Lil Uzi Vert isn’t a rapper. “I’m a rockstar / I’m a rockstar / I’m a rockstar,” he declared on Playboi Carti’s most recent single, “Woke Up Like This,” in case anyone still needs some clarification. Early last year, the North Philadelphia by way of Atlanta singer made headlines when he refused to rap over a DJ Premier beat on Hot 97. The moment sparked an ongoing conversation about rap’s youngest generation giving little, if any, respect to their elders. The moment of genre self-reflection seemed out of place for Uzi Vert, whose idols aren’t Biggie or Nas, but GG Allin and Marilyn Manson.
The freedom Lil Uzi Vert relishes by throwing away the title of “rapper” can be heard in the fluid way he approaches each new track. He’ll jump from spitting rapid-fire verses — hence where his moniker originates — to crooning like he’s recording a demo for Matador in the early ’90s. That particular range is what makes him such a fun star to follow; he could obsess over #bars like his Philadelphia peer Meek Mill, but that isn’t in his DNA.
Lil Uzi Vert’s irreverence is not unique to him, as this is the dominant worldview of quote-unquote SoundCloud Rappers. Lil Yachty, only 19, constantly makes headlines over which old school rappers are left off his personal canon and was very recently accused of ruining the culture. Playboi Carti, who took nearly a year off from putting out new music, promoted his album through fashion photoshoots in Vogue and W Magazine. Then there are up-and-comers — like Lil Peep, Lil Tracy, Lil Pump, and Smokepurrp — who distance themselves from the “rapper” label, instead opting to cite a variety of genres as their influences. This collective devil-may-care attitude might frustrate older listeners, but it endears these artists to younger ones who may or may not owe any loyalty to the genre’s past.
Despite the fact that he’s from North Philadelphia, Lil Uzi Vert is often associated with Atlanta acts. When one of his producers, Maaly Raw, first heard Uzi’s music on the radio, he assumed Uzi was from Atlanta due to Uzi’s melodic flow. His chirpy voice feels worlds apart from the gritty Philly street rap of Beanie Sigel and State Property. The other major artist to emerge from Philadelphia this decade is Meek Mill (sorry every other popular American indie rock band) and there’s a striking difference between the two as evidenced on social media. Meek Mill, post-Nicki Minaj break-up, can mostly be found riding bikes and retracing his steps through his old hood. Uzi, on the other hand, is on a never-ending tour, with few roots in either Philadelphia or his newly adopted home of Atlanta, where he moved last year.
By the end of last year, Lil Uzi Vert secured his first mainstream hit with “You Was Right,” which was originally released on his Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World-inspired tape, Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World. Produced by Metro Boomin, the dizzying love song boasted the kind of emo self-doubt that used to fill his SoundCloud page before success struck hard and fast. (“Baby Are You Home” and “Stole Your Love” being two great examples of the reflective ballads he moved away from on his last few rounds of SoundCloud dumps.) Then he appeared on the Migos #1 hit “Bad And Boujee,” further launching his rocket into the mainstream, as he’s also riding high on his own solo crossover hit “XO Tour Llif3.” This song sparked the #LilUziVertChallenge and is currently slotted at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. While waiting for Lil Uzi Vert’s new album to drop out of the sky like a gift from Santa, we looked back on some of the standout tracks that made him.
Carnage – “WDYW” (Feat. A$AP Ferg, Lil Uzi Vert & Rich The Kid) (01/25/2015)
The precise origin story of Lil Uzi Vert is almost too neat. Here’s the truncated version: One of Lil Uzi’s songs got played on the radio, a DJ happened to hear it, that DJ told another DJ friend, Uzi eventually was signed to Atlantic Records, and the rest was history. That all happened fairly quickly, but if you trawl YouTube you can still find early videos of Uzi that hint at his future success. “WDYW” by the outspoken EDM producer Carnage is unquestionably the song that helped light the fuse of Uzi’s career. Carnage, who was early on rappers Migos, Lil Yachty, Rich The Kid, and Ugly God, got a classic Uzi hook (“I turn five to a 10/ I turn 20 to a 50/ 40 40 hit your woadie shorty/ Balmain, Saint Laurent with the Fendi”) and let the trap drop work the crowd into a frenzy. Uzi never continued to flirt with EDM, but “WDYW” shows off his early elasticity.
“Dej Loaf” (04/02/2015)
The more Lil Uzi Vert’s star rises, the more details of his life get lost in translation. Last year, Uzi took to SoundCloud and Instagram to announce that he and his girlfriend, Brittany Byrd, had broken up. That’s a typical millenial post-internet relationship move, but since she appeared on his social accounts and videos and clearly inspired much of his music (Byrd is on the cover of his debut album LUV Is Rage), there was genuine concern for the two. “Dej Loaf” is not explicitly about falling out with Byrd so much as it is a coy digital love letter to the Detroit rapper, and the earnestness here shows how Uzi approaches romance. The song’s only a couple of years old, and it lacks Uzi’s now-trademark frantic triplet flow, but it was an early marker of the emotional depths his later projects would explore. That being said, Uzi and Byrd’s break-up was eventually revealed to just be a joke to promote some new music — what won’t kids do for some likes? (Rumor has it the two have since broken up for real.)
