“17” by XXXTentacion

I usually avoid this practice, but just this once, let me start this review by sharing a personal anecdote. I made a seemingly innocuous comment about this artist on Twitter during the American Music Awards, calling him a “decent enough second-tier Hook Rapper”. This led to one of my former acquaintances on that platform verbally abusing me behind my back because the artist in question had been accused of domestic abuse (let’s note, just for context, that this artist was also dead by this time). Ironically enough, it was this personal attack that led me to explore the artist’s work beyond the few singles I had then been exposed to, and I have actually come to the conclusion that I was entirely too dismissive of this late Rap/R&B star’s work. My prior description of him actually did him a disservice, and my claim at the time that he would never have beaten SZA and Khalid for the Favorite R&B Album award if he had not died now seems to me to be questionable, at best.

It is certainly clear just from this album alone that XXXTentacion was a deeply disturbed individual (which might go some way towards explaining the things he was accused of during his life), but as someone who has experience with battling this kind of severe of mental illness, I’m not inclined to judge him (there but for the grace of successful medication go I, and all that). Besides, he’s hardly the first musician to be accused of this particular crime. Both John Lennon and Bing Crosby were guilty of exactly the same crimes, and I don’t see many people trying to deny their legacies because of it.

And while he might not be a giant on the level of the Beatles or Crosby, this album makes it clear that we lost an enormous and important talent when this man was killed. Unlike his long, sprawling follow-up release ?, this album is an intensely focused gut-punch of psychological truth (hence its surprisingly short length of only 22 minutes). It begins with a spoken introduction warning off those that would judge him, which raises the question of how (or why) those who condemn him have even heard his music when he tells them exactly why they shouldn’t listen before the album even begins. As someone more inclined to sympathize with his experiences, I of course forged ahead, and was absolutely stunned by what followed.

I normally single out individual songs in these reviews, but I’m not sure this album really has any. Granted, they did release a few fragments of this album as “singles”, but this goes beyond even the unified album statements we’ve been getting more and more of in the past few years. This is more like a Classical-style suite or Tone Poem…a freeform composition broken up into movements, but still intended to be heard in one continuous take. The result is an incredibly haunting dreamscape that really does feel like a journey into a deeply disturbed and tragic psyche. There are brief fragments of elegaic, almost Classical beauty, moans of anguish that feel like a postmodern version of the Blues, and occasional bursts of rapid-fire rapping that feel like stabs of dissonant anger among the overall ambiance. All this over an endlessly shifting instrumental background that sounds like it can never find any rest. The lyrics are mostly broken, repeated phrases full of desperately depressing imagery that perfectly fit with the dream-logic mentality behind the album, and the singer generally delivers them in a barely-intelligible murmur that is nonetheless far more full of raw emotion that the attempts at the same sound by the likes of Future or Post Malone.

Only one featured guest Rapper appears anywhere on the album. It might have been better to feature none at all, given how insanely personal the material here is, but Trippie Redd, a dear friend of the artist who had started out as an enemy, seems attuned enough to his friend’s mentality that you can hardly tell there are two rappers on that track at all. This is one of the finest albums of 2017, no small statement given what a bumper year for great Pop album that was, and it explains why this tragic, tortured young visionary made such a deeply-felt impact during his brief time in the spotlight. In retrospect, the only thing I regret about that Twitter comment is not giving this shining talent more credit than I did, and I certainly won’t make that mistake again.

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