For a brief span of time, embattled Florida singer/rapper XXXTentacion was at the top of his game, riding a wave of success following the release of his sophomore effort, ?, which debuted atop the Billboard 200 and was certified gold. Three months after the arrival of ?, he was shot and killed outside a motorcycle dealership on June 18, 2018. For the tenure of his short career, controversy and division became synonymous with the troubled rapper, amplifying his reputation and notoriety among fans and detractors alike. On ?, his combination of cloud-rap introspection ("SAD!"), grunge-indebted yearning ("NUMB"), and metal-influenced rage ("Floor 555" and "schizophrenia") hits the proper emotional nerves, producing a visceral and often overwhelming experience. Guests include Joey Bada$$ on the classic hip-hop "infinity (888)," drummer Travis Barker on the emocore "Pain = BESTFRIEND," and PnB Rock on the trappy "SMASH!," which channels Post Malone and Migos in equal parts. Through the genre-blurring storm of emotions, XXX surprises with the vulnerable piano ballad "changes" and a tribute to the Parkland school shooting victims/survivors on "Hope." The tragically prescient "before I close my eyes" closes the album with XXX hoping "it's not too late for me." Like other artists who died before fully delivering on their potential, clues about cries for help or warning signs are often appropriate, especially when considering lifestyle choices and tangles with the law. Ultimately, it's just speculation for fans to keep the memory alive. Taken as is, ? is a fascinating and thoroughly engaging listen, swirling with passionate emotions that hint at the chance of something greater. As the de facto closer to the divisive rapper's catalog, it's also an appropriate and prophetic reflection of a life that simply caught up with him too quickly.
AllMusic Review by Neil Z. Yeung