Lil Uzi Vert Shocks The World
“I live my life like a cartoon. Reality is not my move.” If Lil Uzi Vert has a mission statement, this is it. Uzi looks like a cartoon character, a tiny little energy-ball dressed in vividly garish designer absurdities and glittery face jewelry. Even when you’re at the back of a festival crowd, you can still see Uzi’s smile when he’s ping-ponging across a festival stage. He’s small, but he’s larger than life.
Uzi sounds like a cartoon, character, too. When Uzi bleats those words about living life like a cartoon, he does it in a giddy nasal yammer, splattering syllables all over the place. When he hits the words at the end of the lines — toon, move — Uzi turns his voice into a deranged squeak, a blaring klaxon call. He doesn’t let the sentiment sit. Within the same breath, he’s making fun of some girl’s jeans. The beat behind him is a thundering blat, built around the sound of a ball caroming onto the screen in an old ’90s pinball-themed computer game. Everything about the song in question is bright, noisy, dazzling. Everything is unreal. Reality is not its move.
The cartoon line is no idle boast. The song in question, “You Better Move,” comes from Eternal Atake, Uzi’s first album in two and a half years. Uzi has been a constant presence in popular music in the time since 2017’s Luv Is Rage 2; he’s headlined festivals and put in scores of guest appearances. But Uzi has also been locked into a long and somewhat mysterious war with his label boss DJ Drama. At one point, Uzi even announced that he was quitting music over it, though nobody took that seriously.
Those years on the shelf would’ve stifled most careers. For Uzi, they only increased demand. Uzi has been teasing Eternal Atake for a while now. He hadn’t announced a release date yet, but it seemed like it would arrive this week. Instead, in the middle of last Friday morning, Uzi suddenly threw Eternal Atake into the world with no warning. It was as if he released it on pure rascally whim, on Bugs Bunny chaos-agent instinct. When reality is not your move, you can do what you want.
Blockbuster albums can arrive in all sorts of ways. They can drop fully-formed out of the clear blue sky, with elaborate audio-visual experiences built in. They can emerge after months of intricately designed rollout. They can slowly build steam, sneaking their way onto the charts and only establishing their chokeholds over time. Or they can anarchically streak their way across the radar, announcing to the world that someone, suddenly, is a way bigger star than anyone realized. Eternal Atake is the the last of those: A glorious spray of charisma that seemed to take over the internet almost instantly. Within minutes of the Eternal Atake release, the entire rap Twitterverse was losing its mind. Within hours, the album was playing from every open car window that was playing music loud enough for you to notice. Lil Uzi Vert sometimes comes off as the kid who’s desperate for attention. Now, he has it.
Eternal Atake is able to support and channel all this excitement because it’s a great album. It’s a wild ride, a restlessly inventive and silly piece of cultural flotsam. It radiates joy and anxiety, twisting those two things together so forcefully that the two emotions become one. To even talk about why Eternal Atake works, how it fits into this moment, we have to talk about all the things that it’s not. Eternal Atake is not, for instance, a piece of premeditated A&R’ed-to-death hit-chasing, an impulse that’s plagued many of Uzi’s peers. Uzi is a big-name guest rapper these days, but he doesn’t work with any other big-name guest rappers on Eternal Atake. (The only guest is post-soul whisperer Syd, who duets with Uzi on “Urgency.”) And Uzi’s not capitulating to rap trends, either. Instead, he’s shaping and internalizing those trends — trends he had a hand in popularizing in the first place — and making them his own.
On paper, maybe Eternal Atake is a self-important and indulgent concept album. The accompanying Close Encounters-ass short film implies a vague storyline about cults and aliens. Uzi has said on Twitter that the album divides up into three parts, one for each of his loosely defined alter-egos. But one of the great things about Eternal Atake is that Uzi never smashes us over the head with those themes. It’s plenty easy to hear Eternal Atake without having any idea of how Uzi has planned it out. Instead, that concept imposes structure and makes Eternal Atake a whole lot more listenable than it might’ve otherwise been.
Consider: The album’s opening salvo, dedicated to Uzi’s aggressively arrogant Baby Pluto persona, is all puffed-up shit talk. In practice, that means we get six songs of Uzi just rapping hard, attacking beats like the jagged piano-banger “Silly Watch.” Then, when that initial adrenaline rush starts to fade, Uzi switches up for the dazed melodies and heart-struck sentiments of his Renji alter-ego. And then he leaves that for the slippery confidence of just plain Lil Uzi Vert. You don’t have to actually know any of this, or what it means. You can intuit it. It means the album is constantly moving, transitioning from one feeling to the next.
