In the summer of 2017, Floridian rapper XXXTENTACION released his debut commercial album, 17. The album is everything a summer album shouldn’t be: sad, bleak and hopeless. Even taking into account this controversial approach, I was still very surprised by the several negative reactions to the album. Music reviewer and internet sensation Anthony Fantano gave 17 a measly 2 / 10, calling it “dreadfully boring emo folk”. I disagree, and I don’t stand alone in this. The album is one that split audiences, and those who enjoyed it, love it and will defend it tirelessly against the waves of distaste expressed towards the project. I’m aiming to explain why 17 impressed me, whilst also interweaving a defence for not only the album, but also the legacy X will leave as a musician.
“Just because I’m famous don’t mean I’m not human”
XXXTENTACION, or ‘X’, has been releasing music for a while now, but it was only this year, whilst serving time in jail, that the controversial rapper blew up with the release of his hit single, ‘Look At Me’. The result? X had become the most talked-about rapper and was even picked by the public for this year’s XXL Freshman List of promising upcoming hip-hop artists. At first, I was put off by X’s music, finding it too abrasive and jarring. However, after concentrating my energy to gain greater understanding of his work, I found myself deeply impressed by X’s versatility as an artist. From his lyrical ability to his incorporation of beautiful harmonies, I found myself becoming a fan of XXXTENTACION.
The first time I listened to 17, I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t until the second time, at a point in my life where I felt alone and helpless, that it earned my appreciation. With the way that X tackles the topic of depression, something that is clearly very real to him, and also real for many of us, was most notable for me when listening to the project. The album centres on the dysfunctional, abusive and tragic relationship he had last year, which eventually led to accusations of verbal and physical abuse made by his former girlfriend. Whilst X has now been jailed for his crimes, he vehemently denies them, but he also makes his inner thoughts all open to us on the album, exploring the inextricable relationship of sadness and love. If we pay attention to the lyrics of X’s track, ‘Everybody Dies in Their Nightmares’, he gives us the blunt truth of internal suffering: “Only time I’m in my mind when I’m all alone, That’s why I’m never really alone in the night time.”
“…this album isn’t for any fan, but ‘for the depressed ones, for the lost ones’.”
This introspection is present throughout the entirety of the album. In ‘Save Me’, X exclaims in agony: “Hello, from the dark side in, does anybody here wanna be my friend?”, appearing to serve as an homage to Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. Amidst a musical genre in which masculinity is given major prestige, and ‘softness’ having been frowned upon, X shows no shame in exposing his vulnerability as a lonely and broken man. There are little metaphors or figurative language in this album: X is upfront and relentless about the impact depression has on a person’s life and mental health. He overtly mentions his wish to die repeatedly throughout the album, such as in ‘Orlando’, saying, “I must seek out the end to begin.” And although he makes sure to vent his anger at his former love, who, as stated in ‘Ayala’ (Outro), showed him ‘fake love’, X is also reflexive of his own failures as a partner, which can be seen throughout the song Depression & Obsession. Additionally, in standout track Carry On, he states: “I fuckin’ hate that I love you still”, showing us the complex and unpredictable nature of love which can leave someone in such an overwhelming state of fragility.
17 is not the first time X has addressed these emotions, which he previously confronted in songs such as 777. Many have also criticised X for instilling such aggressive and dangerous mentalities into his young fan-base, but this isn’t something he is unaware of. In ‘King of the Dead’, he explicitly states: “I feed the hate, I feed the truth, I give the pain to the youth”, but has also stated on Instagram that this is a mutual connection: the kids “keep him alive” for they “see the fucking pain in my eyes.”
“…fans can now listen to an album which they can relate to and even reflect on their own, oppressed emotions.”
X is also obviously not the first hip-hop artist to tackle the issue of internal pain and depression. Biggie Smalls famously rapped about the issue in his 1994 song Suicidal Thoughts, and Kid Cudi has been vocal about his battle with mental health throughout his lengthy career. However, although certain rappers have made efforts to bring these issues into the mainstream, many of these efforts have seemed half-hearted and not all too genuine. On top of this, there are also many new-school rappers who profit off of artificial and exaggerated joy, such as Lil Yachty, who insists that he is permanently happy, and Kyle, who in hit single iSpy claimed: “I ain’t frown since ’06, and I ain’t cried since ‘01”.
It feels refreshing to have a mainstream rapper such as X to be so unconventional and honest about depression in his music. X fans can now listen to an album which they can relate to and even reflect on their own, oppressed emotions. As scribbled on the album cover, X felt saddest at the age of 17: “I realized the pain is and will always be a cycle.” For those who are young and battling depressive episodes, 17 feels like a saviour. Someone who understands you, who won’t sugar-coat their message to make a higher profit. X has even stated on Instagram that this album isn’t for any fan, but “for the depressed ones, for the lost ones.”
“It’s the sentiment of his sorrow that resonates with the listener”
17 is messy, it’s chaotic, and it’s deprived of life. It’s amateurish at times and it’s often self-indulgent. But to me, these ‘problems’ only make the project seem more real, as this unpolished and unsystematic approach seems far more appropriate in relation to the subject matter of the album, entrapping the listener within X’s emotional torment. X’s life may be one that is hard to relate to for many, given all the shocking events in his life and traumatic youth, but it’s the sentiment of his sorrow that resonates with the listener. It is so natural, so unadulterated and so brutally honest: as X has said: “Just because I’m famous don’t mean I’m not human”.
With the release of 17, X proved himself to be a more than capable rapper and musician, whilst delivering a down-to-earth and bleak message that many have felt necessary at certain stages of their life, serving almost like a therapeutic listening experience. Though the album may have spawned some disappointment and backlash, I am confident its legacy will stand the test of time: XXXTENTACION’s 17 – an introspective journey into the artist’s mind, and as an inevitable consequence, into your own.
Mateus de Sá
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