XXL hasn’t been a good magazine for many years, but its annual Freshman cover still holds significance. It’s a shared cover and freestyle series starring a different group of young rappers deemed to be “up next.” This year’s cover, which was revealed earlier this week, features artists including MadeinTYO, Playboi Carti, and Kamaiyah, who is its only woman. Right in the center of the cover, with a scowl and a head of black and blond-dyed locs, stands XXXTentacion, a rapper whose rabid fanbase has propelled him to the forefront of hip-hop with just two songs, and who raises new questions about fandom in the internet age.
The genre of “SoundCloud rap” falls somewhere in between the innovative spirit of social media and its more unsavory underbelly. It is driven by artists like Famous Dex, Lil Peep, and Wifisfuneral and the communities responsible for their exposure. For example, Lil Pump, who, like XXXTentacion, sports a frazzled mop of locs and is the inspiration of memes, draws millions of plays on Soundcloud and attracts mobs of teenagers at venues around the country. Music publications and influencers, hoping to tap into youth-driven subgenres, amp up anything that appears to have traction online. Rappers like Lil Pump and XXXTentacion could very well be confined to their SoundCloud communities were it not for the platforms hyping them up in hopes of co-opting their organic fanbases.
Nineteen-year-old XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Onfrey in Lauderhill, Florida, exemplifies the jagged edge of SoundCloud’s community of devout rap fans. X released his most popular track, “Look at Me!,” on the platform in 2015 and has seen a surge in popularity since. The track has amassed 80 million streams on SoundCloud, and Drake was even accused of borrowing X’s brash flow on the song “KMT,” from this year’s More Life playlist.
What used to exist as hushed rumors now appear in much more concrete terms, with allegations and evidence available publicly.
X’s popularity actually peaked during a nearly six-month stint in Broward County Jail, where he faced charges for home invasion robbery and aggravated battery with a firearm. He was released in March, receiving a “withheld conviction” and six years probation. In May, he was set to appear in court facing another litany of charges from another county, including domestic battery by strangulation and aggravated battery of his then-girlfriend, who was allegedly pregnant at the time. That court date has now been moved, for the third time, to June 26. He pleaded not guilty and in an interview from prison with XXL earlier this year claimed there was “no evidence in both cases” and that the victim was “lying and scamming the fuck out of everybody.”
According to Complex, there are multiple affidavits from witnesses, 51 pages of medical records, and incriminating audio recordings of the rapper which support the victim’s claims. But none of that seems to be enough to dampen his fans’ adoration. In fact, X’s charges appear to add fuel to the fire of their fandom, with hordes of them parroting the rapper’s side of the story, claiming, falsely, that the rapper has been acquitted. Earlier this year, some fans even set up a petition to have X’s court date moved. It seems that any evidence of their hero’s misgivings is perceived as a sign of the outside world impinging on their way of life.
Marginalized groups gathering online have been able to effectively organize and bond over specific shared experiences thanks to social media. But conversely, the social web has sustained the existence of hateful and abusive communities, such as the hordes of misogynistic men who systematically attack women online.
It sadly doesn’t feel unusual for an alleged abuser to gain fame online among teenage boys, compelled by a rapper who describes smearing a victim’s blood on his face. But it’s alarming for that rapper to receive a platform from major hip-hop magazines, a record deal on Empire, and acknowledgement from superstars like A$AP Rocky, who brought X out as a guest at Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Famous Dex, another rapper popular on Soundcloud, was captured by surveillance cameras viciously attacking his then-girlfriend, and yet fans still lamented his absence from this years XXL cover.
It is, of course, not an unfamiliar story. Plenty of stars have had transgressions swept under the rug or actively defended, and it’s not specific to rap. It took decades for the crimes Bill Cosby committed to finally catch up with him. But today’s culture offers a wrinkle: What used to exist as hushed rumors now appear in much more concrete terms, with allegations and evidence available publicly. The prevalence of a “call out” culture that concerns itself with holding people accountable for their actions would suggest that someone with his past and with such little output would be easily cancelled. In fact, that’s not the case at all. The communities where artists like XXXTentacion thrive rely on a cultish bond that involves an incredible amount of hero worship. Being a fan of XXXTentacion means following him to the ends of the earth, no matter the type of evidence mounted against him.