Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Soundcheck

XXXTentacion, controversial Florida rapper and singer, shot dead at 20

The last words posted to XXXTentacion's Instagram Stories on Monday afternoon: "planning a charity event for this weekend Florida!"

Whatever it was, it would have been huge. The 20-year-old singer-rapper was among the biggest — and most controversial — breakout acts of South Florida's "SoundCloud rap" scene. In March, his sophomore album ? debuted at No 1, and his hypnotic single Sad! hit Billboard's Top 10. He's racked up well over 1.5 billion streams on Spotify.

But whatever he had planned for this weekend — and what role it might've played in rehabilitating a career crippled by his violent past — will remain unknown. The artist born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy was shot and killed Monday while driving in Deerfield Beach. TMZ, which first reported the shooting — the Broward County Sheriff's Office confirmed the death on Twitter — said the incident was being investigated as a possible drive-by and robbery.

Thus was clipped the career of one of Florida's most prominent young musicians before it could even take off — although many argued it never deserved to.

XXX was, at the time of his death, awaiting trial on more than a dozen felony charges stemming from a domestic violence case involving his pregnant girlfriend. In a recent interview with Miami New Times, she claimed he beat her, slapped her, threatened her with torturous violence, threatened to kill himself in front of her. There were also arrests for assault, weapons possession, robbery, witness tampering and more. All of this, and he only turned 20 in January.

As a result, XXXTentacion became one of the most polarizing figures in pop, and a litmus test for the music industry. Did he deserve to have his songs heard? Did he deserve a major-label deal reportedly worth $6 million?

These questions might not matter if XXXTentacion couldn't find an audience. But the spotlight found him — yes, his horrific rap sheet was a big part of the reason — and his audience grew and grew and grew.
Noisy, punkish, deliberatly raw songs like Look At Me! felt right at home on SoundCloud, a DIY medium from which young rappers like Lil Pump and Smokepurpp were building raucous cult audiences. XXX got a million followers on Twitter, 8 million on Instagram. His debut album 17 got a co-sign from none other than Kendrick Lamar, who tweeted: "listen to this album if you feel anything. raw thoughts."

Indeed, 17 and ? flowed out like pages from a teenage diary, with XXX frequently moaning about death, depression, isolation and even suicide. It was music that spoke to its intended audience on a personal, psychological level.

"By listening to this album," he mumbled by way of an intro to 17, "you are literally — and I cannot stress this enough, literally — entering my mind. And if you are not willing to accept my emotion and hear my words fully, do not listen."

Wherever he went, trouble followed. When he announced a free, last-minute concert in Ybor City last September, thousands of fans turned out, prompting police to flood the streets outside the venue and XXX to take off before he could even get inside. (So aggressive were those fans that, according to XXX, they ripped a side mirror off his BMW i8. In May, Spotify announced they'd be removing songs by XXX and R. Kelly from their most popular playlists — a decision that was roundly criticized by fans and artists (including Lamar), and which was reversed shortly thereafter.

VIDEO: Free XXXTentacion concert in Tampa canceled as police break up fan mob outside

Expressing any support of Onfroy as a person is problematic; his legal history speaks for itself. But I found in songs like Jocelyn Flores a surreal, hypnotic beauty and even serenity. He was more than a rapper; he crooned delicate songs over melancholy pianos and acoustic guitars. It was often compared to punk and emo music, and for good reason. It was deeply heartfelt, often over the top — songs by teenagers often are — but he was still figuring it out. And that's part of what made it so compelling.

"I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here," Kanye West tweeted late Monday. "Thank you for existing."

XXXTentacion died before the world could come to a resolution on his music — the art and the artist, and so forth and so on. There were millions inside and outside Florida who loved his songs; they will continue to do so. There are millions more who believe he didn't deserve a millisecond of his fame; they may, on some level, be content that this is how his story ended.

But then there were those final words on Instagram Stories. For all he did wrong, XXXTentacion was starting to try to do a few things right. He announced plans to donate $100,000 to a charity benefitting victims of domestic violence, and plotted another antiviolence event for this past year's Art Basel. (The Miami New Times reported that neither move fully panned out.)

In February, XXXTentacion posted to SoundCloud a new song called Hope, which he dedicated to the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where he lived.

"Outside of my misery, I think I'll find a way of envisioning a better life for the rest of us, the rest of us," he sang in his trademark pained, weary moan. "There's hope for the rest of us, the rest of us."

— Jay Cridlin

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