‘Bad Vibes Forever’ Review: XXXTentacion’s Final Posthumous Album Is a Mix of Thrills and Throwaways
XXXTentacion won critical accolades in an impressive range of categories, among them domestic abuse, witness tampering, and harassment. Of course, allegations alone mean nothing, but X himself had been recorded bragging about certain reprehensible actions. Still, lines blur between entertainment personas and actual personalities, and X might have been a mere method actor, relishing shock value. At any rate, one can praise an artist’s work without condoning his behavior, even when the artist is deceased. X’s first posthumous album, last years’ “Skins,” was a slipshod collection of lingering tracks, and an unimpressive record altogether. Luckily, X left behind enough material for another whole album, “Bad Vibes Forever,” which is three times as long. This release suffers the same pitfalls, but outweighs these lapses with solid songs, masterfully fleshed out by an impressive roster of colorful guests, showcasing X in all his spark and range.
The introductory track is a candid monologue with X remarking, “if I make my mistakes along the road, then that’s my fault… But I know… there’s somethin’ watchin’.” Whether or not anyone is watching, plenty are listening, and we’re lucky to have been left with so much content. The first full song,“Ex Bitch,” is presumably about Geneva Ayala, the central figure in the sensationalism and scandal surrounding X. It finds the artist in coffeehouse mode, with breezy acoustic guitar and an easy, accessible ditty, sounding like, say, Jack Johnson if he spoke in an unban vernacular, peppered with expletives. Next somes “UGLY,” an unimpressive minute and a half of X brooding over two chords. Why the compilers chose to include this is anyone’s guess, and it’s only the first of many questionable choices.
Some of the slipshod tracks actually work, for instance “I Changed Her Life.” Fellow Floridian Rick Ross drops a verse that would seem perfunctory, but alongside X’s repetitive, raw vocal, assumes a sort of indie authenticity. “Triumph” is an inkling of an uncharacteristically straightforward love song. “Before I Realize,” is an idea of just an idea – and a good one, although it’s doubtful X would have approved it. Some inclusions seem downright insulting, like “The Only Time I Feel Alive,” a two-bit looped beat with mumbling and midsong stumbling for chords. “The Interlude That Never Ends” serves no ostensible purpose, although it fortunately does, in fact, end. X had such a knack for hooks that meager melodies justify some shamelessly inchoate tracks, such as the unassumingly captivating “Attention!” Others, like “Numb the Pain,” are mere snapshots of feeling, and disposable at large.
The title track enlists PnB Rock and Trippie Redd, marking the latter’s fourth collaboration. It showcases the groundbreaking fitting of hip-hop sensibilities to stripped-down, broad songwriting that characterized songs like ‘Sad!.” Both guests uncannily match X’s idiosyncratic singing style, sounding like natural extensions. Considering X’s rather positive entreaty, “Catch the vibe with me,” the title “Bad Vibes Forever” seems an odd choice, presumably employed with a tinge of ironic, tragic rockstar posturing. “School Shooters,” is a lo-fi, Soundcloud rap track that marks the third posthumous contribution from Lil Wayne. There could hardly be a greater honor for X, who always cited Wayne as a major influence. Indeed, Wayne paved the way for many rappers whose outlandishness we take for granted. His colorful verse is enough to join make a proper track from scraps. X begins with the priceless line, “I drink blood of school shooters,” and ends screaming full blast. There could hardly be a better outlet for his rage.
“LIMBO,” with KillStation of X’s Members Only collective, is an unbecoming moment. While X’s occasional paroxysms always had an edge unheard of in his general parameters of, KillStation deals in the same type of tepid angst as artists like Linkin Park. Standout track “Ecstasy,” featuring Noah Cyrus, samples English singer Anneka’s track “Shut Her Down,” with Cyrus filling out the gaps. Her soothing, angelic voice is a foil to X’s deranged, rough-hewn muttering. “Kill My Vibe” revisits the sonic space of “Sad!” with a trap beat-carried melody emphasizing X’s trademark inflections, and an animated, raspy verse from rapper Tom G. “Hot Gyal,” goes full dancehall with Tory Lanez and reggae singer Mavado singing in Patois. A scant few lines from X, only hinting at Jamican sounds, are masterfully realized with vibrant performances from each guest. “Daemons” has a classic, underground hip-hop feel, with X, Joey Bada$$, and Kemba exchanging verses. Each raps about hardships, and Kemba reigns supreme with his expressive delivery, full of slickly stacked rhymes and charged vocal modulations that at times sound as if he’s breaking into tears, then recoiling.
