In Hollywood and in the media, 2017 was a year of reckoning — powerful men brought down under the weight of their own misdeeds. But the opposite happened in hip-hop: Many of the genre’s most creatively promising rising talent arrived with troubling back stories, speeding onto the Billboard charts — and into the ears of millions — while operating under the cloud of criminal accusations or convictions. And unlike those who were quickly removed from perches of power, these young artists thrived, in spite of — or perhaps in part owing to — the severity of the allegations lodged against them.
The accusations of heinous criminal behavior are clear: XXXTentacion has been charged with the assault of a pregnant woman and later with witness tampering; he pleaded not guilty to all charges. Tay-K is facing a pair of murder charges, for which he maintains his innocence. Kodak Black has had a string of arrests and is facing trial for criminal sexual conduct; his lawyers say he is innocent. And 6ix9ine pleaded guilty in 2015 to the use of a child in a sexual performance.
But the statistics are just as clear: XXXTentacion’s first album, “17,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, and his breakthrough single “Look at Me,” which began as a SoundCloud loosie, made it to No. 34 on the Hot 100. Tay-K’s “The Race” went to No. 44 on the Hot 100. Currently, 6ix9ine has two songs on the Hot 100, “Gummo” at No. 14 and “Kooda” at No. 54. Kodak Black’s first album, “Painting Pictures,” debuted at No. 3 on the album chart, and was certified gold. “Tunnel Vision,” a single from that album, was certified double platinum and went to No. 6 on the Hot 100.
Those are metrics of popularity, not ethics. But they tell us something about how artists with pockmarked personal histories are received in the current climate. And they indicate that a chasm persists between moral and aesthetic calculus.
How to reckon with this gap, though, is still a work in progress, and a challenge. These artists are thriving in real time, and their renown is growing for music that is often inventive and compelling. But knowing the details of their alleged criminal behavior makes listening a charged act.
At the same time, plenty of people are listening to, and embracing, these artists — some who might be familiar with these complexities and some who might not. Especially in the streaming ecosystem, an artist’s song moves through the world much more fluidly than the artist’s biography.
What this moment demands is an honest, raw and difficult form of criticism, one that assesses work for its creative merit while not flinching from the circumstances of its creators. Dismissing the art outright when millions of others won’t, or can’t, do the same ends up being a kind of failure. Attempting to understand why something is effective, even when it comes from an objectionable source, is a task that criticism is uniquely suited to handle.
Last year’s reckoning with sexual misconduct followed a pattern: accusations of misbehavior, then rightful condemnation, then excommunication. If the men were creatively active, their current work was effectively scrubbed.
But what’s happening in hip-hop is different. After several years defined by the soothing, melodic aesthetic of Drake, the genre is in the midst of a slow pendulum swing toward the harsher, the darker, the more foreboding. Outlaw appeal has long been integral to hip-hop — think Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, Chief Keef and dozens more — and rappers from this new generation with difficult back stories are in the early stages of their careers, in a genre in which tolerance of complicated histories tends to be high, and in which skepticism about institutions like law enforcement can reframe someone accused of a crime as an anti-authoritarian folk hero.
Kodak Black’s story is especially familiar. He is one of the most slyly affecting lyricists in hip-hop, and one who sometimes raps about the heavy weight of morality in an amoral world. “I was already sentenced, before I came up out the womb/Streets done already sentenced me, before no cracker could,” he raps on “Day for Day.”
In the past two years, Kodak has been in and out of jail regularly on a variety of charges, including first-degree criminal sexual conduct, for which he has yet to stand trial. His public image has been one marked by persistent bad decisions, and his art has in part been an attempt to address them. He raps with a heavy, gnarled drawl and at a creeping pace — he sounds weary. In places he asks openly for forgiveness. On “Versatile,” from his “Project Baby 2: All Grown Up” mixtape, he insists he’s leaving his demons in the past: “When I took rapping serious I threw the towel in/But Lord you say you gonna forgive me so forgive me then.”
There is a similar tension underscoring the work of XXXTentacion, whose music began to seep out from the SoundCloud rap underground this year when he was in jail on harrowing charges of assaulting a pregnant woman, reported to be his girlfriend. (He has yet to stand trial.)
