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XXXTentacion bridged a gap between mental health and hip-hop, but he is not a hero | Sing About Me

It’s hard to find a rapper that is more instantly recognizable than Joey Bada$$. He spearheaded a Pro Era collective that revived the clinically dead East Coast sound of the mid-1990s, monopolizing it at the age of 17 with his classic debut mixtape “1999” and earning comparisons to Nas in the process. 

Word came out earlier this year that he was dropping his third LP, and folks began anticipating a desperately-needed fix of Bed-Stuy’s finest, impatiently awaiting the end of the MC’s five-year album hiatus.

The release of “2000” was celebrated like a national holiday on July 22. The hip-hop community was ecstatic, and the sequel to his debut was received with open arms. This was Joey’s most personal album to date, serving as a reflection on a decade passed and the rewards he has reaped over that span while navigating inescapable grief. 

The braggadocious bangers that constitute the majority of “2000” create a feel-good atmosphere that makes one proud of his longevity and accomplishment. However, that complexity is toppled by trauma-rooted closing anecdotes that agonizingly detail his relationship with the late Jahseh Onfroy — better known as XXXTentaction — and the loss of Courtney Everald Dewar Jr., better known as Capital Steez, to suicide in 2012.

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | Graphic Artist

While X and Steez were alive, we liked to believe that we understood who they were outside of their music. Based on what we saw across the internet, X was either branded as an angel with internal demons or a demon amongst humankind, while Steez was labeled both a third-eyed guru and a radical martyr who fatally obsessed himself with a number.

Joey humanizes X and Steez on “Head High” and “Survivors Guilt” respectively, remembering them as the people that they were instead of as the artists that fans adored.

When Joey shared a story on “Head High” about how X invited him to stay at his home in order to help him work on “?,” many listeners recognized there was a disconnect between their limited knowledge of a controversial artist and Joey’s relationship with X as a close friend. The song serves as Joey’s two-cents on the debate surrounding X’s character as the former asserts the latter’s stand-up nature and care for others.

Similarly, when Joey opened up on “Survivors Guilt” about not understanding the full scope of Dewar’s mental health struggles, wishing he could’ve done more to be by his side, listeners were reminded that it’s impossible to put yourself in the shoes of another.

Steez’s suicide is obviously a harrowing tragedy in and of itself, but it cuts deeper today knowing that there is now a space within hip-hop to openly discuss mental health. Joey acknowledged the lack of that discussion at the time of Steez’s death on “Survivors Guilt.” 

Conversely, the evolution of hip-hop in the past ten years has led to artists like XXXTentacion sharing their deepest woes for public consumption. This isn’t a bad thing — many fans love artists like X so much because they can relate to songs like “Jocelyn Flores” that touch on crippling depression and suicidal thoughts.

I’ve written in previous pieces about how crucial it is for high-platform rappers to express vulnerability in their craft — ask Pete Davidson and a plethora of other Cudders around the world, and they’ll credit Kid Cudi with saving their life.

People credit XXXTentacion to a similar degree, but the problem that still afflicts so many after X’s passing is justling with his publicly-known mental struggles in relation to his horrifying history of violence and assault.

The March 2022 biographical documentary “Look At Me: XXXTentacion” recalls the complicated life and legacy of the late rapper. The film is so conflicting because it does what “Survivors Guilt” and “Head High” convey to be impossible — it gives the viewer an intimate glimpse of the controversy that surrounded XXXTentacion through unreleased audio tapes and interviews with those who were close to him.

Over the documentary’s two-hour run time, I — as a fan of X’s music — had to accept what director Sabaah Folayan bluntly tells X’s own mother: “I don’t know if this is going to be a redemption story or not.”

Considering past accounts of armed robbery and home invasions, it only takes a single interview with Geneva Ayala, X’s ex-girlfriend, to recognize the irredeemability of X’s wrongdoings. Beating and attempting to drown a person who was believed to have been carrying a child is pretty hard to justify, to say the least.

I will always give credit to the seamlessness with which X reached out to his fans through his music, and there is no doubting that he saved lives in the midst of dealing with demons — his bipolar disorder was well-documented in the film — and songs like “Head High” are a reminder of a good-natured side of X that cared about his audience more than himself.  Regardless, X is a person that simply cannot be idolized, and I don’t think mental illness can be called upon to give grounds for the abhorrent things that he did.

A myriad of benefits have come with mental health being a focal point of hip-hop. Artists save themselves when they are able to address the demons that confined Steez into a box, and their progress helps millions of others along the way. That doesn’t mean mental illness should be an excuse for malice within the genre, and recognizing how inappropriate it is to worship XXXTentacion as a hero is a good starting point to stop that altogether.

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