“Eat It Up” shows X in all his casual, bold eccentricity, placing him alongside long-term collaborator Ronny J., whose grimy productions exemplify the Soundcloud rap phenomenon. X raps in a languid rasp, donning silly voices for ad lib hollers, somewhere between B-boy amusement and the horror rap of artists like Necro. “Voss” is a raw cut, full of chainsaw bass and featuring rapper Sauce Valka, whose aggressive, growling style makes him a perfect counterpart for X. The sound approaches Death Grips-esque mayhem, while the rappers engage in silly freestyle sesh banter, brandishing the titular bottled water brand.
The especially polished lead single “Royalty” is another dancehall track. It’s startling how X masterfully shifts shapes to different sensibilities. He took his Jamaican roots seriously, as we learned when a Drake track surfaced with a flow seemingly lifted from X’s “Look At Me!” prompting X to explode, “Tell this pussy nigga Drake, stop speaking Patois! You are not Jamaican!” In good faith, this track enlists three real Jamiacan: Vybz Kartel was Stefflon Don, and reggae royalty Ky-Mani Marley. “Wanna Grow Old (I Wanna Let Go)” fleshes out a fragment of X singing the titular words, with a verse from singer Jimmy Leve, whose soaring delivery, placed over violins to great effect, balances X’s strained utterances, and offers a different take on nascent instincts. “Hearteater,” the second single, is built around a short chorus and bridge, but that’s enough to make a solid, simple song. Released with a picture of Geneva Ayala eating a bloody heart, it comes with a music video staring Ayala herself as a cannibal, blood-drenched and naked. Presumably, she approves the song and accepts the titular role. “NorthStar” places X and Joyner Lucas over a basic beat, letting them go at it freely for some no-nonsense rhyme spitting. They fire away rapid triplets, riffing off each other’s rhythms, and X references everything from Portishead to anime, letting his rhymes trail off comically into the most mumbled mumble rap.
Chase / Glass Shards” is another gritty, barebones number, with Members Only artist inkabodVEINS rapping menacingly, as X chimes in, full screamo, then murmurs death threats. It’s almost like a contemporary murder ballad, and the harsh noise seems a more fitting aesthetic than the frivolous stylings of much gangsta rap. Finally, “It’s All Fading to Black” captures X in a more positive mindstate, resolving to break free of the past and take charge. Blink-182,” the most innocuous band in punk history, might seem like a strange feature. Yet, with the voice X dons for his chorus, he might as well have been a member of Blink, and the band’s musical additions sounds like they were planned all along. Blink’s Mark Hoppus sings a verse, expanding on X’s ideas, and ending on a calm, reflective note.
Nearly a third of “Bad Vibes Forever” is filler. On the whole, however, the cast of characters at the helm have done plenty with what’s left, capturing the sound and spirit that set X apart. He was a chimera of the acoustic guitar-wearing, lovesick open mic regular and the urban provocateur who exhales in Auto-Tune. His singing fused contemporary R&B phrasing and vernacular with aesthetics more akin to indie rock His ramshackle singer/songwriter fare came alongside more polished productions that shuttled between the edge and center of contemporary hip-hop, leaving a trail of genteel diversions and punk fits of fury. XXXTentacion inhabits the same sonic space as Lil Peep, expanded to encompass such disparate styles as screamo and dancehall. There is enough fire scattered among the unrealized stumblings collected here to both satisfy fans and intrigue newcomers.
‘Bad Vibes Forever’ is available Dec. 6 on Apple Music.