Look at Me: XXXTentacion Review: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Rapper

Posted 2022/05/26 4 0


In 2020 alone, in the United States, gun deaths accounted for 45,222 deaths. Of those deaths, 54% were suicides, but an astonishing 43% of gun deaths were because of murder. According to the Pew Research Center, eight out of ten murders involve a firearm, and the numbers are becoming concerning as they increase each year. Few fan communities have become as aware of it as rap fans. During the past thirty years, many big names in the rap world including The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, and, more recently, Young Dolph. Unfortunately, gun violence has become a racial issue, as Black Americans are more likely to be affected by gun-related acts.

Like many other hip-hop and rap icons, the story of XXXTentacion falls into the making of this uniquely American tragedy. Born Jahseh Onfroy in Plantation, Florida, the young man began to pursue music after a brief stint in a juvenile detention center. Together with his friend, now known as the rapper Ski Mask the Slumpy God, they formed a hip-hop collective called Members Only and began uploading their music onto SoundCloud. Under the moniker XXXTentacion, he released songs that propelled him to mainstream attention, not only shining a light on his messy behavior and decisions towards women but also on the mental health issues he faced and performed about. Onfroy was shot to death outside of a motorcycle dealership in 2018, when he was only twenty years old, escalating his fame posthumously, but drawing criticism to his behavior and decisions.

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Breaking Down a Tumultuous Legacy

Now four years later, Hulu has released a documentary film about the young rapper and the mythology that now surrounds his legacy. Combining first-person interviews, vlog-style content from the rapper himself, and footage from his life and concerts, it aims to show how he managed to become a rags-to-riches story, including his origins as a struggling youth growing up with violence. Directed by Sabaah Folayan (Whose Streets?), the documentary premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival, then Hulu picked up the rights for distribution.

Look at Me: XXXTentacion opens up with a vlog by the rapper, in which he talks about how he is struggling mentally. It is this framework that sets up the rest of the documentary, as it pivots away from what most people know about him—the violence, his untimely demise, the seemingly immortal fame—and puts him vulnerable front and center. In the next two minutes, news footage from his death is presented, but that little moment, in the beginning, means a lot. It offers potential on what he could have been, but also provides a drastic juxtaposition to the young man’s actions shown later.

Interviews with the artist’s mother, ex-girlfriend, friends, and former crew members all help fill in the missing pieces. His mother was seventeen when she had Onfroy, but, as she admits, she tried to spoil him by providing all the necessities of life—things that may not seem like a lot to a young kid, but, essentially, kept them off the streets. An audio interview with Onfroy then explains how he felt like he hated himself because his mother was never around emotionally. Then, when he was thirteen, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His mother refused drug treatment and tried to get him counseling instead, but that failed. Combined with the abuse that his father would inflict on the family, the documentary suggests that may have been the perfect storm.

So how did a kid who managed to get kicked out of every school in the district become a multi-genre prodigy? It is clear the talent was always there: his family was impressed by the music he was making as a fourteen-year-old. All of his crew and people who knew him creatively all mention that he was able to be like a magnet in a crowded room; he had the rare ability to make people feel like they were being heard and seen. Some did not even consider his main genre of music to be rap; he worked within hip-hop, emo, and rock music.

His Ex-Girlfriend Tells Her Story

One of the most interesting parts of the documentary is the interview with his ex-girlfriend Geneva. Even those who might be vehemently against what XXXTentacion stands for might find this worth watching. She was not the mother of his child, but she was instead the original accuser of domestic abuse against Onfroy. His fans did not take to that too kindly, thus bringing on an entire circus of gaslighting and denial. Onfroy was secretly recorded and admitted that he did abuse her, but the recording was not released until months after his death.

Unlike the mourning fans, the people who were closest to Onfroy were the ones who suffered the most. When he denied Geneva’s claims of domestic abuse, he took to social media and fanned the flames of hate against her. It is this irony set up with her introduction to the documentary: he initially wooed her when they met saying he did not want her to feel alone. She was formerly homeless, and he had enticed her to quit her only job and stay with him. What ensued after was completely and utterly preventable.

Yet, at the same time, he ultimately fulfills a fate that would do that. Look At Me is helmed by a Black female director and this becomes evident when the women of the story assume more responsibility and forgiveness to a man—Onfroy—who was a byproduct and represented a very specific brand of toxic masculinity. Geneva even admits on-screen that she did not want to harm his career and felt guilty when he went to prison because of her. He would use the mugshot from that prison visit as the cover art for his next album, almost mocking her and making a statement that can be rather ugly. His friends, too, only said, “Of course, we believed him.”

Portrait of a Tortured Artist

While the nitty-gritty details of Onfroy’s childhood are discussed openly, an underlying thread that ties this all together is a story about a tortured artist. This point seems to hammer in repeatedly throughout the documentary, even if the people talking about it do not comprehend the larger issue going beyond them and what they have experienced so far. One of Onfroy’s crew members states at one point, “All these people [in the world] want is to see us destroy each other.” This pivotal moment clearly defines the overarching agenda: Onfroy’s music, as XXXTentacion, was a source of concern.

He openly admitted his darkest struggles with mental health and was celebrated for it by fans, who claimed they felt seen, creating something that relies on suffering to keep continuing. Thus begins a complicated, destructive cycle of art, mainstream attention, and success. He may have had the weight of not only his grief and struggles but also an entire fandom’s, on his shoulders. Yet, at the same time, the parts of his personality that were celebrated were justified by his fans as a source of entertainment. Not only were these artists rewarded for “destroying each other,” but they were destroying themselves as well in the process.

Look At Me’s strengths lie in the fact it refuses to glorify Onfroy for his music or its fame. It brings in his ex-girlfriend for an interview about what she faced at his hands, his former friends admit that sometimes no one wanted to be around him, and there are multiple instances shown where he live-streamed himself brutally beating people up. Others outside of the inner crew can acknowledge how toxic the environment was when it came to abuse, mimicking the same circumstances that would allow people like Harvey Weinstein to stay in power for as long as they could.

His life was not the cleanest, and while he did struggle to get to where he was, he was also partially a victim of circumstance. It may have been a different story if he had access to better means of self-expression and self-understanding. But perhaps that is one of the biggest tragedies of his story: asking what if XYZ were different? In an alternate universe, XXXTentacion may have been an icon for mental health awareness in music, someone from Generation Z that would leave behind an extensive legacy.

Onfroy did achieve that in a way, but there are some critical lessons to take away from his story. There is no excusing his behavior and what he did, but instead, we can try to understand the root of these problems. Onfroy is not the only one suffering from and inflicting such damage; he only found the right words and platform that, in turn, gave exposure to what he did.


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