If the purpose of art is to make us feel like we aren’t alone within the cold vacuum of existence confronting us at each and every moment, XXXTentacion, the rapper born Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy who was murdered outside of a south Florida motorcycle dealership at the age of 20 on June 18th, is one of the cruelest contradictions in recent music history. Onfroy’s songs were bracingly confessional, thrusting listeners into his personal anguish and evoking the experience of being trapped within an unsettled mind—a feeling common to just about everyone who’s ever lived but notably hard to recreate in music or literature without recourse to self-indulgent layers of abstraction or bleakness. At its best, Onfroy’s work could reach an angsty frenzy that reminded listeners of grunge and emo and recalled the moody ethos (if not quite the lyrical genius) of Romantic poetry. His music sounds especially weighty and immediate when held against the downer-fueled nihilism that nearly every contemporaneous internet-popular rapper seems to espouse these days.
XXXTentacion is also one of the few artists whose work can safely be called immoral. At the time of his death, Onfroy was facing decades in prison for beating up his pregnant girlfriend and then tampering with witnesses in the case. The final track on his breakout debut album, 17, is named after his victim and the lyrics include: “She showed me fake love, can’t forget … I made a list of my regrets/And you were the first, love.” In the chorus to “Sad!” Onfroy sings: “Who am I? Someone that’s afraid to let go/You decide if you’re ever gonna let me go/Suicide if you ever try to let go/I’m sad and low, yeah/I’m sad and low, yeah.” As a definitive profile of XXXTentacion in the Miami New Times published shortly before the rapper’s murder reports: “‘His favorite thing was to just backhand my mouth,’ [his victim] says. ‘That always left welts inside my lips.’ Onfroy would also try to guilt her with near-attempts at suicide, she says. He would fill a bathtub, dangle a microwave over the water, and threaten to let go.”
XXXTentacion ruined the lives of people around him and then rapped about it, further immiserating them. As if this wasn’t perverse enough, Onfroy’s violent deeds lent his work a grim credibility, with his monstrousness being a not-insignificant reason his music felt so real to so many people. The emotions in his songs felt bigger and truer than with other artists partly because his listeners understood what those feelings had inflicted on other people. The cognitive dissonance here is so impossible to manage or justify that many of his fans—who are mostly teenagers, it’s important to note—believed that Onfroy’s victim was simply lying, while the various post-mortems of XXXTentacion—written by critics who are mostly several years older than the rapper’s fans—tended to side-step tricky question of why he became so popular in the first place.
Here’s my own, on-one-foot sort of explanation: XXXTentacion became popular in part because he gave listeners something that was rawer but also more musically adventurous and less image-obsessed than what they were used to. Even at its most serious, hip-hop retains a sometimes-defiant sense of humor that fustier listeners often can’t hear or refuse to hear—one reason rap is so popular, and has become something approaching a universal art form, is because it’s actually fun. By that rubric XXXTentacion’s catalogue is something approaching anti-rap, abrasively un-fun and practically banger-free. In a number of songs on 17, XXXTentacion’s lyrics are dropped atop distant pianos or uneasy guitars. An arrestingly personal genre-bender that’s downtempo almost beginning to end, the record sounds like no other rap album that became as popular as it did.
XXXTentacion gave listeners something different. Hip-hop artists are usually playing fictionalized versions of themselves (in much the same way that the poet usually isn’t the speaker in a poem) and they tend to rap about violence in an abstract or aspirational manner that (sometimes intentionally) belies the gravity of the subject matter. In contrast the speaker in every XXXTentacion song is Onfroy himself, and the violence he recalls is intimate and real. There is no distancing attempted in his work: The titular demand in his best song, the unnervingly vehement “Look At Me!,” lands like a verbal wrecking ball headed straight for the barrier between art and artist. Gaze upon the monster, XXXTentacion demanded, every twisted inch of him.
More than nearly any other rapper, XXXTentacion grasped what could be possible once the customary barrier between an artist and their persona was dismantled. He could make his listeners feel his pain, and in feeling his pain their own pain would become less alien to them, a function of a common human condition rather than a defect. Notably, XXXTentacion’s music is credited with helping mainstream a more honest and less stigmatizing treatment of mental health in hip-hop. It’s no accident Kendrick Lamar, one of music’s paragons of earnestness, emerged as a key defender, with Lamar-affiliated Top Dawg Entertainment threatening to pull the company’s catalogue from Spotify if the streaming service followed through on a plan to remove Onfroy’s music from its curated playlists.
Surely Kendrick saw the the ghastly contradiction of it all. Who could possibly miss it? Both XXXTentacion and his music actively harmed other people, but not-unrelatedly—perhaps as a direct result, even—it contained something with which legions of normal and decidedly non-monstrous fans could identify. Insomuch as one can attach a larger moral statement to collective listening habits, the music-consuming public decided the benefits were worth the costs: “Sad!” is about as depraved as a song can get, but it was streamed over 10.4 million times on a single day the week after Onfroy’s death, breaking a record that Taylor Swift had previously held.
