With Lil Peep having recently released his debut record, Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One), the current emo-trap zeitgeist remains fresh on the music world’s mind. If it weren’t for the White Wine singer suddenly dropping his first album by surprise, however, it could very well have been XXXTENTACION being labelled as trap’s Kurt Cobain. In fact, the similarities between Lil Peep and XXXTENTACION relate not only to their attempts to reconcile SoundCloud rap with emo and indie rock, whilst presenting themselves as crestfallen souls teetering on the edge of complete mental breakdown, but even to the conditions in which they have both released their debut studio albums. With XXXTENTACION being amongst the chosen 10 to grace the front cover of 2017’s XXL magazine’s Freshman Class edition, the Floridian rapper, along with his fellow Freshmen à la Ugly God, is seizing the opportunities presented by the XXL Freshman hype cycle to milk the free promotion as much as possible, which, in XXXTENTACION’s case, has ushered in the launch of his first full-length record, 17. Like Lil Peep’s debut, however, 17 too seems as if it was forced out as quickly as possible, in order to capitalise on XXXTENTACION’s Freshman run, just as Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One) was likely signed and sealed as soon as possible in response to the journalistic buzz that the artist was receiving from the likes of Pitchfork and The New York Times. Similarly to Lil Peep’s record, therefore, 17 shows signs of existing in a state of immaturity, and not solely due to the fact that it also clocks in at just over 20 minutes in length, but also from the evident incompleteness of these 11 brief tracks. With this first album from the controversial rap rocker being portrayed as a sort of diary-style exploration of his depressive and suicidal tendencies, as is primely exemplified by the piles of photos and papers, scrawled with stark poetry, strewn across the album cover, the idea of conceiving a selection of deliberately disjointed and shoddily sewn together tracks could unequivocally work to the benefit of the artistic persona that Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy is trying to convey under his XXXTENTACION pen name. This is hardly an entirely new concept, but when done properly, such a framing for an emotionally-intense musical experience can heighten the intimacy and fragility displayed by the artist, thus creating a setting that is so arrestingly personal that it can almost be taxing for the listener to fully invest themselves in this world. A perfect example comes in the form of Phil Elverum’s latest release under his Mount Eerie pseudonym, A Crow Looked At Me, across which his detailed, unhindered and deep-seated meditations on the passing of his wife and fellow musician, Geneviève Castrée, were presented in a loosely-compiled, almost diary-like and stream-of-consciousness format, whilst nevertheless steeped in self-aware storytelling and strong but subtle songwriting, which works to enhance the emotional impact of his reflections exponentially, to the point of crafting one of the most challenging albums I’ve personally ever heard, based solely on its sentimental weight. 17, however, misses the mark when it comes to effectively engaging the listener with the artist’s thoughts and feelings, with most of these ditties crossing the line that distinguishes endearingly fractured songwriting from plainly underdeveloped songwriting. Similarly, XXXTENTACION’s means of translating the inner-workings of his dispirited mind, like Lil Peep’s, are lacking in self-awareness and subtlety to the point of erecting a barrier of disbelief between him and the listener, as everything about his lyrics and his moody, monotone delivery reads as contrived, in order to push a particular image into the audience’s mind in the vain hope that those suffering from similar issues will be able to project themselves onto the MC’s struggles. Overall, therefore, although not quite as deficient in thematic consistency as Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One), 17 is nevertheless missing the nuance or the understanding of consequence that would allow the listener to suspend their disbelief and find points of relation with XXXTENTACION’s woebegone veneer, leaving the album, as a whole, simply coming across as directionless and dishevelled to the point of losing any and all potency.
