XXXTentacion’s “?” Turns 5: Revisiting The Late Rapper’s Album

We’re looking back on the generational influence of XXXTentacion’s final album release before his death, “?”

BYCaleb Hardy
XXXTentacion’s “?” Turns 5: Revisiting The Late Rapper’s Album

XXXTentacion's legend grew after his unfortunate passing. Similar to Mac Miller, his music walked a tightrope between the worlds of the living and the dead, often referencing the afterlife throughout his music. The album ? was Tentacion's last record before his untimely death at 20. Coming into the project, X was already a global icon. His debut studio album, 17, blended the worlds of folk and emo-grunge into a sad-boy project that captured the imagination of a generation. However, his sophomore album ? saw XXXTentacion significantly mature as a songwriter and conceptual creator.

To call XXXTentacion's ? a rap album would be an undersell. Darting through various sonic pallets, each song explores alternative sounds in an even more daring way than 17 did. "Changes" is an emotive piano ballad that sees X sing his heart out. "Moonlight" features a swirling reverbed production, with X's vocal performance being one of the standout moments in his discography. "SAD!" is one of the darker emotional tracks on the album, where X threatens to end his life if his lover leaves him. "SAD!" is an odd experience, as X being at an emotional low point directly contrasts with the upbeat nature of the production.

"?" Reinforces XXXTentacion's Mental Troubles

He's heartbroken, lost, and depressed throughout the entirety of ?. Of course, the lyrics do come off as overtly dramatic at times. While repeating that he's sad throughout the project, it can be difficult to pull back the covers on the more specific reasons for these feelings. It'd be nice to hear more about his environment in South Florida or the various legal troubles that he's experienced. With that being said, X's lack of transparency would add to his confusing legacy following his passing. Shot and killed back in June of 2018, it's hard to believe we are approaching five years since his untimely death.

However, XXXTentacion's ? is more than an album with a repetitive sad boy singing. "Infinity (888)" garners a surprising feature from Joey Bada$$, with the two having an incredible level of chemistry throughout the track. With Joey being one of the most talented MCs in the game, X surprisingly holds his own amidst an East-Coast boom bap. Even for the redundant lyricism on "NUMB," the track is still an exhilarating piece of punk rock. In retrospect, "before I close my eyes" contains haunting lyricism, with X stating, "I pray the Lord my soul to keep" / "I hope it's not too late for me." As an overall project, ? is a wild collection of ideas that can be difficult to process. However, the record's diversity means that there's a standout track no matter the musical background of the listener.

XXXTentacion's "?" Is One of The Most Successful Albums Ever

The albums' numbers are astounding, with four tracks doing over a billion streams on Spotify. Upon first listen, it's hard to hear why XXXTentacion's ? is the tenth most streamed album of all time. However, the album's storytelling directly mirrors Internet culture. Thriving in its confusing brevity and in-your-face lyricism, ? is a consumer-friendly album. Of course, this wasn't intentional on the part of X. The project's chaotic nature simply reflected his mindset, with the constant genre-switching and half-baked ideas. At only 20 years old, X was still searching for his sound. We even hear him rap in Spanish on "i don't even speak spanish lol."

By the time XXXTentacion's ? album arrived, he was already a superstar. He was a part of the newfound wave of emo rap, primarily coming out of South Florida. Along with the likes of Lil Peep, he captured the angst of Gen-Z high schoolers. The sub-genre was at its peak during X's rise, one that kicked off with the high-octane "Look at Me!". However, X's personality, in particular, caught the attention of fans. Raging and moshing at live shows, there was an ongoing contrast between his hard exterior and somber lyricism. Everything about his braided hair and stone-cold personality gave the impression of someone who was unfeeling. However, X was beginning to ditch that persona before his passing.

An Iconic Career Cut Short

SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 27: Fans leave flowers and art outside the XXXTentacion Funeral & Fan Memorialat BB&T Center on June 27, 2018 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Jason Koerner/Getty Images)

XXXTentacion's murder cut a growing career short. As an overall album, ? was a significant step in the right direction for XXXTentacion. He matured from a songwriting and hitmaking perspective. After hearing the record, the overarching feeling is "what if?" with the audience never seeing how he would grow from the project. His posthumous releases, even more so than ?, were half-baked ideas rather than fully-fledged projects. The Florida kid was enamored with the musical world around him, referencing being influenced by Billie Eilish, Nirvana, and Kendrick Lamar. While ? didn't quite stick the landing, its flaws and blemishes turned into meaningful insights into XXXTentacion's state of mind.

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