Years after his death, there's a tendency to think of XXXTENTACION in metaphorical terms. His fatalistic lyrics feel designed for social media ubiquity, and his lithe, emotive vocals emit the longing and exasperation of a teenage outcast. His untimely demise made him a martyr of emo rap—a talented but tragic antihero who died before he could find catharsis. But X's legacy is best explored through his work itself, namely his sophomore album, ?. Released three months before he was shot and killed, the LP sees the 20-year-old stepping into his power as a virtuosic songwriter. What once felt like incomplete sketches become fully realized portraits of a damaged soul. Over the course of 37 minutes, X swerves between emo synth-pop, soul-baring R&B, and boom bap, wielding the varied colors to paint different shades of his emotions. For "Pain = BESTFRIEND," he teams up with Travis Barker for an explosive meditation on the type of sorrow that becomes your roommate; what begins as a sullen murmur crescendos with forceful shouts. Meanwhile, for "infinity (888)," he laces a golden-age soundscape with nimble rhyme schemes that match the technical precision of collaborator Joey Bada$$. It's a sonic about-face that only the best stylistic shapeshifters can pull off, and that's really just the beginning. Whether it's industrial screamo ("Floor 555") or twinkling R&B ("changes" with PnB Rock), he operates with nuance and surprising adaptability. As a writer, he peaks with "SAD!," a song that eventually became the biggest single of his brief career. Coasting over fluttering banjo, he fuses irony, glib humor, and subtext for a pop song that camouflages emotional sadism in Top 40 infectiousness. It's twisted and brilliant—descriptors reserved for artists who find ephemeral serenity at the edge of madness.

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