Three videos. First video: Last February, Lil Uzi Vert, a surging young rapper, visits the Hot 97 morning show, a place where many surging young rappers are obligated to go visit. At the very outset of the video, Ebro Darden, the station’s former programming director and self-appointed guardian at the hip-hop gates, says that he’s about to put on Gang Starr’s “Mass Appeal” so that Uzi can show what he’s got. Uzi wrinkles his nose. He is frankly disgusted at the prospect. He flatly refuses to rap over that beat. He will not rap over some ’90s beat with all those drums on it. It’s not what he does. That music means nothing to him. Over the course of the interview, he says that Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak changed his life. He says that he’s a rock star, and when asked what that looks like, he says, “It looks like Marilyn Manson. It looks like GG Allin.” The whole time, Ebro openly glares and quietly stews, letting his co-hosts carry the conversation, occasionally interjecting some grumpy shit about his “old man music.” Uzi tries to tell him that things are different now: “It’s gonna be a lot of young guys coming up in here, and they not gonna wanna rap on that. I’m trying to tell you, bruh. It’s changing.” Ebro, in other words, wants things to be one way, but it’s the other way. And, all right all right all right, Ebro was wrong. Uzi was right.
Second video: Last July, the people on the cover of XXL’s Freshmen issue convene in New York for photoshoots and interviews and such. Someone splits them into smaller groups to film them in freestyle cyphers. Uzi fortuitously ends up in a group with Lil Yachty, 21 Savage, and Kodak Black — three other rappers whose existence speaks to some looming generation gap. (Florida underground rapper Denzel Curry, a more traditional MC than those four, is there, too, but he’s plainly not a part of this nouveau-rap rat pack.) When they all start rapping, a couple of things become apparent. For one thing, none of them are great rappers. They are, at best, pretty good; Yachty does a not-terrible double-time, while Kodak gets in some slick lines but loses his train of thought, and 21 proves to be just laughably awful. But they’re charismatic, and they like each other. That matters. Their collective charisma builds as they bounce off each other. Uzi plays chief cheerleader, shouting out all the other rappers present during his verse and then throwing giggly, overjoyed ad-libs on everyone else’s verses. It’s infectious. When 21 Savage raps, everyone else does the “21, 21, 21″ ad-lib. When Kodak opens his verse wondering who picked this sorry-ass beat, all the other rappers bust up laughing. This video is only nine months old, but it already feels paleolithic. Those four have already taken over.
Third video: Russell Westbrook, the man who will probably be named MVP of the entire National Basketball Association when they announce that award, is sitting down before his team takes on the Utah Jazz. The arena’s speakers pump in Uzi’s “Do What I Want,” from 2016’s Perfect Luv Tape. Westbrook has a history with that song; he posted a video of himself howling along to it in August and danced to it (very well) in a Jordan Brand commercial in October. There’s a message there; with the departure of his old teammate Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder is now Westbrook’s team, and he is free to go pure monster, averaging a triple double for the season even though his team has no hope in hell of making it deep into the playoffs. Westbrook does what he wants now, and he’s canny enough to pick a song that says that for him without having to say it himself in the contentious interviews that he hates. But that whole narrative has nothing to do with the sight of Westbrook, on the bench, joyously lip-syncing along with that song, making faces and striking poses. It’s a stark contrast from the way LeBron James interacts with rap music; I’ve always loved the videos of LeBron, during time outs in big games amping himself up by rapping athletic Eminem or Kendrick Lamar verses to himself. Westbrook isn’t doing that. He’s having fun. He’s floating with it.
I watch those three videos, and I root for Lil Uzi Vert. How could you not? He’s looking the crustier half of rap’s generation gap right in the eye and telling its representatives that they’re wrong. He’s finding ways to present himself and his friends as some new generational wave, and he’s making that look fun, which is what it should be. His iconoclastic, fuck-the-rules music is causing public endorphin-rushes in the most iconoclastic, fuck-the-rules sports figure working today. And then I listen to his music, and I get lost. Uzi’s music is, for some of us, a tough pill to swallow. Yesterday, David Turner wrote a great Uzi primer for us, explaining how Uzi’s sound has developed and what sets him apart, what makes him special. But I look at his face, and I just hear “Yah! Yah! Yah! Yah!” on repeat in my brain.
