“Well, Jerry Bellows, he hugged his stool,
Closed his eyes and shrugged and laughed.
And with an ashtray as big as a fucking really big brick,
I split his skull in half.”
– Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, O’Malley’s Bar
It’s not like rap is alone in its idolatry of criminality. Since the inception of art, cultures have delighted in relaying stories of daring rogues and dastardly hooligans. The medium’s obsession with the transgressors among us is not a reflection of the form so much as our inbred imaginations being simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by those who step outside the bounds deemed acceptable. I’ve long suspected the pushback against rap’s particular look into the gangster subcultures that dwell underneath the masks of polite, safe urbanity has less to do with the subject matter and is more focused on those who deliver the messages therein – or one specific aspect of their personhood.
But there is an undeniable streak of celebration of hood culture in this art-form, which sometimes spills over into a blurring of the line between portrayal and adulation of the behavior on display; sometimes the artists themselves have crossed into malfeasance, often with tragic results. While some used the allure of lived-in felonious behavior as a means to a financial end (Architectural draftsman O’Shea Jackson being one of those who recognized the plaudits to be gained from such an identity, adopting the moniker of “Ice Cube” to establish a persona), others did, in fact, rise up from legitimate backgrounds of delinquency to become stars in this space, often accompanied by a celebration of their “authenticity”, a sense that what they write about is “real” because of who they are.
Daniel Hernandez is one of the latter. His father was shot dead on the sidewalk in front of their Brooklyn home when he was thirteen; stretches of prison came soon for him, after he turned to drug-running in an effort to help his financially struggling mother. It was here in Rikers Island that the young, impressionable Puerto Rican started rubbing shoulders with people who were, in his eyes, the real deal: the Nine Trey Gangsters, one of the nearly innumerable outgrowths of the Bloods collective. Once out onto the streets, he started his early rap career, putting up videos on YouTube as quickly as they were taken down. Minor hits like “Hellsing Station” and “Yokai” brought him positive attention, with a new fanbase springing up around his aggressive attitude, his frequent references to anime and cartoon subcultures (his name, a portmanteau of a common protagonist and the famous sex number, was explained in an interview as an expression of his fascination with “perspectives…if he sees a 9, is he wrong for not seeing that I see a 6?”), all led to an explosion of popularity for the young man, one that truly flourished on newfangled social media sites such as Instagram and Soundcloud, two communities that seemed primed to accept such an outlandish character as an avatar and icon. After “Gummo” debuted at #12 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 list, his status as a rising star was cemented; the follow-up EP, “Day69”, was an immediate hit, especially by the standards of the still-infant website subculture. Daniel, now going officially by “6ix9ine”, was ready to take the whole music world by storm, sporting his instantly-recognizable rainbow aesthetic and tattoos to further solidify his own stature as a ready-made exemplification of this new, democratic era of pop music. If this kid could make it, anyone could.
Then his off-mic behavior started to catch up with him. Being convicted after a Guilty plea of using a minor in a sexual performance (having used a 13-year old girl as a sexual prop in a music video), other Soundcloud stars started calling him out, starting feuds over everything from his behavior to his criminal record to his aggressive attitude and general perception of being unserious about his work and pursuing fame at any cost. These fights spilled over and beyond the walls of Twitter and other social medial; several incidents of shootings and beatings followed him through several particularly vicious feuds, not to mention his repeated assaults of others and violation of the parole agreement he’d made to avoid prison time. This culminated, finally, earlier this month, when he was arrested, along with some of his former handlers and a manager, for multiple charges of racketeering and firearms charges, partially due to his active membership with the Trey Nines; ultimately, these charges have the potential for serious, perhaps lifelong prison time. This might well be the abrupt end of the road for Daniel and the stardom he ascended to in the seeming blink of an eye.
Which is why this new album, his debut LP and what was supposed to be a triumphant moment for his career, is almost destined to go down as a curio, an artifact to be studied by music historians to decipher the mystery of Hernandez. This will stand as his ultimate, perhaps only statement to be made at the top of the mountain on which he so briefly found himself.
It’s perhaps fitting that Daniel is the least interesting part of this album; admittedly having no insight into the production process, I still have a hard time imagining that he had very much to contribute beyond some particularly dull-headed lyrics and the occasional interesting beat flourish. The whole album has the sheen of professionalism slathered over what is frequently a shockingly unremarkable and occasionally stale throughline; the few highlights might as well have been made by another artist, considering how little he appears in them. Even contributions from such luminaries as Nicki Minaj and Kanye West fail to enliven the proceedings; one imagines they had better things to do than meaningfully enrich the actual music besides some noticeably bored verses, but that doesn’t explain why they decided this was worth their voices in any capacity. At times, Daniel feels like a guest star on his own album, what should be the best representation of his style and unique voice; the buttery sheen of the many famous producers who had a hand in bringing this to the masses failing to disguise that this is not a meaningful display for anyone, least of all the one whose name and visage is on the cover. I don’t know what Daniel has to say after having listened to this, and considering the circumstances, I probably never will.
Bobby Shmurda himself appears on the opening track; having been convicted of gang conspiracy for his own involvement in very nasty business with his gang, he’s his own case study in fleeting fame, not even having been able to get past his first mixtape before being collared for his misdeeds. It feels almost fitting: these two symbols of the new era of democratized music, an exciting, almost overwhelming era of stars rising and falling almost at a whim, only carried as far as their rabid fanbase is willing to tolerate. In their cases, we probably will never know where they could have gone with their talents, but if this album is any indication, Tekashi69, AKA 6ix9ine, AKA Daniel Hernandez, AKA that scared kid from Brooklyn who was all alone in that Rikers cell, perhaps had nothing substantive to say about himself, or his life, or his circumstances. It’s almost disappointing that he didn’t.