XXXTentacion returns with numerous highlights, falling short of a cohesive project but convinces the listener to submit to his unfinished structure.
Since the release of his debut album, 17, American rapper XXXTentacion has seen success at a mainstream level, all while remaining independent and having a dedicated cult-like fanbase to support his every move. 17 was an album that encompassed alternative emo sounds, one of his ever-flexible pool of genres, and subject matter surrounding his mental health and emotional scars. XXX is convinced he’s a versatile artist who’s creating the best music of his generation. This sophomore album is a chance to build on his stream of creativity.
As promised, ? is more versatile than 17 sonically, offering every taste of X’s musical styles, but doesn’t work to the album’s advantage. Cohesively ? is not a solid album, but offers enough highlights to warrant an emotive experience.
On this album, X continues to explore the sounds of 17 for a bulk of the tracks. Vocally, XXXTentacion impresses on these songs, such as on “Changes”, providing a heartfelt verse over the minimal piano alongside PnB Rock. “The Remedy for a Broken Heart” is an unofficial sequel to “Everybody Dies in Their Nightmares”, offering the same delivery and tone, as well as an impressive display of rapping. These tracks are by no means perfect, but the combination of X’s vocals and skeletal instrumentals barely leave any room for complaints aside their brevity.
The upbeat moments on ? impress as well. The hook on “Moonlight” is incredibly melodic and contains the most standout production of the whole album. The lead single “SAD!” is equally memorable for the same reasons.
Unlike 17, ? opts for displaying all of XXX’s styles. The tracklist jumps from punk rap (“Floor 555”, “Pain = Bestfriend”) to traditional hip hop (“Infinity (888)”) to his usual SoundCloud trap rap (“SMASH!”, “$$$”, “Going Down”) like a child unable to pick a meal from the menu. This leads to a confusing listening experience and inability to work out what the purpose of ? really is.
Although it takes away from the album cohesion, it does offer some of the album’s best tracks. “Infinity (888)” with Joey Badass is proof that XXX should focus more on traditional rapping, as he can clearly rap well, providing nice wordplay in a verse that could go head-to-head with Joey’s own verse (“I’m not talkin’ YMBAPE shit but I’m bangin’ on my chest bitch”). Even the hint of reggaetón appearing on “I Don’t Even Speak Spanish LOL” is oddly enjoyable, despite its arbitrary placement.
While these tracks impress, the portion between track 9 and 13 is where the album loses its wheels. The trap tracks are only bearable, not enjoyable (“$$$”, “Smash”, “Going Down!”) while the punk rap songs are easily interchangeable. The penultimate song, “Schizophrenia”, had the most potential out the punk rap cuts in concept, appearing to draw strong inspiration from Kid Cudi’s Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven. The concept of showing an insight into a schizophrenic mind through the various deliveries is creative, but not explored to its full potential.
For whatever reason, XXXTentacion (and most of the SoundCloud generation) insist of creating unfinished songs with a runtime of under 2 minutes. There’s 18 tracks compared to 17’s mere 11 (including another corny intro monologue), running for a length of 37 minutes in total, but over half of the album’s “songs” do not pass the 2 minute mark. There is even an unnecessary 50-second interlude, as if every track doesn’t qualify as an interlude already.
Just like 17, half of the songs on ? could have been combined into one, full-fledged song because of how similar they sound, or completely cut from the tracklist – namely “Introduction”, “Floor 555”, “Going Down!”, “SMASH!”, “Love Yourself (Interlude)”, “Pain = Bestfriend” and “Before I Close My Eyes”.
For fans of XXXTentacion’s music, the lack of cohesion and musical snippets is excusable. ? is an album full of pieces to XXX’s puzzle, focused pleasantly on emotional instrumentation and vocals. Luckily, there are enough standouts to the puzzle than failures. If X wants to express his range in creativity, he is better off dividing the sounds into separate albums and leaving out what’s not necessary.
Rating: 7 / 10
Best tracks: “Infinity (888)”, “The Remedy for a Broken Heart”, “Hope”, “Moonlight”, “Sad!”, “I Don’t Even Speak Spanish LOL”, “Changes”