XXXTentacion's "?" is an ambitious, if occasionally oversaturated sophomore effort.
At this time last year, XXXTentacion seemed to be enjoying his turn as the villain. The young rapper’s come-up was fraught with hostility, and every other day seemed to attract a different controversy. From his one-sided beef with Drake to his feud with Rob $tone’s camp, X’s violent past continuously bubbled beneath the surface, driving his actions and defining his image. The negative energy peaked once dark details of his domestic abuse accusations emerged; even ardent fans were left feeling unsettled by the developments.
Yet the young rapper’s talent was undeniable. His debut album 17 revealed a more intimate look at X’s inner workings. Gone were the distorted instrumentals and abrasive, sexualized lyrics. Instead, X came forward with a bare-bones, cohesive examination of two central themes: depression and obsession. A sense of maturity pervaded the album, especially when contrasted with the occasionally shallow work of his peers. Yet the disparity between man and musician continued to grow, and X steadily found himself being cast aside by the community at large. Perhaps he was destined to become the villain after all
Whether it be in literature or film, redemption has proven a compelling narrative. After all, the idea that somebody can change for the better is the cornerstone of the criminal justice system. X found himself at a crossroads. Facing jail, the young rapper seemed to experience an epiphany. From that moment onward, his aggression seemed to taper off and he became dedicated to self-improvement. It wasn’t uncommon to see him spreading words of encouragement to his fanbase, as well as actively participating in charitable work. Not only that, but X vowed to make an impression in 2018, promising three albums - Bad Vibes Forever, Skins, and ?.
On Friday, March 16th, X released the first chapter of his trilogy, the ambiguously titled ?. At eighteen tracks, the sophomore project was considerably longer than its predecessor. To be honest, that’s not saying much. Save for a few exceptions, X has yet to embrace the traditional song structure; the majority of ?’s chapters feature but a single verse and chorus. While this brevity guarantees that we don’t have to stay in one place too long, it comes with a price. At times, the scenic route may be preferable.
One such instance comes during “Moonlight.” With an unconventional, yet extremely hard instrumental from David Kutch, Robert Soukiasyan & John Cunningham, X delivers one of his most immediate bangers to date. Yet the experience is over before it truly begins, and it’s hard not to lament the missed opportunity. We all know X can spit, and a beat like invites myriad different flows. It would be been dope to see X showcase some of his technical prowess, but instead, he opts to remain in his comfort zone.
Yet song structures are pretty much the only element connecting ? and 17. Stylistically, X seems intent on pursuing every musical instinct, fleeting as they may be. From the acoustic trappings of “Alone Part 3” and “Before I Close My Eyes,” to the brash, aggressive “Floor 555”, to the reggaeton pop of “i don’t speak spanish lol,” ? has something for everyone. In some ways, the scattershot amalgamation of genre is a testament to X’s versatility. In others, it’s one of the project’s biggest detractors.
Transitioning from the “the remedy for a broken heart” into “Floor 555” is a jarring derailment of an otherwise linear introductory section; while the “Look At Me” die-hards deserve to be appeased, it shouldn’t come at the cost of album cohesion. Even the live instrumentation of “Numb” feels like a misstep, as neither the arrangement nor melody are particularly memorable. “Pain=BESTFRIEND” does feature an improved melodic structure, but seems pulled from an Emo album circa 2008. X’s commitment to honoring his various influences is admirable, but it may have behooved him to spend a little bit more time on sequencing this artistic kaleidoscope.
Despite an sagging middle section, ? features some of X’s most nuanced and impressive material to date. The aforementioned “Moonlight” is a potential candidate for his best yet, while “Hope” features a sincere and stylistically appropriate melodic approach. His collaboration with Joey Bada$$ is nothing short of excellent, and hearing the pair trade bars over a smoky, film noir instrumental is a frustrating reminder of what this album could have been. Truthfully, X’s bars are so rare, they tend to stand out as a welcome surprise.
Album closer “before I close my eyes” ends ? on a quiet, yet optimistic note, and the fingerpicked guitars and string work make for a lovely parting moment. Yet the thematic weight is diluted by the abundance of non-sequiturs. Did this album really need songs like “going down?” or the Matt Ox assisted "$$$?" I appreciate a reference to The Witcher as much as the next man, but the candy-coated, obnoxious gloss somehow cheapens some of the album’s genuine sincerity.
Don’t get it twisted. There is much to enjoy where ? is concerned. It may lack some of the emotional impact of 17, but when X is on his game, he remains one of the game’s most promising young artists. Honestly, if this one would have adhered to a more coherent direction, it might have surpassed his debut by a wide margin. X already has a capable grasp on melody, and his aptitude for conveying emotion is a notable tool in his arsenal.
More importantly, it seems as if the changes in his general life outlook have paid off. Gone are the days of being public enemy number one. These days, X is more likely to make headlines over an inspirational message or charitable donation. With a projected first week over 120 000 units, it would appear that the redemption arc is reaching an apex. Hopefully, that same growth will continue to be reflected within his artistry.