previous release is an encouragement. In a sense, he’s right: “?” is a far fuller, more engaging release than “17” was.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, it’s quite bad, suffering from the same major issues (tone-deaf lyricism, emotionless and whiny singing, underdeveloped songs) that plagued “17.”
Opener “Alone, Part 3” did not leave me excited for the rest of the record. It’s an overdramatic piece of stadium-sized melodrama with lyrics that could best be described as “Linkin Park without emotion.”
“Gave my love a piece of me / She put my heart beneath her feet,” X whines on the refrain; this sentiment, along with the cheap memorial for the Parkland shooting victims, is particularly unappealing when the listener is aware of severe allegations against X describing horrible violence against a past loved one.
Lead single “Sad!” is yet another piece of manipulative garbage. While the beat and melodies are actually somewhat pleasant, the hook of threatening “Suicide if you ever try to let go” is disgusting. There’s a place in music for love that’s ostensibly so powerful that it hurts deeply when it’s threatened, but it’s been done far more deftly than publicly threatening self-harm.
Many of the tracks on “?” feel like natural extensions of what X was trying to do on “17.” “The Remedy For A Broken Heart” is a clear sequel to “F**k Love,” one of the few redeeming moments on “17.” Likewise, “Remedy” establishes itself as a decent hip-hop/alternative R&B crossover, with apathetic depression being the focus.
It’s clear that X sees himself as a rock star far more than he sees himself as a rapper, and that’s a good thing. While he’s shown decent chops rapping (his best songs are distorted SoundCloud rap bangers like “Look At Me!” and “Gospel”), compared to an actually great MC, his raps fall short. Joey Bada$$ completely overshadows X on “Infinity (888),” and even 13-year-old joke rapper Matt Ox exhibits far more charisma than X on “$$$.”
Most of the songs on “?” barely qualify as full, legitimate songs. The vast majority feature an opening hook, one verse and a hook on the outro. That’s it. There’s no development to these tracks; they reveal their hand within the opening moments, so unless you really like those moments, there’s no reason to keep listening.
“?” is musically diverse, but not in a way that’s done well. From track to track, the mood might be alternative R&B, ultra-aggressive crunkcore, electronic folk or melodic trap. It results in an unappealing mix of styles that, instead of being a spectrum of diverse sounds, becomes a gray puddle of generic mess.
There are so many moments that failed to engage me that I had to review the track list to remember what they were. “Pain = Bestfriend” (what a title!), “Hope” and “Moonlight” are so generic that after listening to them a half-dozen times, I still couldn’t tell you their themes or sounds.
“?” has one really nice moment. “Changes,” featuring an uncredited PnB Rock, is a genuinely beautiful piano ballad. It’s not the most lyrically engaging ballad I’ve ever heard, but it’s maybe the one time I’ve heard X sound like he really is in pain. Actual effort went into the production of this song, and it shows.
“17” sounded like little or no effort went into it. The best thing I can say about “?” is that, for the most part, X sounds like he’s trying. According to X, with this project, I entered his mind and felt his insanity, genius and energy. I don’t feel like I did any of those things. But, in the future, my first instinct won’t be to entirely dismiss X, an artist that provides listeners with more questions than answers. “?” is a fitting title.