Contemporary fame is a operate of thoughts share. Talent helps, but it surely’s not essentially a prerequisite. The capability to trigger dialog, to stir pots, to trigger tizzies is much extra essential.
By that metric, there is no such thing as a more practical performer than 6ix9ine. Trolls search consideration by any means, however 6ix9ine is extra refined than that — he’s someway each fashionable insider and aggrieved outsider, agitator and sufferer. He is a rapper, however his actual talent is looking for out free threads and yanking on them till complete personas come undone. (Those of others, not his personal — that all the time stays intact.)
6ix9ine’s relationship to social media is fluent and triumphant and nearly exhausting to fathom — it’s a match of artist and medium on par with Tom Cruise in the 1980s, the Beatles in the 1960s, Babe Ruth in the 1920s. He’s a chaos agent, spewing poisonous missives from his telephone to individuals who really feel compelled to reply, nearly none of whom can match his savvy or his LOL-shrug nihilism. His music is nice, generally excellent, however his slippery means into different folks’s psyches guarantees to make him indelible.
Such has been the case in the nearly two weeks since he launched a brand new single, “Gooba,” and went live on his Instagram to announce his return following about a year and a half in federal prison. At one point, over two million people tuned in, the largest number ever for an Instagram livestream.
It was a majestically funny, self-aggrandizing performance, full of seething hostility and blithe boasts. 6ix9ine, also known as Tekashi69, danced to “Bad Boys,” the theme from “Cops,” while swinging a pair of handcuffs. (In April, a judge granted him compassionate release because of the coronavirus; he’s completing his sentence under home confinement.) He emulated his enemies’ weeping over his success. He taunted rappers who claimed to have a firmer grip on New York than he does: “If you don’t got this watch right here, you a little boy to me. I’ll kiss you on your forehead.” (The watch, he said, cost $1 million.)
Most crucially and controversially, he defended his decision to testify against his former associates, the gang members in the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods who rode along with him early in his career and helped him establish credibility before turning on him and subjecting him to various travails, financial, emotional and violent.
Dominos began falling almost immediately, especially from hip-hop’s older generation, for whom 6ix9ine’s success can still seem curious, or even dangerous. Meek Mill unleashed two strings of tweets critical of 6ix9ine’s defiance of the code of silence: “I gotta crush you for the culture you chump!” 6ix9ine responded in a comment: “Imagine having a new born baby come into the world & be pressed about a Mexican with rainbow hair.” (Meek did not fare well in a prior attempt to take down a meme-fluent rising rapper — Drake — with a complaint rooted in the ethics of an earlier time.)
This is light work for 6ix9ine, the sort of troll activity that’s so effective because it confuses turmoil for righteousness. Meek Mill and Snoop Dogg’s indignation and gruffness are merely instruments 6ix9ine plays to entertain his own audience.
But there is vanity at stake here too, as was clear when 6ix9ine took on his next antagonist, Billboard, accusing the trade publication of chicanery in tabulating its charts. “Gooba” debuted at No. 3 on the Hot 100 this week, and 6ix9ine wanted answers, or at least to suggest that there were worthwhile questions that needed to be asked. He posted two videos in which he suggested that Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s “Stuck With U” had catapulted to No. 1 through a combination of illicit sales numbers and Billboard’s dismissing millions of YouTube plays of “Gooba.”
(As for “Gooba,” it’s OK. Prime B/B- Tekashicore. Barking and yelping. Nerve-rattling production. Not as good as “Gummo” or “Kika.” Better than “Fefe,” though. In the video, he gets licked by a Dalmatian. He throws up a middle finger and sticks his tongue out. His teeth look great. “Are you dumb, stupid or dumb?” he wonders. He shows off his ankle monitor. “Tell me how I ratted, came home to a big bag,” he shrieks. It is a fair line of inquiry.)
Again, it worked — Bieber replied to defend the integrity of the song’s sales. Then Grande responded with her now-familiar brand of elegant shade, expressing extreme gratitude for her success and addressing 6ix9ine, not by name but by chart position. “i ask u to take a moment to humble yourself. be grateful you’re even here. that people want to listen to u at all. it’s a blessed position to be in,” she wrote on Instagram. “congratulations to all my talented ass peers in the top ten this week. even number 3.”
More bait, more to nibble on. 6ix9ine reacted in a video where he emphasized the challenged circumstances in which he grew up in — “My mom used to collect cans, right, on the street. I used to bus tables, be a dishwasher” — before cutting to video of Grande when she was a Nickelodeon child star. It felt like a “Daily Show” bit.
Finally, he came for Billboard itself. “You can buy No. 1s on Billboard. I want that to register in your head,” he griped, even name-dropping Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s senior vice president of charts and data development. Billboard replied with an unusually detailed statement delineating how it had arrived at its chart data. 6ix9ine posted a photo of himself on Instagram holding a fistful of credit cards, promising to buy enough copies of his song next time to reach No. 1.
All of these have become uproarious story lines that 6ix9ine can extend ad nauseam. Attempted chart manipulation, overt and subtle alike, does happen, and is a persistent thorn in Billboard’s side. But misinformation can travel fast and wide online, and friction is far stickier than courtesy.
It’s asymmetric warfare — the button-pusher with oodles of free time and an understanding that the louder he rattles, the more people he’ll reach, will thrive even if his specific complaints lack merit. The internet rewards persistence more than fact.
This is a moment in which the famous have largely essayed to spread joy and calm (even if their methods are sometimes constitutionally flawed). There is maybe no better time to sow chaos. Defenses are down. People are leaning into sincerity. Those who are eager to please, to be seen as beacons of integrity and hope, are ripe for unmooring.
6ix9ine’s ability to do so while still presenting as the victim is his most efficient sleight of hand. To his supporters, he’s a disrupter, and moreover, proof that disruption is a justifiable mode. To his antagonists, many of whom didn’t realize that’s what they were until he targeted them, he is a nuisance, but a provocative one who’s just informed enough that he can’t be ignored.
Certainly, no one has ignored him, and that’s where he draws his power from. “IM BACK AND THEY MAD,” reads his Instagram bio. Mission accomplished.
That he’s done all of this while still under federal house arrest is impressive but perhaps not surprising. In the testimony 6ix9ine gave at trial, he indicated that the realities of gang affiliation were too much for him to handle. The people he’d trusted with his career, and his life, were the ones who turned on him. Real life had become, in many ways, the obstacle to his virtual success.
Now, 6ix9ine is rebuilding his career from inside a house, still an inmate, presumably under heavy security protection. (He has already had to move once, after his original location was leaked.) But he has access to the one support system that’s never failed him: the internet. His life — his power — is all virtual. Given how fraught the real world can be, he may never stop quarantining.