Stylistically, XXXTentacion is near the forefront of young rappers weaving emo and gothic elements into their sound. Kendrick Lamar supported him on Twitter, urging his followers to “listen to this album if you feel anything. raw thoughts.”
However there is little ambiguity in XXXTentacion’s art: He named a song on “17” after the woman he is accused of assaulting, and another for a female friend who committed suicide while visiting him. He’s comfortable in confessional mode in his music and his social media outbursts, which toggle between petulance, complaining about how he is misperceived, and grace, encouraging his followers with warmth and inspiration.
The literalism of “17” is both its most attractive quality and also its most worrisome — any attempt to separate the art from the artist is impossible, because XXXTentacion won’t allow it. That’s similar to Tay-K’s “The Race,” a song about being on the run recorded while the rapper was in fact on the run. The song is impudent and loose — it’s effective because its sense of abandon is tactile.
“Gummo” by 6ix9ine is the rowdiest anthem from a SoundCloud rap scene that thrives on rowdy anthems, and has undoubtedly benefited from the rapper’s image, from his long rainbow-colored hair and teeth to his barely veiled outlaw persona. Screaming his raps like a latter-day DMX, 6ix9ine calls back to a time when New York hip-hop had rawer edges. But even though he has been convicted of an awful crime, he has begun to pierce the mainstream. Funkmaster Flex, the longtime nighttime D.J. on Hot 97 who privileges New York rap’s tough street mythos, has become an enthusiastic booster.
(These artists aren’t the only ones whose work triggers this crisis between creators and consumers. And last year also saw wide concern about the promotion of self-harm via prescription drug abuse that’s permeated the SoundCloud rap community, which drew heightened attention in the wake of the death of Lil Peep.)
With the amount of information available to listeners, unenlightened consumption should no longer be a viable option, but it remains possible because of how easily music is transmitted divorced from full context. (And for certain audiences, especially young ones, the abstraction of outlaw appeal far outweighs considerations of the real-life damage an artist may have inflicted.)
It’s also important to remember how many different forms of listening there are: passive and active, aural and physical, concerned and unconcerned. Listening is an ongoing negotiation, a process that engages the ear, but also the mind, body and heart. Thoughtful criticism should tether these artists’ creative work with the accusations against them; otherwise, they will remain able to be consumed independent of each other. And that would be a mistake.
That’s especially true because traditional media is not the only, or even the loudest, available megaphone. This wave of artists has been buttressed by a range of institutions, many of which benefit from asking few questions. These artists have received placement on key playlists on streaming services like Spotify, which has no formal criticism in its editorial offerings, and in some cases, they play on major radio stations, which also rarely factor nonmusical considerations into its rotations.
And that’s saying nothing of the companies that support these artists financially. Kodak Black is signed to Atlantic Records, as is YoungBoy Never Broke Again, who pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a firearm this year. XXXTentacion signed a recording contract with Empire Distribution, and while Tay-K sits in jail awaiting trial, he has inked a deal with 88 Classic, an imprint run by an RCA Records executive.
Other artists have attempted to capitalize on the viral notoriety of these rappers by working with them. XXXTentacion’s first high-profile mainstream collaboration was with Noah Cyrus, Miley’s 17-year-old younger sister. Kodak Black, the most established of these artists, has released songs with Lil Wayne and Young Thug, among many others (including XXXTentacion). Tay-K’s “The Race” was remixed informally by several rappers, and now that he’s signed, an official remix featuring 21 Savage and Young Nudy has arrived. The more tightly these artists are woven into the fabric of the music industry, the less likely they are to disappear quietly.
A final part of the pattern that emerged with last year’s high-profile abusers was contrition, ostensibly as a table setting for rehabilitation. But that hasn’t happened with this crop of rappers. Instead, the past year has made clear that they are finding listeners long before they find resolution, legal or moral. In other industries, conversations are just now beginning about whether those who have been accused of terrible acts can someday be welcomed back, first as people and later as contributing members of the creative community. But hip-hop isn’t waiting.
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