On Monday, June 18 the rapper XXXTentaction (henceforth ‘X’) was shot and killed in a fatal robbery in Miami, FL. The hip-hop artist was 20 years and marred with controversies such as accusations of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend (for which he was awaiting trial at the time of his death) and beef with other rappers including Drake, the Migos, and Rob $tone.
However, for fans, X was someone who was trying to spread positivity. His music touched heavily on issues of suicide and anxiety, problems that resonate with many of today’s youth. To his peers, he was someone who always tried to give helpful advice and spread good vibes.
In this following essay, I will give a critical analysis and critique of X’s musical philosophy. By no means am I looking to disrespect X or his legacy, but rather build on what he sought to accomplish.
The Nihilistic State of the Contemporary World
X was a product of today’s culture. In a previous article, I argued that the current hip-hop scene is a reflection of this. Many people today suffer from worldliness, from materialist desires like money, lust, and temporal objects (drugs, cars, etc.).
Yet no amount of material success brings about eudemonia if anything it leads to further despair, self-harm, and addiction. Our world is spiritually broken.
In today’s ‘sad rap‘ scene, I see two types of approaches to this spiritual bankruptcy. On the one hand, is a life-negating worldview that seeks to resolve one’s personal issues through passive pessimism and optimistic fatalism. On the other hand, is a life-affirming rap with an amor fati attitude and in search of transcending the material world.
It is my argument that this former type of rap is another danger, not a solution, to the problem of modern society. The nihilism plaguing in today’s society is and will continue to be worse by the hollow “positivity” found in this philosophy. Rappers that fall into this section of rap include Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Lil Xan, and Trippie Redd.
By contrast, the latter view is the answer to our nihilistic ill. In fact, it is actually a subtle revival of Christian spirituality. Rappers that espouse this type of music (and who will be examined as well) are Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar.
X’s debut album, 17, illustrates three key points to the life-negating style of hip-hop. The first element can be seen in the opening track of the album, The Explanation which as the title suggests, gives a breakdown to the purpose of his musical project.
Here is my pain and thoughts put into words.
I put my all into this, in the hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression.
This line illustrates a fundamental difference between life-negating hip-hop versus, what we will later see as life-affirming hip-hop. While X hopes that his message may resolve one’s depression, he is content if it can at least numb you from it.
The thing about life-negating hip-hop is that the artist does not necessarily want to embrace his struggles and downfalls but rather run away from it. They would prefer to be apathetic than to suffer from pain.
When love goes wrong, it brings regret. Regret which leads to despair and loneliness. What life-negating rap wants to do is to escape pain and live without regrets.
Hence why X recants love in “Everybody Dies in Their Nightmares” because it entails pain, thus making him feel as if it were better not to love and just be numb to emotions.
Only time I feel pain, when I’m feelin’ love
That’s why it’s tatted on my face that I’m damn numb
And again in “Dead Inside,” X repeats that he would rather be in an apathetic state.
Spend a lot of time stuck in this head of mine.
Under the assumption love is dead, already.
Just let me be here.
This leads to the second key point of life-negating rap, the resignation of achieving a better future. In his follow-up album,? (Question Mark), the track “the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love)” supposedly answers what the cure is to depression.
Again, love is not the answer since it only brings about more hardship. He repeatedly asks why he’s in love and states that there is no reason to it at all at the beginning of the song:
Why am I so in love?
Why am I so in love?
Why am I so in love?
I don’t know why
Yet X also asserts that no amount of material achievements will help either since it does give you the same satisfaction that love does:
What is money really worth if it ain’t love?
So then, what is the remedy to a broken heart? There is none. In the concluding chorus of the song, X tries to give a recipe that would provide a cure, saying that it’ll make everything alright but stops before finishing the sentence:
Mix a little bit of weed with a little bit of cash
With a little bit of this, with a little bit of that
We gon’ be al-
This leads to the second key point, passive pessimism. In “Pain = BESTFRIEND,” X concludes that there’s no point to mourn the pain we’ll go through. We’re always going to feel resentful, worthless, and left hurt. The only thing you can do is go along with it.
Lost in regret, I
Feel so deeply, I can’t seem to, find a means of ground…
Don’t cry, don’t cry, it won’t end
Pain will always be my friend.
We see similar sentiments expressed in the late rapper, Lil Peep. In his song “The Way I See Things,” the rapper feels that apathy is the only escape from heartaches:
She don’t love me, but she’s singin’ my songs
I don’t feel much pain
Got a knife in my back, and a bullet in my brain
And in songs like “The Brightside” and “Regrets,” the rapper expresses that while he knows he shouldn’t take his life, the only thing delaying it for him are drugs. Unfortunately, it ended up being drugs that would take his life from him.
Help me find a way to pass the time (to pass the time)
Everybody tellin’ me life’s short, but I wanna die (I wanna die)
Help me find a way to make you mine (make you mine)
Everybody tellin’ me not to, but I’m gonna try
Now I’m gettin’ high again, tonight.
I’m never sober now, I’m gettin’ high all night
I’m about to put this in my system to erase you from my mind
To sum up, X, Peep, and other rappers like them want to recognize the pain and depression one goes through. They definitely do not believe that suicide is the answer and they know that things like money or drugs won’t help either.
Their worldview is that the best way to deal with pain is to just move along with it. Become numb to it, befriend it, because you’ll never feel better, you’ll just be used to it. Unfortunately, such an attitude only leads one back to desiring worldly passions hence why those like Peep and also Uzi and Trippie Redd continue to use drugs. So long as their attitude is to do whatever makes the pain go away then they’ll always succumb to their hedonistic vices.
This style of hip-hop is characterized by a more hopeful future. While it overlaps with the former type on issues of depression, suicide, and drug abuse; it takes a starkly different approach to these issues — one that is more a lot more hopeful.