As Onfroy lays out in the opening, spoken-word cut from 17, The Explanation, his debut album under his XXXTENTACION alias is supposedly a look into his mind, as a means of supporting any of his depressed listeners through their internal struggles. Whilst a perfectly respectable sentiment, these opening words from the rapper seem to conflict with the tone of the album that follows his introduction, with his focus being almost entirely on himself and his own personal experiences, without extrapolating any helpful or applicable lessons or conclusions from these scenarios, to the point that 17 could only be seen as a helpful psychoanalysis if the listener had been through similar situations as the artist. As such, The Explanation comes across merely as an attempt at projecting a particular outlook on the album in the listener’s head before the tracklisting has even properly started, as to compensate for the deficient depth in XXXTENTACION’s observations across 17. With the expository, spoken-word introduction to a rap record being somewhat of a cliché at this point, with there only being a few recent examples that come to mind wherein an MC has used their prefatory thoughts of a project to strengthen its thematic structure, Onfroy’s application of this tactic seems, ultimately, rather purposeless, perhaps with the exception of it arguably reinforcing the somewhat notebook-like nature of the album’s presentation. Despite purporting 17 to exist for the benefit of the audience, however, the very first full track on the record, Jocelyn Flores, instantly shows sign that this is an album for XXXTENTACION’s own exorcisms, which the listener would struggle to tap into unless they had experienced something at least vaguely similar to Onfroy’s own ordeals and look at them with the same strange lack of self-awareness and denial of consequence. With this track’s title being an eponym of a female friend of the MC’s who recently committed suicide, and whom he confesses to having “fucked with”, the fact that the sole verse on the song barely even mentions this woman, with XXXTENTACION instead brushing off his admitted mistreatment of her and then attempting to evoke sympathy in the listener in the details of his emotional response to her death, reduces the entire track to feeling completely insincere and an embodiment of the rapper’s unwillingness to accept the ramifications of his behaviour. Orlando emphasises this issue with XXXTENTACION and his ignorance of the repercussions of his actions to an even more explicit extent, with the track’s title referencing his arrest in Orlando last year, which led to him being charged with robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, for which he posted the bail of $10,000, only to be arrested less than three months later on charges of false imprisonment, witness tampering and aggravated battery of a pregnant victim, all whilst still awaiting trial. Commenting on the personality or moral upstanding of a musician in a review is something I typically avoid like the plague, as I’m a true believer in distinguishing the artist from their art. However, when someone such as XXXTENTACION releases a track that references their recent illegal and immoral activities and then employs this in an attempt to evoke sympathy in the listener by explaining the mental ramifications such events had for him, whilst disregarding the consequences of his behaviour, such an effort entirely fails at eliciting even the slightest slither of pity in the audience, let alone empathy, if the musician is to refuse to address the implications of his actions for others. It’s moments such as these that render Onfroy’s comments during The Explanation meaningless, as 17 comes across more as an exercise in narcissism than an exorcise of his demons for the benefit of the listener. This arguably comes to head on Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares, which is framed as the salient song on the album in terms of its relation to XXXTENTACION’s desire to aid the audience in their own internal conflicts. Despite the inclusion of a Shiloh Dynasty sample, whose lyrics of “don’t go to sleep” were presumably chosen as a message of enduring one’s hardships as to survive through until a better day, the body of the MC’s bars during his sole verse on the track pertain, once again, only to his personal problems, with the entire concept of the intention of the song and, indeed, the whole album being forgotten past the opening sample. Unfortunately, this is a reflection of 17 as a whole, with XXXTENTACION insisting on being a spokesperson for the depressed youth without being able to relate his own mental sufferings to those of his audience, instead depicting his gritty lifestyle with no ounce of nuance or perception of repercussions as to warrant an especially emotional or empathetic response from the listener.
