January 23rd of this year saw the release of the collaborative mixtape ‘XXXTentacion Presents: Members Only, Vol. 4’. The project features frequent collaborators of XXX’s as well as recordings of the late artist himself. It was released on XXX’s would-be 21st birthday by the ‘Members Only’ collective and his estate. The artist himself passed away more than six months ago so this begs the question; who is making these decisions? And who is really benefiting from them?
Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy, stage-name XXXTentacion, rose to underground fame through the streaming platform, Soundcloud. His aggressive, braggadocious song ‘Look at Me’ brought him to mainstream attention in 2017. His debut album, 17, was released in August 2017. This was followed by his second entitled ? in March 2018. His first two albums debuted at number two and number one on the US Billboard 200 respectively. On June 18th 2018, the twenty-year-old was shot dead at a motorcycle dealership in Florida. In the week after his death his highest-charting single ‘Sad!’ was catapulted from 52nd position to 1st in the US Billboard Hot 100. The last person to have a posthumous number 1 hit was The Notorious B.I.G. with ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems’ in 1997. This unprecedented leap evidently caught the attention of the music industry and Onfroy’s estate, who have since been releasing a slew of posthumous material.
In 2017, just as he was breaking into the music scene XXX signed to Empire Distribution. The deal involved taking less upfront payment and a lower royalty rate in return for keeping full creative control of his forthcoming projects. Evidently, this level of control was imperative to the young artist. I decided to have a look at how his wishes have been respected since his death.
Following along the current trend of the mega-album, this collaboration is twenty-four tracks long. This road was paved notoriously by Drake’s Scorpion and Migos’ Culture 2. The loophole-esque idea being, in this new age of online streaming services, the longer an album, the more streams its content will generate, and so the chance of accolades like a chart-topping debut increase exponentially. However, despite the lengthy track-listing and XXX’s name wrapped around every facet of this project, the young rapper only appears on a quarter of the tracks, a mere six songs. So why has the project been so heavily marketed around XXX?
This collaborative tape is the second XXX project since his death, following December 2018’s Skins. This album was left unfinished at the time of Onfroy’s death, and there was a question whether it would be released unfinished, if at all. On November 9th the single ‘BAD!’ was released. It was followed by the ten-track, less than twenty-minute-long album on December 7th alongside an animated music video for the single ‘BAD!’. The artist’s third studio album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200.
XXX previously served time in jail for charges of aggravated battery of his pregnant girlfriend. Despite the new age of equality the #metoo movement seems to be ushering us into, the music industry seems all too eager to brush this side of the artist under the carpet. With his music performing so well commercially, soon there were vultures circling above, awaiting their chance to feed.
Lil Wayne fans were finally rewarded for their years of patience when Tha Carter V dropped in September 2018. The album’s second song, ‘Don’t Cry’, boasted XXX as the featured artist. The title, along with XXX’s heart-wrenching crooning on the track, seemed almost like a perfect tribute to the late artist. Furthermore, the track’s official music video was released on XXX’s birthday featuring snippets of the artist performing live. Go on YouTube and you’ll see the tags #RestInParadise and #LongLiveX. This all seems to amount to a gracious, if grandiose, pay of respects to the artist from Lil Wayne.
Except, when asked about the song in a CRWN interview with Elliott Wilson, Wayne said that the inclusion was his manager, Mack Maine’s, idea. Wayne continues that he ‘didn’t know who XXXTentacion was’ until he heard the feature. Does this mean a tribute to a late artist is arranged by administrative level personnel, packaged by the best in PR, and performed by strangers who happen to be recording artists? That seems odd.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end here with Lil Wayne. While teasing his part in the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack, on the 10th of December, a post was made on Wayne’s twitter. It advertised a song featuring Wayne, TY Dolla $ign, ‘(and a surprise special guest!)’. No prizes for guessing that the special guest is the very same young artist Wayne knew nothing about before using his name to tap into new audiences for his album. My view may seem pessimistic but, this dramatic track teasing, coupled with the CRWN interview transparently shows Wayne’s sentiments as disingenuous, deceitful, and self-indulgent.
Another questionable posthumous release is ‘Falling Down’ a collaborative track featuring ILoveMakonnen, XXX, and Lil Peep. The latter of which died from a Fentanyl-Xanax overdose on November 15th 2017. This XXX feature was one of the last he wrote. After Peep’s death, XXX reached out to Makonnen, who had been working with Peep, about paying tribute to the rapper. Makonnen agreed to it and plans were set in motion for the release of a song featuring the three artists. However, the idea of an amicable relationship between XXX and Peep has been denied and opposed by Peep’s close friends. Fish Narc, a fellow member of the GothBoiClique, denounced the collaboration saying that Peep ‘explicitly rejected XXX for his abuse of women’. Despite this, early production of the track went ahead but was still not released by the time of XXX’s death. Eventually, the track was released in September 2018 and was announced by Cleopatra Bernard, XXX’s mother, on Instagram with a post ‘From Peep’s mom and I’. The track peaked at no.38 on the US Billboard Top 100, making it Peep’s highest charting single.
While Makonnen claims the handling of the track and its distribution was left to the mothers of the deceased, Peep’s mother, Liza Womack, stated in an XXL interview that the addition of XXX was Makonnen’s idea. Is it complete irony that what XXX was attempting to do with Peep’s death, was then done to him by the likes of Makonnen and Wayne? Or are we just getting glimpses of how this music industry really works?
With the release of ‘XXXTentacion Presents: Members Only, Vol. 4’ comes a North American tour. Tupac was dead seventeen years before Coachella organisers coordinated a hologram to play the festival in 2012. Michael Jackson was dead six before his hologram performed at the Billboard Awards in 2014. After writing this article I find myself wondering, will XXXTentacion’s likeness be prostituted for this tour, or will they wait for the money to dry up first?
By Nicholas Lane – Music Writer