Where ? felt like an accumulation of fragmented ideas — often interesting but rarely cohesive, Skins, the Florida rapper’s first posthumous release, feels like a more focused flash of catharsis. On 17, XXXTENTACION funneled his depression and bitterness into a harrowing 20 minute sprint. Then, it feels appropriate that before his death, X may have wanted to create a project that felt more fixated on firm emotions rather than trying to appeal to every one of his artistic impulses.
X’s previous albums both started with an introductory monologue of X stating the purpose of the album. By beginning his albums with declarations such as “…in hopes that it will cure or at least numb your depression” on “The Explanation”, the first track of 17 or “To find the perfect words to say less but to say more” on ?, X sought to make a personal connection with the listener. Skins is no different. But there is an interesting artistic choice made on this intro versus the other two. On “Introduction”, X’s voice is replaced by a computerized presence who greets the listener and rhetorically questions if they have come to this place in search of release and inspiration from the soul. The introduction is immediately haunting with an off-beat, robotic downtempo instrumental playing behind the disembodied, artificial voice that may very well be representative of how even though X has passed, he still resides in the digital landscape of music.
The record then bleeds over into a reworked instrumental of “Jocelyn Flores” where the instrumental is reversed. The song is a spiritual successor to “Jocelyn Flores” in that it shares many sonic similarities, via X’s flow and lyrical content, “To feel close to someone and finding out they’re gone the next day, I guess you never realize how permanently damaging that is” he decries on the closing moments of the track. The album then takes an abrasive and macabre turn with “Train food” an auditory throwback to the artist’s Soundcloud days with an instrumental reminiscent of “I Spoke to the Devil in Miami” where he contemplates suicide by walking in front of a train. The track builds from an ominous low pitched piano build with atmospheric touches like rain, the sounds of trains passing, people laughing and talking in the background culminating in X’s demise.
Never one to settle on one sound for too long, the eclectic musician turns to a more poppy yet melancholy track “whoa (mind in awe)” where he sings with echoed and drowned out melodies about his past and how he wants to make it up to his family one day. On “STARING AT THE SKY” X channels the “I’m not racist cuz I have a black friend” friend with an angsty vocal delivery that quickly develops into a grungy crash of guitars and aggressive howls from the artists that oddly enough is silly and endearing enough to work.
But there is also an elephant in the room. “One Minute” contains the only feature of the album, Kanye West, who at this point in his career is desperate for the next asinine, toxic thing he can say to maintain some semblance of relevance and buy himself some extra time in the public eye. On the song he flows well enough but after about 30 seconds of typical Kanyeisms “Spaz on they ass, that’s the only way, Smash on the gas down, stoney, ayy”, the beat drops just enough for him to switch his verse into a dangerous victim blaming rant that centers around false rape allegations. Which is honestly a fucking shame because “One Minute”, sans Kanye’s awful verse, is otherwise a very good track and a return to a sound that X has in recent years drifted away from, where his metal influences are worn on his sleeve. X fervently wails over a distorted barrage of guitars chopped up in a very RUN-DMC meets Slipknot fashion. Proceeding this is “difference (interlude)” which while not out of place feels like an afterthought. Like somewhere close to release the producers realized they needed an acoustic break on the album. It’s easily the weakest track on the album which ironically comes before the best track.
Skins peaks right before the slow outro typical of X releases. “I don’t let go” is a very mellow ménage of flutes and tribal percussion that is easily the most immediately listenable track on the project. While the lyrical content on display is nothing exemplary or even better than other points on the album, the combination of X’s rapid, switched up delivery and tuneful vocals create an effervescent track that is enough of a sonic detour from the rest of the album to keep it fresh while also maintaining just enough melancholy to cohesively tie it all together.
The problem with listening to an X album is always balancing the idea of the horrible person he was with the at times wonderful art he created. Fortunately, there aren’t many times here where that part of his persona spills over into the music aside from his often self-destructive tendencies. Ironically it was the inclusion of a clout-chasing Kanye West that delivered a song-ruining, cringe worthy moment that nearly derailed what is otherwise a very good album. To what extent Skins was finished before X’s death, we may never know. But it is fortunate that his team was able to see this album executed in a way true to the artist. But, seriously, can Kanye West shut the fuck up and make shoes?
Highlights: “I don’t let go”, “whoa (mind in awe)”, “BAD!”