It is no coincidence that religious metaphors and imagery are much more commonplace in these rappers than the former. Rappers like X, Lil Peep, and Lil Xan are known for being satanic in their appearance and music. This reflects their disillusionment with any sort of spirituality and resignation to worldliness (which, to reiterate, is precisely why they are consumed by materialism).
By contrast, artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kid Cudi can be seen as more uplifting precisely because they believe in something immaterial and transcendent.
Take, for example, “The Prayer” by Kid Cudi. Begin by analyzing the following excerpt from the first verse:
Sometimes I’m thinking God
Made me special here on purpose.
So all the while, ’til I’m gone
Make my words important
So if I slip away, if I die today
The last thing you remember won’t be
About some apple bottom jeans
With the boots with the fur.
Maybe how I dreamed of being free since my birth
Cursed, but the demons I confronted would disperse.
Have you ever heard of some shit so real?
Beyond, from the heart, from the soul, you can feel.
From the getgo Cudi believes there’s something bigger than him, a higher purpose. So he must treasure every moment he has on earth by leaving something valuable and memorable. In the end, he’s hopeful that he will find and achieve his purpose and the demons that torment him will finally be banished.
The hook concludes that Cudi accepts his mortality but nevertheless, he prays that God will look always look after to him. Hence he pleads with the listener not to mourn his loss because he’s in good hands now and he will always be with us whether watching over us from above or in his music you play.
And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord, my soul, to take
But please don’t cry
Just know that I have made these songs for you And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord, my soul, to take
‘Cause I’m ready for the funeral
In “Sky Might Fall,” Cudi shows that he does not need to be caught up in the worries going on around him because he knows he’s heading somewhere where he’ll overcome his present struggles. The sky might fall but you can fly above it to a higher state of mind. The second verse shows that Cudi is okay with being seen as a lonely outsider because he is not of this world.
Lightning piercing through another land
Over the desert where the lost play
Soul searching each and every way
And then you see the
Awesome sound, so profound
When it – it’ll grip you
You can see it
If you hear it you can feel it too
Something special I am running to
Until then I go
Away, very far away
To another universe
Where all the people say
It’s the new-new place
For the special to embrace
Like a Martian who seemingly
Wandered out of place
Take what you need
From the valley of the hope, where
Even if you drown
You’ll be floating higher up. You can say bye, bye, bye
Sky might be falling
But remember you can fly, high
Parallelism can be drawn from Colossians 3:2. Whereas Cudi believes to rise above from the world around, the bible verse states that you should: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Cudi also alludes to God in his track “Just What I Am.” In it, he confronts his self-harm, depression, and drug abuse.
In my spare time, punching walls, fucking up my hand
I know that shit sound super cray but if you had my life you’d understand
But, I can’t fold, some poor soul got it way worse
We’re all troubled, in a world in trouble
It’s scary to have a kid walk this Earth
I’m what you made God, fuck yes I’m so odd
He believes that no-one will understand his pain or why he behaves erratically. Hence why he feels lonely most of the time. But he knows that we all face these struggle, some who have to face things worse than him, so it’s no reason for him or anyone to give up.
In the end, he makes sense of his disappointment with himself, his alienation and the sins he’s gone through, by saying he is this way because that is how God made him and God makes everything perfect and Cudi wholeheartedly embraces this. As Proverbs 16:4 states:
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Finally, in Cudi’s latest song “Reborn” from his collab album with Kanye West, Kids See Ghost reveal that the rapper feels after fighting a sense of worthlessness, he feels reborn and joyful finding a sense of peace and purpose:
I’m so—I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward
Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward
Ain’t no stress on me Lord, I’m movin’ forward
Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward…
I had my issues, ain’t that much I could do
Peace is somethin’ that starts with me, with me
At times, wonder my purpose
Easy then to feel worthless
But, peace is somethin’ that starts with me (with me, with me)…
Ain’t no stoppin’ you no way
All things, the night before
Ain’t no stoppin’ you no way
No stress yes, I’m so blessed.
Kendrick, for his part, is well known for pulling directly from Christianity. In “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” Kendrick also recognizes individuals as being the product of God. However, the tragedy narrated through the song shows how vices committed in order to survive, in this case, a prostitute (Keisha) looking to provide for herself, will tear someone down.
And Lord knows she’s beautiful
Lord knows the usual’s leaving her body sore.
Her anatomy is God’s temple
And it’s quite simple, her castle is about to be destroyed.
Here Kendrick notes directly references 1st Corinthians 3:16 which states that: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”
God made her beautiful and perfect. However, she is being destroyed by her sinful profession. In fact, the line foreshadows the song’s conclusion where the young woman dies as she is murdered by a bad client.
Later, Kendrick reveals that the prostitute imagines if she can redeem her sins and change but she has never heard the word of God so she doesn’t think she can be saved:
Sometimes she wonder if she can do it like nuns do it
But she never heard of Catholic religion or sinners’ redemption
That sounds foolish.
In the end, Keisha’s song might illustrate what sets apart life-affirming hip-hop from the life-denying one. Keisha embodies the life-denying rapper. It’s stated in the song that her actions began “as a practice, but now she’s numb to it.” Also, whenever she’s about to engage in sex with customers, Kendrick raps that “in her mind, she made it where nothing really matters.”
It is precisely this indifferent attitude Keisha has towards her pain that leads to her death. Had she been repentant and aware of her God-given purpose, her outcome may have been completely different.
I believe both styles of rap have good intentions. However, I am concerned that the life-denying attitude will only do further harm than good. We need rap that put forths forgiveness of one’s faults, to love yourself, and to find a higher spiritual meaning in life.
Rest In Peace Jahseh Onfroy.