“Did you see that video on Instagram?” Brittany Luse says at the beginning of “7AM,” one of the many highlights from Lil Uzi Vert’s debut album, LUV Is Rage. Last year, Lil Uzi Vert’s Instagram escalated from late-night photos of him watching Dragonball Z and sitting in hotel rooms to sneak peeks of new music and more lavish displays of his increased material wealth. There was the classic clip of him listening to Paramore (which has been circulating recently since the band announced their new LP) and the early clips of him playing eventual bangers like “Side Line Watching (Hold Up)” or “Buy It.” Lil Uzi’s Instagram became the first place fans would go for the chance to hear another 45 seconds a new song. On “7AM,” Uzi loosens his rather tight flow and gives each word and phrase space to prevent his syllables from bleeding together. Its melodic peak made the song an early highlight during live shows.
“You Was Right” (04/14/2016)
Of course Lil Uzi Vert’s first major radio song (“You Was Right”) was an unabashed love song! What else could it have possibly been? “You was right and I was wrong,” the chorus starts atop Metro Boomin’s twisted production, while Uzi goes on to tiptoe around various relationship issues and struggles. Following in the tradition of many overly emotional dudes given the microphone, Uzi doesn’t make a convincing argument as to why he’s a good partner, but like many of his songs devoted to his ex-girlfriends, there is a back-and-forth internalized dialogue that deals in credible matters of the heart not typical of many pop performers.
Last year, Lil Uzi Vert released three mixtapes, provided numerous guest verses, and a number of SoundCloud-exclusive tracks. The peak of all that material was “Subzero,” a song devoted to his neck jewelry and the Mortal Kombat character of the same name. Sadly, the SoundCloud track was scrubbed from the service, but that’s fine because the best version of the song remains a dance video done by SheLovesMeechie last summer. It’s a struggle to find the words to describe Uzi’s start-stop flow that still manages to slur every other word, but watching Meechie and his friends lip sync each line does a fine job. This video perfectly exemplifies how fun this song is; there’s the moment when someone throws his shirt off as Uzi starts singing, “All of my haters I love it,” then there’s the “what!” adlibs that find Meechie putting his shoe to his ear like a phone before tossing it off screen, and then, of course, there’s Slim Jimmy’s barrel roll. The boundless energy of Lil Uzi Vert’s music is often best captured in live show footage rather than in recordings, but it’s perfectly matched here as a set of early 20-somethings brings the energy to his music.
“Money Mitch” (07/31/2016)
Far too much noise has been made about “mumble rap,” the notion that this newest generation can’t offer up real #rap #bars. The simple fact is that rap music is ever-changing and rarely prone to stagnation, but if you’ve ever wanted to hear #bars from Lil Uzi Vert, he provided them on “Money Mitch,” from The Perfect LUV Tape. Produced by Zaytoven, Lil Uzi Vert slows down his often dizzying flow and presents us with some of his most precise, landed verses. The staccato pattern he often uses is perfected here; every line gives you the sense that you’re watching Uzi hop on tightrope wires, waiting for him to lose balance, but he never does. So, when he raps, “Neither one of these girls get me, yuh / They only with me cause I got these hundreds and fifties / Lil Uzi don’t move with no twenties / Funny thing is you really don’t move with money,” you’ll almost want to applaud when he sticks the landing.
“XO Tour Llif3″ (03/24/2017)
Earlier this year, Lil Uzi Vert uploaded a few tracks to his SoundCloud and named it LUV Is Rage 1.5, a short teaser for fans eagerly awaiting his first official album release. The practice is not an unusual one for the rapper, but the reaction here was slightly different. Usually when Lil Uzi puts up a new song it will average a thousand plays a minute, and can rack up millions of plays within a few days. But “XO Tour Llif3″ was outpacing the other three tracks, and very quickly it was outpacing all of his other songs. “I don’t really care if you cry/ You should’ve never lied!” Lil Uzi wails at the top of the chorus of this post-hardcore hit.
When Uzi’s going through the motions, his lyrics are generally elegant one-liners about his material possessions, but “XO Tour Llif3″ eschews all of that. This is a love song that exposes Uzi’s heart and it’s the most “pop” track he’s ever released. Rappers often make big pivots towards pop, but Uzi allowed it to happen so gradually it doesn’t stand out awkwardly alongside the rest of his catalog. Also, Uzi’s personal hero is Marilyn Manson, so when he sings “Push me to the ledge/ All my friends are dead,” try to imagine his chosen shock-rock dad grinning with pride.