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XXXTentacion - Skins Music Album Reviews

Underneath it all, the posthumous album from the Florida rapper is woefully aimless and structurally unsound.

At the center of the Jahseh Onfroy story is his domestic violence case, which was never tried but, after his death, is now closed. Before he was shot and killed in an attempted robbery earlier this year, the 20-year-old rapper known as XXXTentacion was accused of physically and mentally abusing his then-girlfriend, terrorizing her, and holding her against her will. He faced charges that included aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering. According to arrest reports, the victim was punched to the point where her eyes were forced shut.

The charges raised against X didn’t prevent him from becoming one of rap’s most popular new stars, and his death only complicates the conversations surrounding the music of an incredibly polarizing figure. In the aftermath, questions are raised about its lasting impact and how his murder at the age of 20 might change the way he is remembered. Will his art be treated as sacrosanct? In an attempt to rehabilitate his image, Onfroy’s mother started a nonprofit called the XXXTentacion Foundation to provide “relief [for] the poor, distressed and of the underprivileged.” It’s difficult to square this sensationalized, supposedly kind-hearted version of Onfroy with the one recorded admitting to stabbing eight people, the one who allegedly had a woman “scared for her life,” the one who noted, “I will kill that bitch if she play with me.”

If the X estate plans to highlight the rapper’s own characterization as a “problematic genius,” then their first step towards that makeover is to try and push his art to the fore with the release of the posthumous album Skins. Ultimately, it’s a record stripped so bare there’s hardly more in these songs than his uncoordinated instincts. Skins is the worst-case scenario for a posthumous release, not only devoid of meaningful ideas and moving music but making little to no case for its existence in the process.

Musically, there’s nothing complex about what’s happening in X’s songs. His previous lo-fi bedroom recordings, made on what former collaborator Ski Mask the Slump God once called the “worst recording set up,” touted their terrible sound quality and repetitiveness as pillars of naturalism. They are stark in service of power and intimacy. In fact, many of his most popular tracks are decidedly crude, meant to be read as genuine in their incompleteness.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if these cuts are finished since so many of X’s songs intentionally sounded unfinished. Some of his old songs were apparently first drafts made in only a few minutes, and while Skins was “very close to being done” when X died, you wouldn’t know it by listening. This 10-song, 19-minute run is woefully aimless and structurally unsound. Half the songs don’t have actual verses. At one point, he just screams, “fake eyes, black man,” repeatedly, which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t feel entirely witless and underdeveloped. There are a lot of whoas and ohs as dummy text when all else fails.

It’s like a collection of amassed loose-leaf pages with unresolved thoughts and doodles on them. Tracks are more like freeform inner monologues muttered into voice memos and sent as a mass text. Where older XXXTentacion songs, like “Jocelyn Flores”—a half-rapped, half-sung meditation on a fan’s suicide—had dimensionality and were rendered fully, these tracks have no such depth.

At his most captivating, X made music like he was doing an “MTV Unplugged” special for no one but himself. Skins mostly defers to that penchant for tenderness, though there are instances where it channels the fury of hardcore punk, a core tenet of the SoundCloud rap he helped popularize. There’s little to be gained in squaring the vulnerable, would-be soother and sage in some of these songs with the real, savage young man who once claimed he bashed open a gay man’s head in juvie and smeared the man’s blood on his face, just because the man looked at him. But it’s hard to hear X seethe through the rap-rock frenzy of “One Minute” and not consider the implications.

When Kanye, a vocal X fan and supporter, offers his blame-shifting lyrics about how X was wrongfully accused during a guest spot on “One Minute” while X spits and screams the hook, his history wells right back up to the surface. Kanye’s verse seems to continue a two-pronged defense of XXXTentacion’s music: first, suggest that X was a casualty of a call-out culture unwilling to allow for his presumption of innocence, and second, posit that death absolves him of his sins and thus should wipe clean the slate so that his legacy can be written.

All this overlooks X’s own admissions to committing acts of violence, the incalculable role violence played in his rise, and the ways violence seemed to inform the music he was making. Those who would invoke “the aesthetic alibi” on X’s behalf are refusing to acknowledge that the morbid ethos in X’s songs is inextricable from his story. If the very power of his music, in the eyes of his cult-like following, lies in its “realness” then it’s impossible to separate that same music from the real suffering inflicted in its name.

“Emo rap” was the genre that made the biggest gains on Spotify in 2018, and XXXTentacion, as its standard bearer, didn’t live to see its lasting effect. He was synthesizing rap and rock through a process that felt integrative and immersive, a depressive mixing the bluster of hip-hop with the toxicity of third-wave emo. But Skins doesn’t even preserve any of what was affecting about that listening experience. It lacks the same force and is unexceptional in every way. The album never makes a case for X as anything other than a thinly subversive figure and never even rationalizes the baggage that comes saddled with it. X’s musical legacy will forever be interlinked to violence. Skins is merely a shallow attempt to overwrite that legacy gone awry.


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