If you only glance in its direction, you might overlook the blurred line between persuasion and manipulation. Both nest themselves deep within every cultural institution and medium, and their lifeblood has always been our human desire to be liked and understood.
Manipulation is the much more shadowy, convoluted technique of the two. If the persuasive artist attempts to connect their audience to something rooted in humanity, then the manipulative artist is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, presenting a falsehood of reality and emotion under the guise of authenticity. The power to disorient the audience between the two lies solely in the creative space with which we allow artists to operate.
Recognizing emotionally manipulative art and understanding its impact has always been a difficult task. However, when combined with a hip-hop culture that has always struggled with neutralizing the impact of its most objectionable artists, it can be a recipe for disaster. It’s what has allowed a highly popular and reprehensible act like R. Kelly to continue to flourish within the genre's confines.
Enter XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine, two of rap’s most notorious figures, each with their own set of legal and unrelenting behavioral issues. Both artists have not only carved out places for themselves amongst a vast ecosystem of SoundCloud rappers, they are beginning to engulf mainstream conversations as well. That two of hip-hop’s most unhinged figures could attain such popularity falls somewhere between fascinating and horrifying, but it's crucial we try to understand both the how and the why.
Against our collective bad habit of grouping rappers like XXX and 6ix9ine together, each artist has capitalized on a different sound and emotion within their music. 6ix9ine, specifically, exudes primal rage and unfiltered streams of consciousness. Writing for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica described him as “a boxer—he thrives on rasp and repetition as if constantly looking to pick a fistfight.”
Despite pleading guilty to a felony count of use of a child in a sexual performance in 2015, 6ix9ine’s particular brand of anarchic scream-raps drowns out backlash by turning up the volume until critics give up trying to yell over the music.
XXXTentacion remains a much more complicated artist to pick apart. Although his breakout hit “Look At Me!” pummels the listener with aggression similar to 6ix9ine, XXX’s music is largely steeped in a profoundly dark level of suffering. To describe his music succinctly borders on impossible, as everything from his song structure to the production never develops into any sort of discernible pattern. In short, XXX’s music bears the weight of the world’s most haunting therapy session, as he mines his darkest thoughts and sonic whims into a highly successful commercial product. His debut album, 17, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and its follow-up, ?, topped the charts this week, despite horrific, documented claims of abuse by an ex-girlfriend.
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Beyond newfound commercial success, the common thread between these two artists is the way in which their music is engineered to emotionally manipulate their respective fan bases. Both XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine are setting fire to radicalism within the minds of their young and impressionable audiences, but without ever concerning themselves with how to control the burn.
For 6ix9ine, a large part of his success can be connected to the same rage found at the crux of his music, and the way that type of uncontrolled feeling is a wholly understood concept for young adults his age (21) or younger. The same goes for XXX and the sadness and grief found at the epicenter of his biggest hits like “Jocelyn Flores” and “Sad!” More than anything, younger fans gravitate towards these emotions, regardless of the purveyors or outlets they come from, and the more opportunities each artist gets to channel these emotions, the stronger that bond becomes.
For those who have chosen to willingly separate the art from the artist—a decision that isn't all that difficult when you're a lost teenager without a moral compass—it likely didn't take repeat listens to understand the appeal (chaotic and visceral) of either artist’s music. The only cohesion in 6ix9ine's subject matter is chaos ripe for short attention spans and impulsive behavior. In XXX’s case, thoughts and concepts change on a dime; songs like “Hope”—dedicated to the victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida—are grouped with emotionally contradictory tracks like the hopeless “Numb.”
It is in this unnerving relatability where XXX and 6ix9ine find breathing room neither their music nor their behavior deserves. In interviews, XXX speaks of and to his fans the way a David Koresh-like figure would of his followers. He demands undying loyalty in exchange for his art, an unfair trade that allows him moral carte blanche, while the only prize being offered is the privilege to endure his delusions of grandeur.
"So, I'll offer this warning and set of instructions; if you are not open-minded before you listen to this album, open your mind. If you don't listen to the alternative sound and you've never been into the alternative sound and have not been open to trying different things; open your mind before you listen to this album." —XXXTentacion on "Introduction (instructions)"
In their own minds, XXX and 6ix9ine believe themselves to be misunderstood revolutionaries instead of reprehensible false prophets, and you don’t have to look too deep into a YouTube comment section or a Twitter feed to find plenty of followers willing to defend their beliefs. While 6ix9ine is basking in the role of rap outlaw, XXX’s popularity has grown the more he has continued to carry himself as the savior to his fans’ mental health, claiming music that can “cure depression.” Both tactics, while highly irresponsible, aren’t just helping both artists sustain their fan bases but expanding them.
While the outside person looking in might be able to see through the spectacle that these two acts have created to distract from the legal issues they do their best to avoid (see XXX’s interview about Tupac and 6ix9ine’s Breakfast Club appearance), for young listeners, a cycle of backlash and internet mockery only further legitimizes their defense.
At the heart of what XXX and 6ix9ine represent is a distorted version of the counter-cultural foundation hip-hop was built on; reckless artists contorting the rebelliousness and self-empowerment that are the genre’s core foundational elements into something else entirely. Fans equate XXX’s music to the likes of Kid Cudi and 6ix9ine’s to the raw energy of past New York MCs, without considering that, while the sounds may be similar, the intentions behind the music are much more dubious.
The more popular artists like XXX and 6ix9ine become within the mainstream, the harder it will be to have a discussion around their rap sheet. How exactly do we prevent artists from equivocating their success with atonement for their sins outside of music? Do we delegitimize them through ignoring, mocking, or fighting against them at every turn in their career? How do we discuss and interact with manipulative music when we find it, and how do those lessons get passed onto younger generations of listeners?
If we aren’t careful, questions like those will fall into the backdrop, while the faulty relationship between XXXTentacion, 6ix9ine, and their fans will continue to drown out the conversation we should be having.