Tupac (seanhowell88) / XXXTentacion (tdolowy) // Deviant Art
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The death of XXXTentacion propelled one of contemporary rap's most troubled figures into martyrdom. He held his domestic abuse allegations close to the chest, even if mounting evidence made it clear the svelte public face and polite interviewee that industry figures regularly gushed over was angrier than anyone previously thought. He was cut down in a hail of bullets and, nearly immediately, comparisons to rap legend Tupac Shakur began to emerge; two indignant paragons that had a special hold over the youth, killed at their primes. Amidst the understandable turmoil and confusion over another senseless death, attempts to force-fit the fallen 20-year-old rapper into the mold of Tupac Shakur are sloppy, lazy, and senseless. They were both troubled artists dealing with conflicting ideologies. But just as an orange is not an apple, XXXTentacion will never, ever be Tupac and it's not even close.
Tupac was much more than an always-riled social tour-de-force that screamed "Fuck the Law." He was an endlessly complicated individual, preaching the importance of women while simultaneously pushing misogyny at the expense of his lyrical adversaries. He recognized the dangers that came with inner-city living and gang culture that contributed to the growing populations of prisons, yet still used violence as a weapon to bolster his image as well as promote cultural change. He was more than a body; he was a symbol, a representation of peak hip-hop that was angry, conflicted and, yet, wholesome. Artists like 50 Cent, Eminem, and J. Cole have tried to incorporate an aspect of his character that fits into their aesthetic, contributing to his long-lasting place in rap culture.
In 1993, a woman named Ayanna Jackson accused 2Pac of raping her and he was eventually convicted of first-degree sexual abuse. (He would later deny it, revealing that he was hurt because "a woman would accuse me of taking something from her.") In a recent interview with DJ Vlad, Jackson revealed graphic details about the night. According to her, Tupac wrapped his hands around her braids and forced himself upon her, followed by members of his entourage, without her consent. He would go on to serve nine months in prison while maintaining his innocence, with the incident becoming one of the many asterisks next to his cohesive legacy. When Tupac is discussed today, the rape is blended into a vague mix of "troubles" that made him the problematic martyr that's widely considered one of rap's best. He beat his troubles and that's all the game remembers.
Vanessa Satten, Editor-In-Chief of XXL Magazine, told Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club that XXXTentacion was one of the most surprisingly polite artists of the publication's 2017 Freshman class. It was a shared sentiment across the industry. In his interview with No Jumper, XXXTentacion was quiet, largely respectful, and completely unlike the extravagant tales being spun about him on the web. Adam22 was surprised at the young rapper's poise. Through Twitter and Instagram, he was a voracious loose cannon, easily angered, yet in tune with the mental illnesses he had, and open enough to share his battle with them. It humanized him to otherwise hesitant children afraid to embrace hip-hop. He was a product of a similar struggle and faced similar battles that much of the genre refrained from keeping it real about.
XXXTentacion's fame came from the foundation of legal controversies that came in tandem with his openness about his struggles. In October of 2016, he was arrested for charges of false imprisonment, witness tampering, and aggravated battery of a pregnant victim. In 2017, Pitchfork shared a graphic summary of the 142-page transcript of testimony given by the victim detailing the abuse she suffered. Just recently, Pitchfork also shared secretly recorded audio of XXXTentacion talking and revealing that he did, in fact, abuse her (how many times isn't specified). As when he was alive, and especially after his death, these reveals have been treated as adversities he overcame in his pursuit of martyrdom. His troubled past and death set him into a similar space as Tupac, with iconoclasts such as Dame Dash even drawing comparisons.
This attempt to rewrite hip-hop history to include an admitted domestic abuser and violent offender speaks to the youthful angst that seeks to rebel against established norms. The old guys have Tupac, Biggie, and the other 90s iconoclasts that dominated rap culture. Much of rap gets ridiculed as being light on substance, often meaning that there's no real heft or feeling behind it. XXXTentacion's music hit home for hip hop fans being bullied in real life, and virtually for their choice in music by the older generation. Perhaps unknowingly, decades spent criticizing new artists forced one of the most controversial new ones to be placed into a conversation by this current fanbase. This knee-jerk reaction seeks to anger the status quo, more than actually analyze and compare the music.
It speaks to a problem with hip-hop at large, tight with its structure and unwilling to become malleable as the game continues to change. XXXTentacion gets compared to the genre's paragons because the structures don't allow for new molds to exist. Instead of being XXXTentacion in his own right, he's automatically thrusted into a comparison that's unbefitting of his character and music style. J. Cole is often written off as a new version of Nas. Labeling artists transfers the legacies that come equipped, often times making the achievements of the newer version dwarfed in comparison. In the case of J. Cole, he's still alive, so what he does can outgrow the artist he's attached to. XXXTentacion died at 20 with only two albums of music out, meaning that his sample size was too small to accurately judge. Tupac died at 25, with five albums released, so there's a larger sampling size. So, this removes music from the equation, meaning that the basis of their similarities, according to the fans, lies in their controversial pasts.
To truly examine the lasting impact of rap artists, that rap itself must be examined. Here is where the definitive proof lies that they're no more similar than snakes are to chickens. Tupac and XXXTentacion's music aren't in the same subgenres, not even adjacent. Tupac covered a wide range of socially conscious themes, from the importance of the matriarch in the black community, promiscuity and its acceptance, and the remnants of the drug war of the 1980s. He frequently dug into his own experiences to bring understanding of the necessity for change to the world at large. XXXTentacion's music was much more tender when serious, refraining from the bombastic threats of violence and focusing on his innermost feelings. XXX's music was created for himself and happened to resonate with audiences unknowingly going through similar circumstances; Tupac's music was created with the sole purpose to enlighten and inspire change. It's emotional over educational.
At first glance, superficial similarities tie together two artists with violent pasts that were absorbed into a new narrative written after their untimely deaths. Aside from sharing a similar cause of death, and being public faces for differing causes, Tupac and XXXTentacion share no more in common than G-Eazy shares with 'Pac. To compare hip hop artists, especially to one that is considered one of the best of all time, the music must be taken into account. Tupac made music for everyone; XXX made music for himself and a certain community that understood his feelings. We should read this attempt at forcing this comparison as an indicator that this house of constantly comparing and replacing artists to legends needs to be dismantled brick by brick. By doing this, we can come to terms with artists' lasting impact without drawing meaningless comparisons to others. It'll allow breathing room in a traditionally claustrophobic genre that lives and dies by its archaic conventions.
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