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Stream It or Skip It?

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Look at Me: XXXTentacion (Hulu), directed and produced by Sabaah Folayan and executive produced by his mother, Cleopatra Bernard, adds some personal perspective to the brief life and Billboard chart-topping career of Jahseh Onfroy, aka XXXTentacion, the Florida-born rapper, musician, and songwriter who died in 2018 at the age of 20. Family, friends, and collaborators tell of a brilliant but damaged individual who was both villainous and vulnerable.

The Gist: “We’re all so hurt,” Solomon Sobande, who managed his music career, says of XXXTentacion’s untimely shooting death at the age of 20. “Everybody was so excited to see the next step in his transformation.” And the idea of transformation is at the heart of Look at Me, as Jahseh Onfroy is born in Florida to his mother, Cleopatra Bernard, and a father who was eventually incarcerated, begins to explore music and rapping, is diagnosed as bipolar, is kicked out of schools, moves out, wilds out, and hones his freestyle skills while in juvenile jail alongside friend and fellow rapper Ski Mask the Slump God. Buoyed by a blanketing social media presence, Onfroy transforms into XXXTentacion, whose raps over jarring bass swoops and skittering trap beats incorporate as much machismo, sex, and violence as they do emotional turmoil, suicidal thoughts, and fits of depression. X signs his first record deal while in prison, and his violent persona only activates his exposure. And when he’s jailed again, this time for domestic violence, the story of what really happened between him and girlfriend Geneva Ayala becomes part of a spiral full fan commentary, Onfroy’s fractured and evolving mental state, and his eventual shooting death during an alleged robbery attempt. He was just 20.    

Bernard, Ayala, and Sobande sit for interviews in Look at Me, as do friends and collaborators like Ski Mask the Slump God, Cooliecut, Flyboy Tarantino, and Bass Santana. But the majority of the doc is populated with iPhone camera footage and material repurposed from social media platforms like Instagram Stories, Periscope, Twitter, and others. Strings of comment from fans, many of them offering testimonials to how X’s music saved them from depression and other issues. Twitter discourse ranging from gushing to dismissive, following in an arc from X’s initial success through the emergence of the domestic violence allegations. And plenty of material from Onfroy himself, in Stories and TikTok posts and vlogs, speaking directly to his followers. All of it paints a picture of a young man whose own insecurities manifested as much as anger or violence as they did creativity and confession. The footage in Look at Me cuts from X livestreaming his beatdown of a rival to soul-baring rants about karma and his rap persona. 

In the end, those closest to Onfroy express their wish that they would’ve done more to get him the help he needed. And while they lament his death, they fully admit his obsession with fleeting mortality, and a violent streak that made him unstable. 

Look At Me: XXXTentacion Movie Streaming
Photo: HULU

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? The documentary 69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez explores the volatile lifestyle of rapper 6ix9ine, aka Tekashi69, who originally found success via Soundcloud rap and shares X’s affinity for facial tattooing and outlandish hairdos. A Man Named Scott details the dynamic between Kid Cudi’s vulnerability and openness as a performer and his inward struggle with chronic depression and substance abuse. And Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss chronicles the brilliance and pain in the life and death of an XXXTentacion contemporary.  

Performance Worth Watching: Ski Mask the Slump God (Stokely Clevon Gouldborne) offers some valuable insight into the mindset he shared with Onfroy. “If the job doesn’t want us because we have face tats, then that’s not the job we would really want,” he says of their post-Juvie days on the street hustle. Without the support of their families, the two bonded over brandishing their own version of self-worth.

Memorable Dialogue: “He was so comfortable showing his vulnerability,” says Flyboy Tarantino, a member of X’s Members Only crew. “It kinda made kids relate to him.” They proved it with their pocketbooks. The XXXTentacion single “SAD!” sold ten million-plus, and his albums have logged streams in the billions.

Sex and Skin: Nothing direct, but instead descriptive, in the frank sexual themes that permeate X’s lyrics.

Our Take: As Look at Me immerses itself deeper and deeper into the social media universe that XXXTentacion manuevered through – apparently, there was always a camera running, a phone listening, or a livestream posting; the Members Only crew says it was their job to “fuck up the algorithms in our favor” – it begins to feel like a series of passwords have been unlocked, and we’re clicking around freely within someone else’s online life. And the more the doc resides inside the rectangle of a phone’s screen, or among the tossed off comments on a string thousands of posts long, the more it sheds the traditional trappings of a music documentary. For example, concert footage is itself chopped out of someone’s jerky handheld video feed, and it’s more interested in X’s antics – hurling his body into a teeming, crowded mass, or screaming “Fuck!” over hysterical blasts of disjointed music – than it is in performance. XXXTentacion superfans might parse some of the video from his home studio for snatches of unreleased lyrics or material, but in general, Look at Me presents its subject through the lens that was always pointed toward him. And if that’s a little disorienting, then that’s probably the intention. Certainly X’s was to fuck up the algorithm, and his brief life was lived most loudly in these spaces.

The sit-down interviews in Look at Me are certainly less chaotic than its stream-of-consciousness social media formatting. But they aren’t necessarily more informative. When one acquaintance asserts that Onfroy’s inner circle knew all about his violent behavior toward his girlfriend, they are not pressed for comment. And while a piece of audio from four months after his death appears to implicate him in that cycle of violence, the sense that he was unfairly incarcerated seems to persist among those closest to Onfroy. Look at Me often ticks by at the blistering pace of social media life or even one of XXXTentacion’s most frenetic songs. But it doesn’t take enough time to find the reason in his actions, or examine the consequences.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Look at Me: XXXTentacion is a vivid, sometimes frustrating portrait of the late rapper constructed out of his own furious take on the social media landscape that helped launch him into the music’s stratosphere.

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges



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