A few months ago, Uzi hit #1 on the Billboard charts, thanks to somebody else’s song. That song, of course, was Migos’ “Bad And Boujee,” a monster anthem and a song that I love. It’s also a song I would love more if, say, Takeoff got to rap on it instead of Uzi. Uzi’s nasal spitball of a verse isn’t just the worst thing about “Bad And Boujee.” That song is like a beautiful painting that somebody sneezed on when it was still wet, and Uzi’s verse is the snot-spittle. It’s weird, though; I have such a powerful aversion to Uzi’s verse that I can’t get it out of my head. I find myself mentally repeating “Yah! Yah! Yah! Yah!” to myself for no reason. In the video, Uzi wears a Marilyn Manson shirt tucked into black sweatpants, and I might hate it so much that I’ve come around to liking it. The way Uzi uses his voice, it’s almost like he’s not a rapper. Everything is in that same pinched, knowingly obnoxious singsong. Uzi doesn’t remind me of other rappers — not even Young Thug, whom he basically came up imitating. Instead, he reminds me of NOFX’s Fat Mike, or of Blink-182’s Tom Delonge. He raps and he sings, but more then either of those things, he needles.
There is a reasonable chance that Uzi will get himself to #1, without Migos, in the weeks ahead. Last week, his “XO TOUR Llif3″ broke into the top 10. It’s since fallen from #8 to #10, but Uzi is doing his part to turn it into an Instagram dance craze, and those things have a history of succeeding lately. But even if it doesn’t climb any higher, “XO TOUR Llif3″ is Uzi’s biggest solo hit, and it — along with Future’s “Mask Off,” currently a few spots higher in the top 10 — is one of our best examples of what happens when the fans decide what the hit is. Uzi uploaded that song, along with a few others, to SoundCloud a few months ago. It took off there, organically, before it had any kind of commercial release; Uzi’s label had to scramble to keep up with the demand. It kept building, and building quickly. And now we’ve got a song with what looks like an Aphex Twin title in the top 10.
“XO TOUR Llif3″ is an effective song, a moody and dark meditation on drugs and breakups. Its hook — “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead” — is both a tireless earworm and a bleak drug-life koan. Uzi’s base, the kids who have been following his life on Instagram, know that it’s a song about a recent breakup, one that they watched in something like real time. That makes it something more than a song; it’s also a chapter in a story that’s playing out in public, a Livejournal entry made real. Between Uzi’s honking delivery, his singsong melodicism, and his open soul-baring, he’s practically rap’s decade-late answer to mid-’00s MySpace emo. That was music for teenagers. So is Uzi.
So does Lil Uzi Vert suck? I don’t know. It’s almost an irrelevant question, and it has the same answer as it did when I asked it about Lil Yachty last year. I’m a 37-year-old white man with kids and dogs and a mortgage and a minivan. I shouldn’t like Lil Uzi Vert. If I did, something would be wrong. I didn’t get MySpace emo, either, and that stuff now has nostalgia club-night parties all across the country. One day, before you know it, a whole generation will be nostalgic about “Do What I Want” and “You Was Right” and “XO TOUR Llif3.” They will make I-love-this-song faces at each other, and they will rush the nearest dancefloor, and they will forget, for a few minutes, that they are no longer teenagers. And those of us who grumped about Uzi won’t be grumping anymore. We won’t be at the fucking party in the first place. We’ll be at home, fallen asleep, with a good book on our chests. Or we’ll be dead.
1. G Perico – “All Blue”
Hard, purposeful West Goast G-funk that evokes the hazy ’90s without getting stuck in them. I fell in love with YG because of songs like this, and Perico somehow manages to be even more casual about it.
2. Jimmy Wopo – “Elm Street 2″
Pure kick-you-in-the-chest rap from a Pittsburgh kid who has, as of yet, produced almost nothing but this headknock shit. “Snipers on our shit like we deer hunting.” Also: “Chopper make you juju on the beat.”
3. Big Boi – “Kill Jill” (Feat. Killer Mike & Jeezy)
I like how, even when he’s trying to put out a breathlessly hard street single, Big Boi makes sure it’s funky and goofy and full of old Atlanta guys. And I like that Jeezy is now a part of the old-Atlanta-guy fraternity. And I like that Killer Mike is still capable of decimating something that is not sirens-blaring noise-rap. I mean, I knew he was, but I like to have it confirmed anyway. I do not, however, like Big Boi’s Cosby line. We know what happened. Come on.
4. Nas – “Systematic”
Nas is out here rapping on a DJ Shadow beat, and it doesn’t even feel like a big deal. This truly is a brave new world.
5. Shabazz Palaces – “Shine A Light” (Feat. Thaddillac)
Is this the prettiest Shabazz Palaces song? It might be the prettiest Shabazz Palaces song.