With the lyrical content of 17 struggling to exude the emotiveness for which the artist is surely striving, it’s not as if XXXTENTACION’s abilities as a performer fare much better, with the MC opting for the moody, monotone delivery that seeks to convey emotion simply through sounding somewhat downcast, but instead comes across as contrived. The rapper undoubtedly has his moments, with his singing on Jocelyn Flores reining in the mumbly moping in favour of genuine melody, even if said melody originates from the Shiloh Dynasty sample. Likewise, XXXTENTACION’s flow during his stand-alone verse on this track, although not at all original, is performed with only a minimum of the morose melodrama of much of the rest of the record and stands as one of the MC’s best performances as a result, with Onfroy genuinely being able to convey some down-to-earth emotions in his delivery when he isn’t forcing an overly-dreary vocal intonation, and the same could be said of his performance on Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares. This being said, songs such as Carry On see XXXTENTACION’s vocals clash quite horribly with the instrumentation and the production, with the fuzzy recording of the MC’s rapping striking some clunky tones against the similarly grainy Shiloh Dynasty sample, whilst the thumping bass drum is mixed far too loudly, with each clumpy thud tearing through the mix in a really ungainly manner that completely conflicts with the song’s attempted introspective and muted tone. Likewise, the clamouring, auto-tuned bellowing from Trippie Redd clashes with the watery, cloudy tones of Fuck Love, which is only exacerbated by the obscenely loud mixing of his vocals. Much of 17, however, witnesses XXXTENTACION try his hand at some indie folk-style acoustic and piano ballads, but it would be a struggle to claim that any of these songs play to his strengths as an artist. His wispy sung delivery over Depression & Obsession incorporates multi-tracking, presumably as a means of executing some vocal harmonies, but Onfroy’s backing vocals amount to some meandering, murmured croons that do little other than tangle in a rather ungraceful fashion with the strained emotiveness of his main vocal part. Thankfully, the mid-tempo, lo-fi folk-leaning Revenge overcomes some of these problems, with XXXTENTACION’s singing sounding much more compelling when delivered cleanly and naturally, whilst the multi-tracking on this cut is actually put to use properly, with the MC striking some genuinely well-worked harmonies. Unfortunately, however, it’s only by the time of the succeeding song in the tracklisting that Onfroy completely undoes these improvements, with the musician opting for a stiff and affected singing style that loses all emotion in its contrivance and allows his vocals to be swamped by the instrumental, largely courtesy of the reapplication of the poorly levelled distorted vocal recording and the blaring, hulking drum mixing. Similar issues could be raised with Orlando, as XXXTENTACION’s monotone mutters appear over what is essentially a carbon copy of the piano progression from Adele’s Hello, with the track lacking in any semblance of dynamic depth, due to its only two components playing towards the same sonic range through its entire runtime. It’s here wherein the scattershot structure of 17 really lets the record down as a whole project, with the occasional glimmer of solid songwriting or an endearing performance being lost in the mess that is the composition of the rest of the tracklisting.
Perhaps the worst signal for a debut album to give off is one that suggests that the project was rushed and forced out in order to exploit a sudden surge in the artist’s popularity. Unfortunately, one of the issues with the promotion cycle for the XXL Freshman Class is that it sees all too many rappers attempt to strike while the iron’s hot, but end up shooting themselves in the foot by putting out a haphazard project that was obviously constructed with no care for anything other than milking as much out of their 15 minutes of fame as is humanly possible, with Desiigner’s New English from last year being a prime example. To say that no care went into 17 may be a bit of a stretch, as XXXTENTACION does seem genuinely emotionally invested in what he is doing across the course of the album, but that’s not to say that the end product yields carefully constructed and fully realised results. Instead, Onfroy’s self-centred ramblings completely fail in warranting any investment on the listener’s part, despite the supposed mission statement of the record being to guide the listener through their own mental burdens, whilst the musician’s performances only seldom strike any moments of sincerity, with XXXTENTACION coming across as forcing a contrived image of himself and his artistry onto the audience for much of the ephemeral tracklisting. In this sense, with 17 massively missing the mark when it comes to its apparent entire reason for existence, the whole record is left feeling like a non-entity in XXXTENTACION’s career, with the handful of compelling singles that the MC had recently put out being a more fitting summary of his artistic persona than his debut album.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4/10