The transitions aren’t abrupt. Uzi knows how to use his voice, and in all three of his guises, he twists it into different directions. He raps in a quick double-time skitter, finding different flows without losing the pocket of his beat. But he also lights on tiny, appealing melodies. Uzi learned a lot from Young Thug in the way he can make stream-of-consciousness chatter work as uncanny, half-conscious songcraft. Once upon a time, I found Uzi’s squeak of a voice irritating as hell. I’ve adapted. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome. Maybe it’s just familiarity. Or maybe it’s the way Uzi has gotten better at setting that voice against the bass-heavy hums of the beats that he likes.
Crucially, Eternal Atake dedicates itself completely to Uzi’s own personal aesthetic. That aesthetic has some of the same roots as what Uzi’s peers are doing, but it’s distinct, too. There are big-name producers on Eternal Atake, but they’re subsumed into the storm of it all. There are some left-field names in there, too. Chief Keef, whose own productions are so strange and fascinating, gets his first-ever major-label beat placement in the form of “Chrome Heart Tags,” a gasping new-age cloud-rap track. The astral-gospel “Prices” instrumental, meanwhile, comes from relative newcomer Harold Harper and from festival-dance trickster Cashmere Cat. Most of the album’s beats come from different members of Working On Dying, a Philadephia collective that’s been working with Uzi for years. Their aesthetic — something like a mid-’90s Sega-game soundtrack, chopped up and fed through a subwoofer and blared in your groggy and disoriented face in the middle of the night — is Uzi’s aesthetic.
Lyrically, Uzi doesn’t say too much on Eternal Atake. It’s not that kind of personal album. There are moments of regret and depression, but Uzi never presents them with that after-school-special message-song register that lesser rappers use when they want to signal that they’re being serious. Instead, those lines arrive amidst the storms of designer-label namechecks and giddy gibberish that make up Uzi’s style. As someone who lives his life like a cartoon, Uzi spends a lot of time making reference to cartoons: Yu-Gi-Oh, South Park, yellow diamonds that look like Homer. Uzi’s lyrics don’t tend to work that well on paper: “Spent a hundred thousand right at the Beverly/ Intersection probably where, um, the felons be.” But in Uzi’s universe, lyrics on paper don’t matter. It’s about how he says them.
Every once in a while, Uzi comes up with a quietly heavy moment: “They say ‘Why your chain it look like a choker?’/ That’s for the slaves that had to wear the noose.” That line comes from “You Better Move,” the same song where Uzi brags that he lives his life as a cartoon. So when Uzi hits the word noose, he turns it into a surreal high-pitched yelp. Even the serious moments, then, are not that serious. Reality is not Uzi’s move.
1. Megan Thee Stallion – “Captain Hook”
If it took a whole court battle for Megan Thee Stallion to release her new project Suga, she maybe should’ve left it on the shelf. Suga is mostly a disappointment, a confused attempt to bring Megan’s imperious hot-girl flow into the mainstream when she should be bringing the mainstream to it. But Megan does absolutely black out on “Captain Hook,” a technically razor-sharp fast-rap attack that’s partly about how Megan likes a dick with a little bit of a curve.
2. Skilla Baby & Sada Baby – “Carmelo Bryant”
The absolutely disgusting Oakland-in-1992 digital bassline. The tag-team line-for-line rapping. The 15-dudes-in-a-smoky-living-room video. The end, where Skilla and Sada are just hooting at each other. All of it. Give me all of it.
3. King Von – “On Yo Ass” (Feat. G Herbo)
King Von is a rapper from Chicago who makes drill music, but he’s not a Chicago drill rapper. Instead, he’s a hyperactive wiseass who simply uses drill music as his vehicle for hyperactive wiseassery. Two underrated things about this video: 24-year-old G Herbo credibly playing a high-school principal, and King Von getting his ultimate revenge by making a hater slip in mop water.
4. Gunna – “Skybox”
The era of glamorous Pure Moods rap music is upon us. I am not mad.
5. RezCoast Grizz – “Water”
You don’t have to like every new rap trend. You don’t have to understand it, either. Whether you do or not, the reality is still this: Every single new aesthetic fluctuation in rap music gives a whole new wave of kids a new forum for self-expression. Case in point: RezCoast Grizz, who uses Juice WRLD-style emo-trap to soul-vent about growing up on Montana’s Crow Nation Reservation and about the drive to stay the fuck out of there: “I won’t go back home, I don’t want to see/ Reservation life a prison, what’s the fucking meaning?” This is an inherently valuable thing. (Shouts to the Passion Of The Weiss on this one.)
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
New Lil Yachty single is a 2 pack of ass, drake gotta stop doing make a wish foundation verses.
— Ahmed/My #Elite Group (@big_business_) March 9, 2020