Critic’s Notebook: Two SoundCloud Rap Outlaws Push Boundaries From the Fringes

In another era, this information might have been enough to derail these artists’ careers before they gained any traction. But hip-hop’s outlaw mythology has always been strong; because of that, among other reasons, the self-cleaning of suspected abusers that has swept through other industries hasn’t yet taken hold in hip-hop.


XXXTentacion is expected to have next week’s No. 1 album. He recorded it while on house arrest awaiting trial.

Jack McKain

Also, for an artist to have his career derailed, someone has to say no. But thanks to the fluidity of the streaming ecosystem, the internet moves faster than any gatekeeper, and both XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine (formerly Tekashi69) have found success rapidly. “Look at Me,” XXXTentacion’s breakthrough, went to No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first of several hits. “Sad!,” from his new album, debuted even higher, at No. 17. 6ix9ine’s debut single “Gummo” went to No. 12, and three subsequent songs have cracked the top 50.

“DAY69,” which was released last month, made its debut at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart, and “?,” released last Friday, is expected to be next week’s No. 1.

So while both of these artists operate under heavy clouds of suspicion and distaste, they are finding wide and dedicated audiences. However, even in spite of some high-profile acknowledgments — both Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd have posted about XXXTentacion on social media, and Young Thug, Offset and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie appear on “DAY69” — they haven’t been fully publicly embraced by the music industry. Instead, it is operating in the shadows for both artists: Billboard has reported that XXXTentacion is signed to Caroline, a division of Capitol Music Group, and 6ix9ine is signed to the label of Elliot Grainge, who is the son of Lucian, the chairman and chief executive of Universal Music Group.


“?” by XXXTentacion.


This de facto exile has ended up embedded into their creative process, though, pushing these artists to the fringes, where they are less bound by hip-hop’s conventions, or the needs of the music business. As a result, they have both made albums that break from the dominant sound in notable ways.

XXXTentacion, messianic and immature, recorded “?” while on house arrest awaiting trial. It is a chaotic album, ping-ponging between bawdy, punchy rapping and tender, lonely singing — a blend that goes back to his days posting loose tracks on SoundCloud. The best songs here are the most vulnerable, like “before I close my eyes,” on which he croons, “I hope it’s not too late for me,” embedding his public narrative into his creative identity.

Just as the music operates at polar extremes, so does XXXTentacion’s mood. Sometimes he is deeply petulant, like on the sticky “Sad!”; elsewhere, as on “Numb,” he’s self-lacerating. One song, “Hope,” is dedicated to the survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

Both he and 6ix9ine engage with rap-rock in a sidelong fashion. XXXTentacion harks back to the late-2000s Warped Tour, when melodic hardcore and screamo began flirting with hip-hop, in terms of cadences and also production textures. 6ix9ine, on the other hand, is often more reminiscent of New York hardcore than New York hip-hop. When he’s at his most rap-adjacent, it’s in the spirit of the early Ruff Ryders era, one of hip-hop’s rowdiest and rawest moments. (He also nods to the fusion of the “Judgment Night” soundtrack and the horrorcore of the mid- to late 1990s — a one-man Family Values tour in the making.)

6ix9ine is a brute-force screamer, and “DAY69” is a rough gauntlet of gun and sex talk, invigorating and also deadening. As a rapper, 6ix9ine is a boxer — he thrives on rasp and repetition, as if constantly looking to pick a fistfight. Occasionally he incorporates a touch of wordplay — “I need all of mine, try to try me and it’s Columbine/Let that Ruger fly, automatic poppin’ at your guys/You gon’ lose a guy, ’tato on the barrel, give ’em fries” on “CHOCOLATÉ” — but mostly he’s landing one jab after the next.

For both artists, songs are short — around a 2:08 average for XXXTentacion (including interludes) and 2:28 for 6ix9ine — because their bursts of energy might not last another 90 seconds, and because there is little infrastructure in place to push them toward more conventional structures. (For what it’s worth, most pop songs are only interesting for about two minutes.) Many of XXXTentacion’s songs don’t feel like much more than demos, experiments that under other circumstances might be thickened up for broader appeal.

And both push back against naming conventions — most of 6ix9ine’s song titles are one word, two syllables, beginning with a consonant and ending with a vowel and most crucially, in all caps, like he is screaming the name of an off-brand Pokémon character (“DOOWEE,” “KOODA,” “MOOKY”). XXXTentacion’s titles vary widely — some short and terse (and also in all caps), some long and sentence-like (but lowercase except for the I’s).

If these artists were being fully embraced, these rough edges might be sanded down, but instead they’re left unchallenged. And as XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine become popular, even in spite of their rejection in some circles, those outlier sonic choices begin to become normalized, and also stand out by comparison to the flattening of their peers’ sounds and identities. Unintentionally, that exclusion might be creating the circumstances for these artists to not only thrive themselves, but to become the ones influencing the shape of the genre for years to come.

Correction: March 21, 2018
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the relationship between rapper 6ix9ine and Elliot Grainge. 6ix9ine is signed to Mr. Grainge’s label, he is not managed by him.

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