In life, even some of the leading tastemakers in the music world decided they’d rather not deal with any of this: Pitchfork didn’t review ?, XXXTentacion’s chart-topping follow-up to 17 released this past March. Honestly, who can blame them? Perhaps the only moral response to a XXXTentacion is to treat them as if they don’t exist. Now that he’s dead, the questions surrounding Onfroy have gone from flummoxing to unanswerable. On top of everything else, his is now the story of a someone who had their life violently stolen from them before they had the chance to affect a significant moral improvement, which usually requires years or decades.
Onfroy’s death leaves questions that fans and critics and really most human beings are generally ill-equipped to answer. Luckily, there’s religion. Last week, I asked a diverse group of rabbis about the questions XXXTentacion left behind. If one believes repentance really is possible, how harshly should we judge someone who was an abuser in their teens but dies before they can change? How harshly should we judge the prematurely dead, period? In a case where it would be morally irresponsible to separate art and artist, does the quality of the music—along with whatever positive impact it had on listeners—really matter all that much?
One answer, an orthodox rabbi who preferred to remain anonymous suggested to me, might appear in the Talmudic tractate Avoda Zarah’s story of the death of Rabbi Hanina Ben Teradyon. The Romans caught Rabbi Hanina teaching Torah and subsequently executed him by setting fire to a Torah scroll and slow-burning damp wool in order to ensure a death of maximal spiritual and physical agony. One of Hanina’s executioners takes mercy on him: “My teacher, if I increase the flame and take off the tufts of wool from your heart, so that you will die sooner and suffer less, will you bring me to the life of the World-to-Come? Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon said to the executioner: Yes.” The executioner then throws himself on the fire and dies.
Centuries before the Nazis, the Crusaders, or the Czars, a Roman executioner was about as straightforwardly evil a figure as could exist in the Jewish psyche. But even they weren’t beyond redemption, at least according to not just one of the Talmud’s highest moral authorities but to God as well. “A Divine Voice emerged and said: Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon and the executioner are destined for the life of the World-to-Come. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wept and said: There is one who acquires his share in the World-to-Come in one moment, such as the executioner, and there is one who acquires his share in the World-to-Come only after many years of toil, such as Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon.”
Like nearly everything else in the Talmud this story isn’t wholly satisfying in its surface-level meaning: What, for instance, is the standard for acquiring one’s share in the world to come in one moment, and does, for instance, XXXTentacion’s attempts to raise money for the homeless and supposed donations to children’s charities satisfy it? In a series of emails with Josh Yuter, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi living in Jerusalem, it emerged that there’s really no way of objectively determining whether someone’s actually repented or not—at least not one that’s visible and accessible to human beings. Although actually, Yuter wrote, “There *is* a way, but it’s more involved. See this gemara about a shohet who was caught selling non-Kosher food and what was expected for him to have demonstrated repentance” Yuter directed me to “The model R. Meir and Acher from Hagigah…where one can take the good of a person and throw away the rest.” But Yuter also mentioned Rambam’s rules of repentance, which actually do require asking for forgiveness—something that, as the New Times profile makes clear, Onfroy never did.
Perhaps it helps to peel away some of the abstractions here. Saul Oresky, the rabbi at Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt, Maryland (the synagogue of my youth) wrote that as a Reconstructionist-ordained rabbi he doesn’t put much stock in supernatural notions of the afterlife. “My understanding and belief in the afterlife are more tied up with the consequences of what we have done in this world, while alive,” he wrote. The important thing is that Onfroy was a misogynist and an abuser: “Were there hints in any of XXXtentacion’s raps that he was/had changed? Was he on a journey of growth and redemption? I didn’t find that in the [New Times] article, but do you hear that in the music?” Honestly, the answer is no.
Marley Weiner, another Reconstructionist rabbi and a former classmate of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary who is now one of the Hillel rabbis at SUNY Binghamton, also cut straight to the point: “God’s mercy overrides God’s justice, but that is for God to do. On earth, based on what I just read, the best I can hope for is that his behavior raises up the need to provide more children with secure childhoods, and to teach more men and boys healthy and respectful masculinity. He deserved better than what he was given, by so many people. But I’m absolutely uninterested in providing him with a path towards a redemptive narrative. He was hateful, and violent, and ruined a number of lives, and it’s not ours to provide absolution for those crimes.”
Maybe it’s the last bit that matters the most: God could forgive, but for the time being there’s no pressure on us to do so. A rush to absolution is unnecessary and inappropriate, a reality that encapsulates one of the advantages were frail, mortal beings enjoy: In the wake of a complicated and destructive life, the unanswerable is left to a different authority than us. As Chabad rabbi Mordechai Lightstone wrote to me, “Speaking in a broader sense, Maimonides writes ‘the weighing [of sins and merits] is carried out according to the wisdom of the Knowing G-d. He knows how to measure merits against sins. That is to say, as Jews we believe that when it comes to calculus of someone’s good deeds, G-d alone is the true judge, and He surely sees the heart of man, knows how much reward and punishment to give each person…Surely his curtailed life will be taken into account as will be suffering in the world to come, contributing to a fitting cleansing for his soul.”