BY PARKER KLYN
Before Vine’s demise, one of the video platform’s most popular joke formats was a sudden burst of distortion and compression in the video’s sound to emphasize a punchline. Vine’s tiny vignettes had to be either universally understood or absurd to the point of humor, and these bass-boosted jokes fell into the latter category.
There was something deeply unsatisfying about this phenomenon. I loved Vine, and I miss it dearly, but something I don’t miss is losing hours scrolling to the next bite-sized sugar rush of humor. I was almost offended that people’s attention spans were short enough that these “jokes” were getting millions of loops. Vine is a perfect microcosm of the internet age, where a 140-character tweet can masquerade as complex thought.
XXXTentacion is Vine in music form. The Florida rapper, who goes by X and is best known for his breakout single “Look At Me!,” is among the most popular young acts in contemporary hip-hop. He checks all of the boxes that up-and-coming rappers are expected to have: young, trendy and controversial to the point of extreme polarization. X’s fans are rabid and unwavering. They identify with his candidness about mental illness, while forgiving his checkered past. He has a lifetime-sized rap sheet at the age of 19.
For the listener that looks past X’s criminal record (which includes assault with a deadly weapon, robbery and false imprisonment of his pregnant girlfriend), “Look At Me!” is exhilarating. It’s the most popular song ever to use that same level of bass distortion that we heard in Vine. The song is also oppressively violent: “You put a gun to my mans / I put a hole in your parents.”
It turns out “Look At Me!” was somewhat of a false start from X. His debut album, “17,” barely even resembles hip-hop. Instead, X moves towards the sounds of the early 2000s, taking equal influence from nu-metal, emo and alternative R&B.
A quick internet search for “emo rap” reveals that, according to multiple high-profile music websites, emo rap is having a moment. The movement, which combines sad-boy emo lyrics and arrangements with hip-hop style flows and beats, has fostered on platforms like SoundCloud, a service almost exclusively used by younger music listeners. As a result, emo rap feels like a snapshot of the time rather than a genre that will stay popular for more than a few years.
Despite the genre of emo rap being young and exciting, and despite the record coming from someone as polarizing as X, “17” manages to feel, on first listen, like any by-the-numbers emo record from the 2000s. However, just like Vine, the songs on the record are simply too short to leave a lasting impact. The project runs through eleven tracks in just over 20 minutes. Most of the songs start with a hook, contain one verse and fade out with the hook once more. It just feels formulaic, a feeling that contradicts X’s opening statement: “By listening to this album, you are literally – and I cannot express this enough – literally entering my mind.”
Unfortunately, X’s mind must not have much going on, because the songs on “17” range from generic and empty of emotion to cringe-worthy and disgusting. His singing on “Depression and Obsession” is lifeless and boring. The lyrics on “Save Me” (“Hello, from the dark side”) and “Orlando” (“Nobody wants death ‘cause nobody wants life to end”) are objectively terrible. Even worse is “Carry On,” which directly addresses his assault on his then-girlfriend: “Falsely accused / Was used and misled / B****, I’m hoping you rest in peace.”
XXXTentacion’s popularity is, on the surface, understandable. He makes songs about escapist brutality just as much as he makes songs about depression, two things that young people relate to in their music. But this album, just like Vine, will disappear. There’s a place for emo in modern music, and I could list a dozen emo bands that make despondent music worth listening to. The difference is that the songs on “17” are too oppressive and numb to bring out the catharsis necessary for an emo record to be impactful. The lifeless singing, the generic production and the boring songwriting all combine with the general discomfort of listening to music made by an awful person to make “17” one of the most unlistenable records of the year. It’s all of the tension and none of the release.