When the news broke this week that XXXTentacion had been shot and killed, the Twitter encomiums were fast and flattering. “I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here thank you for existing,” wrote Kanye West. “The two leaders of this entire wave of hip hop are dead now. If you really want to revil [sic] in their deaths I will block you. No time for negativity,” offered Diplo. The R&B artist Jidenna went as far as likening the late 20-year-old to Malcolm X. IRL, X’s army of sad-rap acolytes flooded the streets of L.A. in his name, shutting down several city blocks before they were dispersed by officers in riot gear. Most were men.
Meanwhile, the artist formerly known as Jahseh Onfroy’s many heinous crimes—both alleged and confessed—were met with a collective shrug. They were excused by those with check marks next to their names as “mistakes,” “poor decisions” and “missteps” with feats of linguistic gymnastics rivaling media portrayals of Trump’s lies. The follies of youth, they said, and a troubled one at that. X’s talent—and he was unmistakably talented—superseded his monstrous cruelty. He spoke to a generation of kids, after all, who struggled with similar demons; who wished they could stare theirs down with an ink-strewn face and two middle fingers raised high.
It was a shocking refrain in this supposed era of #accountability. X’s weren’t mere peccadilloes but horrifying acts of brutality from a man who appeared to get off on inflicting pain on the most vulnerable among us. In middle school, he responded to a teen crush’s flirtatious jabs by slapping and kneeing her in the face; at a juvenile detention center, he told the No Jumper podcast that he nearly beat a gay inmate to death for “staring” at him in the nude, stomping his head into the concrete and strangling him until there was “blood all over my hands, all over my chest, literally, I was going crazy. I smear his blood on my face, on my hands. I got it, like, in my nails. I got it all over me. I was going fucking crazy.”
In October 2016, X was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering. Then, in September 2017, Pitchfork published his alleged victim’s harrowing testimony. What she describes is a cycle of physical and psychological torture. He is said to have punched her, head-butted her, kicked her, elbowed her, and strangled her regularly. When she was allegedly pregnant with their child, she said he beat her so badly that her eye was “leaking blood.” He threatened to kill her “every day,” she recalled, and once forced her to pick either a “barbecue pitchfork” or “barbecue cleaner” to be inserted into her vagina, “dragging the tool against her inner thigh” before abandoning the threat.
And rather than be turned off by X’s misogyny and homophobia, hip-hop heads’ interest was piqued. His single “Look at Me!” hit the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-2017, months after the charges against him surfaced, despite the song floating around on SoundCloud since late 2015. He made it to XXL’s coveted 2017 Freshman Class, and his major-label debut 17 landed at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Fans lapped up online videos of him coming to blows with his admirers, and the riots he incited at shows, and his feuds with blueprint-following MCs like Drake. “The thing with X is, when he got into trouble, that’s what blew him up,” his pal Denzel Curry told HotNewHipHop. He was a rapper for the WorldStarHipHop era: a self-made troll with no A-list co-signs. Caroline, a subsidiary of Capitol, signed him for a whopping $6 million.
The co-signs did come, of course. When Spotify implemented a new “hateful conduct” policy, thus pulling X’s music from their streaming platform, none other than Kendrick Lamar reportedly came forward and threatened to pull his music unless X was reinstated; in the wake of his passing, J. Cole alleged that X had exhibited “a strong desire to be a better person.” That claim seems rather specious given how he failed to own up to much of the alleged abuse he exacted on his female victims—including his purportedly pregnant ex. When a video went viral of X striking a woman in the head, he tried to pass it off as a joke; the woman, however, said that it was anything but, and that she was afraid to come forward because she was “terrified for my life.” He even lashed out at his critics, threatening to rape their sisters. This viciousness can no longer be overlooked, in life or in death, no matter one’s gifts.
X’s music will surely climb the charts once more after his death. It may even knock Nas’s new album, Nasir, down a few spots. Though Nas is still very much alive, the release of the Kanye West-produced Nasir serves as yet another example of audience’s astounding ability to overlook a musical dynamo’s misogynistic shortcomings.
When Nasir made its way online in the early-morning hours of June 15, it was met with the usual mélange of real-time praise, as fans famous and not live-tweeted their thoughts on the Queensbridge legend’s 11th studio album. But fans—and many critics—failed to reconcile its aggressive lyrics (“Chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth spitter / Blouse-ripper, ass-gripper, that dig-you-out nigga” on track “I Can’t Explain”) with the recent allegations made against Nas by his ex-wife Kelis, who delivered a tear-filled sit-down interview in late April wherein she accused him of “a lot of mental and physical abuse.”
Kelis said that Nas hit her. Often. She said that when photos of Rihanna’s bruised face spread online, an injury inflicted by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown, she wanted to go public with her own abuse story, “Cause I had bruises all over my body at that time.”
“Seeing her, the way she looked and then looking at myself, I was embarrassed. I was appalled. I don’t know that situation, but for me it was kind of like, you’re going to just let this go? You’re not going to say anything?” Kelis said. “[Nas] knew it, I knew it. He looked at me like, ‘Are you going to do it?’” She declined to speak out, explaining, “So much of me was out of character in that marriage, like taking that is not my character. I didn’t say anything because I wanted things to work, and because I was delusional.”
As Hannibal Buress proved, it only takes one influential male voice—one outspoken ally—to light the fuse. We need more men, in particular—famous and not—to stop sacrificing their moral compass on the altar of artistry. Otherwise, what message does this send to women? A man can beat, torture and maim you and still have their albums fly off the shelves, still be made into a martyr. Or, to quote the president of the United States, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”