In pop history, of course, the list of successful musicians given to brutality off stage is long: John Lennon, James Brown, Sid Vicious, Dr. Dre, and on and on. What’s new is that we’re supposedly in a moment of greater scrutiny toward male misbehavior, when celebrity careers are being ended on what seems like a weekly basis for alleged offenses ranging from lewd comments to rape. The #MeToo movement often gets discussed in generational terms, and progressives often claim that young people will eventually usher in a kinder, gentler society. Yet here is an alleged assaulter of a pregnant woman with a No. 1 album and a top-20 single, propelled by what appears to be a very young listenership that has also championed new rappers like Kodak Black, accused of sexual assault, and 6ix9ine, convicted of sexual misconduct with a child. Just this past weekend, rape accusations surfaced against XXXTentacion’s former manager Adam Grandmaison, host of the scene-defining podcast No Jumper. (Grandmaison denies the allegations.)
XXXTentacion’s story might be, in part, the same story about the weakening of old gatekeepers that the public sees playing out in politics. It’s not like the media’s been uncritical. “Stop giving your money to rappers openly who beat, rape, manipulate, and abuse women,” wrote Uproxx’s Aaron Williams last year in a wide-ranging piece. When XXL included XXXTentacion in their influential annual “Freshman Class” feature—because fans voted him into the one slot that the editors don’t decide on their own—Highsnobiety’s Stephanie Smith-Strickland wrote that the magazine was playing a “dangerous ethical game.” Stereogum’s Tom Breihan was more blunt: “We should not continue to make him famous. XXXTentacion should not be on this cover.”
But he’s getting famous still. ? didn’t garner reviews in many major outlets upon its release in mid-March, and it’s still the No. 1 album in the country, posting more formidable one-week streaming numbers than almost any other album this year. XXXTentacion built his fanbase via SoundCloud uploads over the past few years, with signal boosts from new tastemakers like Grandmaison, as well as musicians like Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd, who have signaled their appreciation for his work. An image-rehab attempt appears to be underway, too. He’s issued a general statement of regret about disrespecting women, promised to donate money to anti-abuse charities, and undertaken a campaign encouraging fans to do good deeds.
Artistically, he uses contradiction to sell a feeling of relatable, messy humanity: sensitive yet hardened, immature yet jaded, propriety-upending but also self-conscious. An interview with XXL last year had him talking about reading the Twilight series from jail—a weirdly apt image. One song on ? is called “Hope,” and it’s dedicated to the victims of the Parkland school shooting. Over gauzy flutes, he plaintively sings, “I think I’ll find a way of envisioning a better life.” The next song is “schizophrenia,” and it begins rather like a Joy Division cover—monotonous vocals, rock thrum recalling a dimly lit factory—and ends in an explosion of thrashing hardcore. The mosh command: “DON’T GIVE UP!”