The first posthumous body of work from the late Florida artist feels empty and lost, though not for the reasons one might expect.
Controversy sells, and XXXTentacion was the incarnation of this reality. The contentious if influential leader of the “SoundCloud rap” era was undoubtedly a pivotal figure, but only from the immediate perspective of the 21st-century pop soundscape. His music was both parts tender and venomous, soothing and reactionary. It contained lyrics that reflected the contradictions of his existence and offered a retreat into the refuge of his traumatized mind. The cognitive dissonance was thoroughly overwhelming, but there was nonetheless something disarmingly primordial about the way he laid bare his pain.
X, real name Jahseh Onfroy, seemed sincere in his desire to mend the despair of the downtrodden. A traceable maturation process in which he trumpeted his intentions to promote positivity was tragically cut short at the age of 20. Yet when listening to Skins, one must contend with X’s deeply troubling criminal record. He was, after all, awaiting trial for horrific domestic abuse charges that were dropped after he was murdered. The published reports and op-eds detailing his transgressions often felt like hopeless attempts to break through the tribal fandom that hoisted X to success, moral conundrums be damned. It’s an arduous task, but there remains a responsibility to wade through his dark past in an attempt to make sense of not only his music, but how his image has been disturbingly polished by the mainstream.
If Skins is the first posthumous attempt by the gatekeepers of X’s estate to shield his legacy from criticism, then they have failed in their mission. “The songs and the ideas and the vision of it all was done or very close to being done,” executive-producer John Cunningham told Genius. Although only X knew the truth of this statement, the ambitious direction and refined potential that he forecasted on ? is presented in a severely diminished capacity this time around. The succinct and skeletal 20-minute affair is first and foremost an uncomfortable reminder of the perils of posthumous releases. Through no fault of X’s, his contributions feel like scattered fragments that have been irresponsibly repackaged and as a result, dissipate as quickly as they are introduced. To make matters worse, these tenuous vocal snippets are not properly mixed or mastered, thoroughly outweighed by the instrumentation. Strung together by those who stand to benefit the most from X’s work, Skins is a directionless feeding meant to sustain his audience in anticipation of wringing as much as possible from whatever musings he left behind.
With just ten tracks to its name, Skins could’ve at least been accurately labeled as a series of leftovers or B-sides, but even that feels like a reach. At its core, the project is a handful of clearly unfinished concepts that X may or may not have decided to come back to at a later date. He sheds the gamut of genres in quick succession, borrowing and dismantling but never staying in one place long enough to fully make sense of his surroundings. To be fair, neither 17 or ? felt finished and were equally plagued by a loose, meandering thematic structure. Yet this artistic choice to lean on brevity seemed more by design, whereas on Skins it’s exacerbated by X’s absence.
An enigmatic “Introduction” mirrors the openers on his previous albums, but does not offer the usual set of somber instructions. Instead, a robotic and disembodied voice serves as the narrator, probing the listener with questions; the tendrils of numbness are there, but they feel less pronounced. “Guardian Angel,” which is defined by a reversed version of “Jocelyn Flores,” drowns in the turmoil that comes with equating love and pain. It features X’s best rapping moments on an album that is noticeably lacking such efforts. The dreary and plodding piano chords of “Train food” evoke an ominous, lo-fi intimacy, as X drifts through a tense spoken word scene about seeking peace but finding only his demise. Haunting bits like “Could've had a son or a daughter, now what you finna do?” are delivered with such a harrowing, nonchalant focus that the allegory feels increasingly bone-chilling with each line until X sputters out: “Now it’s here, death has now arrived, time’s finally up.”
From there, the album descends into scattershot doldrums. The thrilling percussion of “whoa (mind in awe)” carries the faint, ghost-like murmurs of a woefully underbaked and lyrically threadbare aesthetic; there is a wordless chorus but not much else. Despondent lone single “BAD!” is marred by a nasal hook that dares mayhem, while the stilted and sardonic “STARING AT THE SKY” has the abrasive tinge of a scrapped “MTV Unplugged” program. The cheeky emo tune finds X crooning, “I was staring at the sky/Singin’ toxic lullabies” before his shrieks of frustration cut the track in half. “I don’t let go” builds on the intoxicating melodic blueprint of “SAD!,” but is structurally unsound, riddled with an aimless series of placeholder mumblings. And “difference (interlude)” sounds like a long forgotten iPhone memo with X saying, "Yeah, let's play it back."
The ironically titled “One Minute” is the only song to surpass the three-minute barrier. Jerky and repetitive, it’s a post-punk screamo frenzy featuring none other than Kanye West, who delivers some truly befuddling lyrics defending X’s actions: “Cause even when you die they still throwin’ rocks at your grave.” He continues with this asinine and ignorant line of thinking by adding, “Now your name is tainted, by the claims they paintin’/The defendant is guilty, no one blames the plaintiff.” It’s as if Kanye derives some grotesque pleasure in hopping into the ring with the presumption of innocence principle, the kind of reprehensible behavior that has been echoed by X’s most “loyal” fans. X’s solitary input is a raging rendition of metalcore howls that bring the track to a tortured close. It’s an absurd and unwarranted collaboration on which Kanye desperately tries to salvage his deteriorating reputation by lending his co-sign to perhaps the most problematic artist of this generation.
Moody acoustic ballad “what are you so afraid of” is one of the few compelling and genuinely moving moments on the album. But even it can’t save such a dilapidated reanimation of a project. X’s intentions for Skins will never be clarified as a result of his passing, which is why it feels like such a cynical cash grab. The album is poised for a substantial first week sales total, and Empire, the independent distributor that signed X to a record deal estimated to be worth $10 million dollars, will no doubt be pleased. But that does not forgive the fact that Skins is characterized by a scarcity of ideas and a disheartening lack of material; the manner in which it’s patched together is simply the crushing cherry on top.
X never got the chance to fully plunge the depths of his talents, nor was he ever held to account for his sins. His deplorable and haunting actions found a niche in the increasingly murky waters of contemporary music and wallowed there until his death. There will be no redemption or forgiveness, no court date or subsequent verdict to bring his story to a satisfactory conclusion. While awaiting legal judgement, he continued to make music as a messianic figure of the youth with a past fully formed in the horrors of homophobia, misogyny, and mental illness. His unhindered success bolstered the dangerous narrative that talent takes precedence over all else. X's impressionable and unshakable fanbase viewed him as a tragic hero and prodigious martyr, not as the violent individual that the graphic recordings unearthed by the Miami-Dade County state attorney’s office make him out to be. Skins would like to believe that it memorializes the best aspects of his character, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of gratification, let alone closure. The cathartic solidarity of past releases merely feels hollow and exploitative on Skins, while the minute, squint-inducing sketches don’t add to X’s legacy so much as they offer a grim reminder of the commercial forces that pull the strings behind closed doors, and the rapid listeners who refuse to press stop.