I spent the year learning the fragility of my own body. At any point in the last 11 months, I could have been gunned down while experiencing live music, detained at the airport for visiting my family, or devastated by a natural disaster and left to rebuild on my own. I know this because the people I love have been left behind by their country, and yet none of them are able to leave. We can’t leave because we can’t afford to, or because we may never be able to come back, or because we still retain hope that “this really isn’t who we are,” too afraid to ask outright who actually considers themselves a part of said “we.” In trying to belong we’ve ultimately become trapped, and for a country obsessed with its own guarded exceptionalism, being an American in 2017 is an increasingly vulnerable proposition.
I was once able to believe that most of us aspire to make good in the world, and some are just misguided in their disagreement on how we get there. But it’s been difficult to spin the current state of cultural affairs as anything other than a battle fundamentally between good and evil. Evil, for all that we’ve been able to slow it down, is winning. Suffering has become normalized, to the point where we expect nothing more when we protest inaction than that deafening negligence to continue unabated. And fighting each day facing unrequited intentions becomes increasingly discouraging, in many ways paralyzing. Despondency eventually settles into cynicism, and cynicism is the saddest condition a person can exist in. It’s an admission that the world will rob you blind, so you never have faith in the safety of closing your eyes. That’s the state we’ve all become comfortable with, or at least numb to.
I’ve always imagined this time of the year to be for most Americans a respite from that kind of daily darkness, which is not exclusive to 2017. I’ve watched enough seasonal specials since childhood to have heard holiday cheer as the solution to just about every struggle of human existence, from curing depression to solving Capitalism. Christmas is portrayed as unadulterated joy, the kind that brings together opposing ideologies, making friends out of enemies. Growing up as a minority with an unclear sense of community — who always asked why I didn’t belong rather than imagine who else I could belong to — there were few events as appealing. Christmas was the party I needed to attend. I just didn’t have an invite.
Lacking any familial ties to the festivities, I’ve tried again and again on my own to break into the Christmas spirit. But for a holiday that’s centered around giving and gathering, its expression is remarkably insular, and so culturally ubiquitous to the point it feels outwardly antagonistic. I’d visit my friends’ various celebrations that seemed to last all of winter break, but when it was revealed to their parents that my world at home didn’t resemble their own, I was no longer looked upon like a guest but a victim, and I was uncomfortable with the suggestion that my path to being included meant leaving behind what I was sure wasn’t the problem.
I didn’t care for the candy canes and stockings and merry greetings; what I most wanted out of Christmas was something I could believe in that would remain stable against all other uncertainty. I don’t have traditions; there’s no personal history to these holidays. I have time off, and I use it to soak up as much time as I can with those people I care for I otherwise don’t see throughout much of the rest of the year. But there’s no organized reason for these gatherings, nothing that promises their return. They lack the comfort that comes with embracing customs you’ve grown up with that stay constant when all else might be crumbling. Some people might be asking themselves how they’re supposed to celebrate the holidays when the year’s been devoid of almost anything to celebrate? For me, I’m wondering more than ever how I’m going to get by without them.
I’d resigned the month to incidentally but inevitably consuming a bunch of Christmas content, and continuing to feel isolated from symbolic gestures that seem ever more necessary to cope with the world that lives outside them. But then Lil Uzi Vert, a leading iconoclast in hip-hop’s changing of the guard and pop’s succumbing to rap, announced “A Very Uzi Christmas.” This, I determined, is exactly where I’d find cheer to draw my year to a close. This would translate all the impressions of the holiday that otherwise escaped me into a medium I was intimately familiar with: rap music.
Perhaps it was foolish to pine all my hopes for feeling whole again this season on a single concert, but it’s not like I hadn’t done it before. Plus “A Very Uzi Christmas” seemed to represent a crucial combination of elements that defined my 2017. Like many of the rap fans who’ve most embraced Uzi’s music, I hoped to escape my festering nihilism by throwing myself into it so completely that it would render any outward resentment meaningless. The world is ending, or at least the one I’d hoped to grow into, so while everyone else would distract themselves from reality by clinging to a time of idyllic familiarity, I would instead manifest my existential dread into a hedonistic “Airing of Grievances,” perhaps starting an annual tradition of my own to cling onto in the process.
The crux of Lil Uzi Vert’s music is that he absolves faith in devotion to feeling. As if a student of Nietzsche, Uzi’s fully aware that the most important reality is his own. His flow is always firing on all cylinders, grasping at the world around him and rapidly fitting the pieces without a second-guess along the way. He’s not constructing a mythology, but a worldview — believing in himself so convincingly as to undermine any other read. Which is why when his music turns somber, it goes all the way down the deep end. He sings of heartbreak the way it’s actually experienced; rather than searching for the right words to string into a resonant image, he just stares into the void and starkly describes it to you.
