New Release – XXXTentacion, ‘Skins’, Dec. 7

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Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy, better known by his stage name XXXTentacion, had a short but explosive career before he was shot dead in a robbery in June 2018. All of 20 years old, Onfroy already had two albums to his credit when he died, and last month saw the posthumous release of his final album, Skins.

His death was the kind of thing that shocks even music fans. Tragic as it is, heartbreaking though it always feels, we’re used to heroes burning out before they fade away, but there was something crushing – like the end of a song midway through the lyrical hook – about the way he went. X didn’t burn out; he blew up.

Skins is further proof of the massive powerhouse of talent that X was. Its lead single “Bad!” was released in November, and up until then, fans weren’t certain that the artist’s latest work would be released at all.

Skins is the kind of album that gives you a sense of a career that hadn’t even hit the on-ramp yet. A tight, electric flurry of tracks with a total runtime that’s just shy of 20 minutes, it’s no half-baked posthumous cash-in: it’s comforting to learn that the artist intended the album to be this way. As the artist’s close friend John Cunningham (who is also executive producer of Skins) revealed, the songs, the ideas, and the vision were all done or very close to being done before X’s death.

The album opens with a spoken word introduction in which the rapper enquires, “You’ve come here in search of release, huh? Wanting to disappear to a place you could feel outside of your skin? Well, you’ve found one: a place within my mind.” Long-time followers will know that’s not an invitation to sit back, but a requirement to sit up – quickly followed by “Guardian Angels”, a weird and rather lovely collection of expansive lyrics and wilfully weird instrumentals, with gaps where the artist equates love with pain in a way that was never truer, and never less self-indulgent. “Train Food” will probably leave you in chills, with the final lyrics going “Now it’s here. Death has now arrived. Time is finally up.” The context here is different of course, as this track talks of a terrified suicide. The music is as grim as the subject, with portentous piano chords and heavy guitar notes in the backing. There’s a tangle of ghostly roots here that hasn’t been as straightforwardly creepy as this since Lupe Fiasco’s deliberately horror-inflected “Put You On Game” from more than a decade back. X made it realer, before it was even true.

“Whoa (Mind in Awe)” follows this ominous track, and fortunately, it’s a bit lighter. The soundscapes are free and flamboyant, with the artist’s vocals echoing the change in mood, almost like a sunny day after a heavy storm. “Bad!” follows next. This track is another oddity, backed by powerful beats that rattle the speakers and encourage X to try new and daring things with the vocals. “Staring at the Sky” comes across as a snarky, emo parody, but it’s redeemed by a surprisingly fantastic guitar loop; and again, there’s a veil of realism over it all which gives it real and sobering weight.

Up next is “One Minute,” and it’s the only song that features a guest singer, Kanye West. It’s laden with serious bits of heavy metal, and West does his bit with some lengthy vocals. “Difference” has X singing along to some appealing notes on the acoustic guitar, and if you listened to it with the right frame of mind, it may just become a favorite. The penultimate number on the list is “I Don’t Let Go,” which offers some wonderful melodic vibes as X delivers his most tuneful bit in this album. And the last track in the record, titled with truly breathtaking elan as “What Are You So Afraid Of,” is an acoustic ballad that demands a higher curve, a bigger dream. Senseless violence can’t kill a voice like this, and it’s all here to see.

Maybe in other circumstances Skins wouldn’t have worked so well; but in its time, it’s an adrenaline shot even more full of potential that it is of achievement. If the Billboard Charts and the Spotify records are anything to go by, X will be missed, and his music, more so. Skins should have been the beginning of something.

An avid drummer whose discography includes albums on Digital Nations (a Steve Vai imprint), music critic Louis Raphael has always kept a pulse on the San Francisco music scene. After many years as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he decided to start Music in SF® as a way to showcase what the San Francisco music scene really has to offer.