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XXXTentacion, or X, the hugely popular and controversial rapper who was shot dead in Broward County, Fla., in June 2018 at the age of 20, has at once horrified and inspired millions of Americans. The release of his posthumous album “Skins” last Friday has further intensified the debate over his cultural and moral legacy

Many of his young fans see X as a martyr who fought for a kinder, more empathetic world and whose murder represented the type of moral decay he so desperately sought to eradicate. 

Yet many others condemn X as a sadistic abuser of women. 

In 2016, the State of Florida charged X with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering — after allegedly assaulting his pregnant female partner (X pled not guilty and denied the charges). 

On Oct. 23, Pitchfork reported it had obtained a recording of X, following the criminal charges, in which he admitted to abusing his former girlfriend — who, presumably, was the individual who accused X of criminal abuse. X stated that he would kill the woman “if she play [sic] with me,” and proceeded to described how he “started fucking her up because she made one mistake.” 

X also claimed to have stabbed eight people in Deerfield Beach, Fla., in January 2016, and to have stabbed his former manager in Orange County, Fla., in July 2016.

Despite X’s brutality, for a generation of young people who have experienced debilitating levels of depression and anxiety as well as a staggering, still increasing suicide rate, X was a disturbingly fitting generational spokesperson. In his music, X examined the relentless torment of depression and his desperation for romantic love. For many of his fans, his exhibition of pain was therapeutic. He validated his fans’ brokenness through demonstrating his own. But X also dealt with his demons through monstrous violence and abuse. 

X’s music reflected this violent masculine disposition. 

In his breakout single “Look At Me!”, X seems to justify the retributive rape of a female partner who has left him: “Can’t keep my dick in my pants, ayy / My bitch don’t love me no mo’, ayy.” 

In “Gospel,” a song by rapper Rich Brian, X, who is featured on the track, threatens to shoot a female partner in the head: “I will put a fuckin’ hole in your fitted bitch, yuh.” 

And on “Carry On,” the rapper claims his former lover opportunistically cried abuse and celebrates the prospect of her demise: “Trapped in a concept, falsely accused / Was used and misled / Bitch, I’m hopin’ you fuckin’ rest in peace.”

For many outside observers, X’s history of violence as well as his unconscionably misogynistic lyrics are more than enough to condemn the rapper. Yet X’s cruelty did not lessen the devotion of his young fans. If anything, his fans became more committed and more numerous as his barbaric tendencies increasingly defined his stardom. 

In fact, “?”, X’s second studio album, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album charts during the week of March 31, 2018, despite the lingering domestic violence charges facing X. Likewise, the song “SAD!”, X’s magnum opus, reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts following the rapper’s murder. As much as it is tempting to dismiss X’s cultural impact, the rapper’s life and music has inspired millions of young Americans. Such inspiration, as well as his profoundly broken, sadistic masculinity, must be interrogated. 

While much of X’s music is littered with misogyny, some of his work, ironically enough, is an exposé of vulnerability. In the chorus of “SAD!”, for example, X raps, “Who am I? Someone that’s afraid to let go, uh / You decide if you’re ever gonna let me know (yeah) / Suicide if you ever try to let go, uh.” 

The rapper, who so often positioned himself as a sickening abuser of women, is at the mercy of his female partner here. He’ll never be able to let go of the relationship, so he must defer to the woman of his affection to “decide” if the union must end. Worse still, his obsessive devotion to her supposedly warrants suicide if she indeed leaves him.

X’s “sad boy,” depressive disposition is reinforced in the most piercing, devastating lyrics of “SAD!” After the first chorus, X raps, “I’m lost then I’m found / But it’s torture bein’ in love / I love when you’re around / But I fuckin’ hate when you leave.” 

Here, even amid an enduring relationship, X’s pain and longing for a deeper connection with his lover outweighs the intoxicating ecstasy of being in love. 

More broadly, in his music, X’s identity fluctuated between a brutal misogynist and a helpless, self-pitying basket case who is on his hands and knees begging women to stay — in every conceivable sense of the word: X can’t bear the thought of his lover having a life outside of their relationship, and the mere anticipation of her departure from the relationship leaves the rapper irreparably shattered.

Given X’s melancholy in songs like “SAD!”, it’s easy to determine why millions of anguished young people — particularly troubled young men and adolescent boys — continue to adore him. No matter how vicious and abusive X might’ve been in his private life, the fact that his music made the pangs of depression and loneliness visible is enough for his fans to justify their uncompromising loyalty to the rapper. 

Several months before his death, X posted a video to Instagram in which he expressed what he would want to leave behind if he suffered “a tragic death.” He declared, “If I’m going to die or ever be a sacrifice, I want to make sure that my life made at least five million kids happy, or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life.” 

He also instructed his fans to “not let your depression make you. Do not let your body define your soul. Let your soul define your body. Your mind is limitless. You are worth more than you could believe.”

The video is difficult to stomach in light of X’s death, and the irony of X’s compassion for his fans as he was facing charges of domestic abuse is mind-numbing and heartbreaking. Of course, X’s touching, empathetic message in the Instagram video does not mitigate his sadistic behavior. Rather, his public displays of empathy render his private violence all the more tragic and no less repugnant. 

While he nobly tried to inspire his fans to know they “are worth more than [they] could believe,” X clearly did not live the way he preached. Despite his undeniable talent and genuine empathy, X could never be gentle with himself or the people around him, and he employed unspeakable abuse and brutality to express his unyielding pain.

We can only hope his distraught fans do not face similar barriers in their quest for love and peace.

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