After His Death, Florida Rapper XXXTentacion Leaves Behind A Complicated, Tragic Legacy

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I always had a creeping feeling that XXXTentacion would end up being a martyr to his devoted fanbase. We already saw a lesser version of the circumstance as he rose to fame from a #FREEX campaign while he was in jail for robbery and battery. His sullen mugshot became a macabre fixture of the new school of hip-hop’s iconography. Now, it will likely become an even more grimly venerated image in the wake of his murder yesterday.

The specter of death loomed large around XXXTentacion’s lyrics, in pensive songs like the eerily titled “I spoke to the devil in Miami, he said everything would be fine,” with lines like “I’m trapped in a changing maze, setting my soul ablaze, couldn’t control the pace. Where is this going?” We now know where that blazing trail stopped: With his shooting death yesterday in Southern Florida.

XXXTentacion was a primary face of hip-hop’s referendum on the infeasibility of separating an artist’s abhorrent conduct from their art. His every action over the past two years added to the circus, riled critics and stoked polarizing, passionate debates. But there will be no more stories. In a vacuum, he was a victim of a tragic shooting. But while even the ex-girlfriend that he’s alleged to have abused is mourning him, it’s not surprising that many others refuse to.

XXXTentacion lived a lightning bolt of a life, destroying much in his path, from the innocence and peace of mind of his pregnant girlfriend, to the conventions of what an unsigned artist (who wouldn’t even mix his records) could do with a Soundcloud account. The mark he left belies his 20 years on earth, from his musical impact to the wounds — both physical and mental — he left his victims with. One of those actions should weigh heavier than the other, but as the polarizing reaction to his death shows, it seems not to.

Writer and spiritual leader Ernest Holmes once said that “life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it.” Some people see XXXTentacion’s life as a textbook example of Black men’s immorality, homophobia, and abuse being swept under the rug because of their gifts, because of a need to coddle men dealing with unresolved trauma, or just because. Those who feel for him see his life as a tragic example of a foster kid failed by the system. Others look at him as an example of why the stigma around mental illness and therapy needs to be obliterated and not left to be trivialized and romanticized.

Some rue that a gifted 20-year-old was murdered before he got the chance to make sense of his life and realize his peak. Some people wanted to see him redeem himself a la Gucci Mane. Others wanted him incarcerated and made to reckon with his disgraceful abuse. They’re all right. While supporters and detractors will mostly define his lifetime in absolutes, there are aspects of his existence that are as disturbing and tragic as occasionally impressive.