My favorite Uzi song, the one that hooked me onto the rest of his catalogue after the dead-eyed banger “XO TOUR Llif3″ first opened my interest, is “The Way Life Goes.” The track, which interpolates “Landslide” by indie-pop act Oh Wonder, finds Uzi wrestling with his residual feelings after a break-up, simultaneously reassuring himself that time will heal his wounds as he fixates and cuts them deeper and deeper. He’s reinterpreting the classic “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” as a personal maxim affirming the opposite: “I like that girl too much, I wish I never met her.” These types of fatalistic lyrics are littered all over Uzi’s catalog, from undoing the damage of his self-indulgence on “You Was Right” to decrying his inability to buy back what he gave up to chase money on “You’re Lost.” It speaks to the timeless human condition Uzi’s music gets to the bottom of: perhaps nothing good should last long enough for you to take it for granted.
The most direct expression of Uzi’s agitated pessimism is the aforementioned “XO TOUR Llif3,” a SoundCloud loosie that became a Hot 100 top-10 single via the neo-populism of the streaming era. No other sentiment embodied the sense of antagonistic injustice the previous generation is currently waging on our own as the couplet, “Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead.” It captures viscerally the sense of frustration with being constantly robbed of your future by people who won’t live long enough to face the consequences of their short-sighted actions. “XO TOUR Llif3″ is particularly resonant in its mercurial volatility between riled up momentum to strive and desensitized wallowing. My perspective throughout this year echoed the song’s oscillating states: a commitment to fighting until my last breath and trying to make peace with the oxygen being stolen directly from my lungs.
Uzi embodies the zeitgeist in a number of other key ways beyond his determined ambivalence. He wields an unapologetic self-confidence akin to Kanye, right down to his dubbing of himself as not rapper but “rockstar.” He’s also a master of the glow-up anthem, penning distinctive boasts such as “I’ve got a colorful aura/ Like I got neon guts,” or even just taking a rote phrase and injecting it with so much uncompromising enthusiasm as to make it entirely his own (see “Do What I Want”). Using the same tools as the Atlanta rappers that inspired his style, Uzi turns what would be booming, flat trap into vibrant pop-art. His style never feels forced or workshopped, but rather instinctive and urgent. He’s that friend you wish to resemble but can’t manage to be, so you resent him for being so thoroughly celebrated and making it look easy.
But despite his unquestionable swagger, Uzi’s not a performer. He’s just a really cool person. His concert on Friday at DC’s The Anthem turned out to be essentially an EDM show — complete with a two-tier stage draped in LED screens — with Uzi serving as hypeman to his own music. About 90% of the times he had his microphone pressed to his face, his backing track was still doing all the heavy lifting. Uzi doesn’t entertain so much through musicality as he does sheer personality. His overstated facial expressions and understated dancing coalesce into a fascinatingly limited range of motion, like a video game character with four moves you control and utilize at random. So while he only pronounced every other phrase, if that, the purpose of the concert was more about embracing his atmosphere anyway, getting to feel his brand of assurance for ourselves via a proximal osmosis.
That conviction is a source of energy we need as we get ready for another year that isn’t looking to be any brighter than the last. Our restless political cacophony breeds apathetic complacency, which is why a song as deeply self-destructive as “XO TOUR Llif3″ appeals to my generation. While everyone else is busy trying to survive the black hole, Uzi’s diving right into the center and showing us an escape route. His fans are rooting for him to make it out the other side not just because they want to see him succeed, but because if he can reclaim his composure from his demons, perhaps so too can we.
Uzi dropped “XO TOUR Llif3″ a little more than halfway into his set, whipping the crowd into the biggest frenzy of the night. Seconds after he finished he lobbed his mic into the audience, where it proceeded to smack violently against the floor. He told the DJ to run the track back and his fans that they would perform the song this time. I’m not sure if anyone picked up the discarded microphone and took lead, because the collective chorus was loud enough to envelop the whole room anyway. It was the ultimate embodiment of these songs living completely independent of Uzi once his fans internalized them as their own. Maybe everyone else was there for the same reason as I was, not to see Uzi perform his words, but just to live in his music a little more emphatically than earbuds on the Metro allow for. To feel like we too are crossing the darkness into the other side.
In that moment, the show proved to be everything I came for, and offered a sense of shared community and comfort that I had long hoped for from a real Christmas. Really the existence of this concert itself seemed like some kind of miracle, since Uzi cancelled his entire tour with Playboi Carti, including this DC date, only to reannounce the show later without Carti rebranded under a Yuletide banner. It speaks to the entropic nature of Uzi, and maybe this whole year in general: Who knows how long anything might last anymore? So you might as well dance while the music’s still playing.
Ultimately, “A Very Uzi Christmas” proved just an excuse to market the rapper’s performance in my town with a bit of associative significance, a more easily understood reason for existing. And I probably knew that going in, but still held onto the belief that there’d be something particularly magical about this gathering. I’d set out to drown the noise of a dismal year amongst a kind I far preferred, one that wouldn’t mask my anxiety but channel it into a more kinetic, productive purpose. As I left the venue, I figured maybe that’s what Christmas actually boils down to: a reason to come together to celebrate the fact that for another year we still can — to celebrate that we remembered to celebrate at all.