Last month saw the publication of a new book that details the life and death of XXXTentacion (AKA Jahseh Onfroy), the controversial Florida rapper whose meteoric rise was cut short on June 18, 2018, in an alleged robbery gone wrong.
Onfroy was only 20 years old when he was gunned down at a Deerfield Beach motorcycle dealership. By that point, he had amassed a global cult following, released two platinum-selling records, and signed a $10 million record deal — all while swimming against the relentless current of his own demons and the tsunami of negative press created in their wake.
Written by music journalist Jonathan Reiss, Look at Me!: The XXXTentacion Story pieces together more than 70 interviews with people who were close to X, collaborators, journalists, and experts, along with police and court records and photographs.
What emerges is a 288-page biography of "such a short life," Reiss says. "Because of that, there's a lot of context."
The book investigates Florida's place in American society, taking care to delve into X's Jamaican heritage, South Florida's immigrant communities, and, especially, the struggle of its Haitian and Jamaican communities, which rank among the largest in the United States. It also points to XXXTentacion as a central figure in modern hip-hop's "Bob Dylan goes electric" moment — a moment that "split the genre and caused people to take sides," Reiss contends. "Most of all, it's about Generation Z's uphill battle, and why X became their figurehead."
Most readers will be familiar with the rough outlines: a SoundCloud sensation with striking eyes and outcast charisma whose genre-defying raps about depression, suicide, and other mental-health issues inspired an outpouring of posthumous appreciation from his devoted fanbase. On the flip side, especially in the years immediately preceding his death, X's life was marked by extreme bouts of rage and violence, especially against his then-girlfriend Geneva Ayala, which were highly publicized and frequently credited with propelling his career.
"I'd read about the terrible things he did and been disgusted, but I'd also listened to endless interviews with him and read about his interactions with fans," Reiss says of his impetus to write the book. "One group saw something akin to a god, and another saw a demon. I knew there was truth in between, and I really wanted to get to it."
Look at Me! goes into unprecedented detail about X's murder.
"In particular, the reason why the four men in the Dodge Journey began following X that day," Reiss elaborates. "Although, I should note that many people still feel that there was far more to it, including his close friends."
It breaks the period of X's abuse allegations down to a granular level, including the physical and psychological trauma inflicted upon Ayala and others in his inner circle. And, for the first time, it tells the story behind the stabbing of "like seven" people that X ostensibly confessed to on a now-infamous recording.
It also looks at many of the lesser-discussed qualities that made him so intriguing as an artist. He identified with oddballs and misfits.
"In high school, he was like the bully version of Dexter, bullying kids that bullied other kids," Reiss says.
He had a preoccupation with esoteric philosophy, the holistic and spiritual teachings of Rudolf Steiner in particular, and, for a while, an abiding interest in ritual magic.
"Allegations that he was homophobic just didn't jibe with what I came across during my reporting," Reiss adds. "I think he was equal-opportunity when he was hateful toward people."
Beyond the complex and often disturbing details of X's life that Look at Me! wades through, Reiss attempts to address the lack of "nuance in how he was portrayed," in part by calling into question the biases, unconscious or not, that likely played a role in dominant media narratives around the artist's stardom.
"Fellow journalists were largely not keen on participating, and others were incensed that I was doing the project in the first place, furthering the platform of someone they found distasteful," Reiss says.
Yet popular culture has a history of dismissing the problematic and abusive behaviors of countless white male artists.
"In the case of John Lennon, his [violent abuse of women] is a footnote and, in the case of [the writer] William S. Burroughs, it's practically celebrated," Reiss offers. "With X and other Black artists, it goes without saying it's all that's focused on. I'm not saying at all these things should be overlooked — it just felt like society had decided: That's it for this kid. He seemed too young for that call to be made."
Though X tended to buck racial preconceptions, his artistry was brilliantly provocative when it came to race (just take the music video for "Look At Me!" as an example), and inextricably tangled with his experience as a young Black man.
"Considering the impact he had on his supporters, he could have made a major impact," Reiss says, commenting on the current post-George Floyd #BLM climate. "X had a brilliance that was under-acknowledged and misunderstood, and there's a good chance he could have been an important voice."
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Despite — and perhaps in part because of — the darkness that shrouded his short life, XXXTentacion has emerged as an undeniable touchstone of hip-hop and youth culture, a controversial figurehead for a depressed generation raised on social media and glorified violence, whose access to any kind of future stability is fleeting.
"For X's generation, I think the world often feels unreal," Reiss says. "I think all the kids who related to his references to being 'numb' may be experiencing something similar.
"These kids literally watched X die on their mobile phones. The enormity of that was notable, and yet, like everything in this era, it seems to have come and gone. A book seemed like it could give some people closure in this thing that was probably pretty profound to them at a formative time."
Look at Me!: The XXXTentacion Story, by Jonathan Reiss. Hachette Books. 2020. 288 pages. Paperback $16.99.