When a 20-year-old Jahseh Onfroy was gunned down behind the wheel of his car in June of last year, music fans around the world paused to remember a young man who was considered by some to be an industry pioneer of his generation, and others to be just another glorified felon parading as a serious music artist.
Known professionally by the moniker XXXTENTACION (or ‘X’), his death sparked a social media eruption in typically-millennial fashion – fans leapt to Twitter en masse in defence against those propagating his criminal history (he was embroiled in a web of assault-related controversy), while artists were quick to pay tribute and condemn the poisonous gang culture to which he fell victim, Kanye West and Blink-182 among them. Naturally, music sales soared in the weeks that followed – the day after his murder, “SAD!” broke the single-day record for Spotify streams – and the attention brought about by his premature death garnered newfound acclaim for the talent of a young Florida rapper who was just beginning to find his sound.
Fifteen months later, X returns with his fourth and final studio album, and his second to be released posthumously, the despondently-labelled Bad Vibes Forever, a refreshing, unconventional deep dive into young love, gang violence and troubled American youth.
Despite its melancholic title, Bad Vibes Forever is, ultimately, a project that exudes uplifting reflection. This is the young artist at his most vulnerable, but also his most genuine. A stark departure from the aggressive trap beats that defined his early music, it represents the culmination of a steady transition into a more carefully-curated, distinct sound for a rapper who began his career as a mainstay of the SoundCloud trap scene.
Despite its melancholic title, Bad Vibes Forever is a project that exudes uplifting reflection
The opener, “introduction” – yet another example of the very on-trend use of voice recording – offers a candid insight into the frustrations of the artist as he grapples with the identity he hopes to forge of himself, a short track made especially poignant given the posthumous nature of the project. Sincere, passionately-muttered lines such as, “It’s like I really wanna amount to something great. I ain’t tryna, like, I ain’t tryna-, but I’m, in the same sense…” speak to the struggle between crafting a personality in his music and adhering to popular expectations of what being a ‘rapper’ really means. It’s a dichotomy that seeps into the album’s dense, 25-song tracklist.
There is a lot of variety here. From the entirely-acoustic melodies of “Ex B*tch” and the eponymous “bad vibes forever” to the faster-paced, grittier verses of “Kill My Vibe”, “Eat it Up” and “Voss”, the album taps into almost every dimension of popular music today. Expect to see these songs crop up on Spotify playlists of all genres; “wanna grow old” plays like an Ed Sheeran ballad, while “IT’S ALL FADING TO BLACK” ends the project with a very noughties Taylor Swift-meets-Busted sound to great effect.
Where the rapper’s older tracks like breakout-hit “Look At Me!” and fan-favourite tearjerker “Jocelyn Flores” respectively represent two ends of a musical spectrum, the lion’s share of Bad Vibes Forever occupies a cross-breed middle ground of sorts. In the same way artists like Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator tread a line between sedated melodies, upbeat instrumental interludes and experimental vocal work, X’s latest collection is awash with unconventional techniques which make it difficult to define as a rap album.
Quirky tracks like the choral “UGLY” and the piano-led “the interlude that never ends” attest to the artist’s commitment to going against the grain of his contemporaries. There are some less successful entries – “THE ONLY TIME I FEEL ALIVE” goes for head-bopping repetition but instead gets humdrum monotony, and “LIMBO” comes across a little shouty, though these are still far from the designer-laced hype fuel churned out by many of today’s so-called rappers (save for “NorthStar”, which is exactly that). There’s little mention here of the Gucci headbands and Richard Mille timepieces which have become so accustomed to the genre, replaced, instead, with emotive verses that draw attention to real-world problems and the psychological trauma associated with heartbreak and loss.
X’s latest collection is awash with unconventional techniques which make it difficult to define as a rap album
It’s the sort of album that finds its best sound during late-night drives when you want tracks with emotive hooks and unhurried beats that still excite without demanding you hit some sort of internet-bred dance move.
Officially dubbed the artist’s “final album”, a pervading sense of closure is made most apparent by its length – a listen of the entire project comes in at two-minutes shy of an hour. There’s a clear emphasis here on including as much unreleased material as possible, though the degree to which X himself features on each track varies drastically (on “Royalty”, he appears for no more than 15 seconds) which distorts the illusion of originality, such are the pitfalls of releasing an album by an artist no longer around to oversee its production. So too are some tracks plainly more substantial than others: many of those dependent entirely on X’s vocals seldom longer than two minutes. That being said, this is where the many featured artists – including Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Blink-182 and Noah Cyrus – are on hand to bolster the seconds, and serve as a testament to the album’s aforementioned variety.
In a time when it’s all too easy to produce music which conforms to the trends of the day, X returns for a final time with an album that represents the development – dare I say maturity – of a young musician in a saturated genre. Perhaps it’s a stretch to say XXXTENTACION comes of age with Bad Vibes Forever, but it certainly puts daylight between the artist he once was and the artist he clearly hoped to be – musically-speaking, at least. Whether one can, or indeed should, disassociate an artist from their music remains an altogether larger question.