In internet time, 2016 might as well be forever ago. Turbulent sociopolitics of the broader world aside, back then, the music industry was undergoing a significant shift, prompted by a merry band of misfits who would come to be grouped under the umbrella term “SoundCloud rap.” The style encompassed lo-fi noise rap, histrionic emo rap, drug-addled cloud rap and combinations thereof that took hold across the platform. SoundCloud granted artists the ability to share their music and find both open ears and kindred community, no label budget necessary; fans would decide who rose to the top.
As consumer power grew, so too did the resentment. Listeners who favored a more traditionalist approach to rap decried this new generation’s perceived lack of tact, morals or skill — to be sure, a perspective rooted in revisionist characterizations of the past, nevermind the fact that many of the artists in question considered themselves rockstars anyway. For its part, the music industry was woefully unprepared, and in some cases unwilling, to accommodate a prolific pool of talent disinterested in playing by its rules. It was a time of inspired lawlessness in which a rapper like Lil Uzi Vert could feed an insatiable audience a steady diet of songs and snippets as he evolved and refined his sound in real time. Though he was a creative nucleus at the center of an especially fecund moment in modern music, had-to-be-there nostalgia remains the best proof of his eminence.
When he released Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World in April of that year, SoundCloud streams didn't yet count toward RIAA certification nor the Billboard charts, which, historically, have been held as a reputable (albeit unreliable) measure of achievement. That change wouldn’t come until October, allowing some of Uzi’s most beloved songs to rack up millions of plays that counted for little outside of the intimate, SoundCloud-facilitated relationship between an artist and his loyal fans. The era that engendered the kaleidoscopic sound of the mixtape, his second commercial release, was ill-equipped to account for its impact. It exists now somewhere in between cult favorite and certified classic.
Born Symere Woods, Uzi grew up in North Philadelphia. Or, as he once claimed, he landed there. It’s a story that’s been told many times by now, the kid who didn’t have rap aspirations in the beginning but nevertheless wanted all eyes on him. (“I’m an attention seeker, still ’til this day” he admitted in an early interview with XXL.) A high school friend piqued a bit of interest after recording a freestyle over Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” beat, and Uzi — then going by the stagename Sealab Vertical — decided he needed to get in on it too, forming a trio with that same friend and another acquaintance called Steaktown. The group was short-lived, but Uzi was committed. He continued to sharpen his skills, eventually releasing a song called “U.Z.I.” in 2014. Built on muddy 808s and metallic synths that would be well-suited to a horror movie score, it belied what he could do with cadence but suggested a multitude of possibilities for his voice. “U.Z.I.” soon captured the attention of Don Cannon, who, along with DJ Drama (both Philly natives themselves), signed the budding rapper to their Generation Now imprint and relocated him to Atlanta.
If the City of Brotherly Love is known for its lyrically dexterous and roughneck rhymers, then the A is home to, well, the outcasts. “In Philly it’s like, this is really the East Coast. Everybody here can rap,” Uzi explained to Spin. “So the difference is, down there they’re actually trying to make songs. It’s catchy, it’s fun down there. Atlanta is down south, the club.” Uzi annexes the spirit of both locales in his music, often deceptively underselling the former as he leans into the latter. The notion that he’s out of place — not just in his industry but on the planet, as a human — is a recurring theme in his interviews and his songs. In a 2017 FADER cover story, he details the first and only job he had as a stocker for a now-defunct grocery store where he lasted all of four days. As for why, he surmises: “I’m not normal.”
This oddball stance animates Uzi’s music, making it sound, indeed, otherworldly at times. There’s a sense that he’s rebelling against something — tradition, genre, the status quo — and so, by listening, his fans get to participate in the rebellion too. His was the soundtrack for a particular iteration of hip-hop’s culture wars. For a while, after Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World cracked the ether (followed by The Perfect LUV Tape three months later), he became a kind of litmus test for assessing youthful cool, or at least open-mindedness. Blogs ran articles that asked young listeners to explain why they love Uzi and why other, older people didn’t. Many of their answers reflected a value system that rewards the visceral over the cerebral. They liked that his songs sounded different and also that they felt good. They also appreciated his unapologetic fearlessness in an environment that could be hostile to people like him, who wore the stripes of nerdom proudly and subverted gender norms in fashion and manner. In effect, his middle-finger punk disposition was admirable in itself but gained further credence by how it angered purists.
SoundCloud unleashed a torrent of creative degenerates who weren’t about to ask permission nor forgiveness, and Uzi emerged as a leader of the unofficial movement. The first song he uploaded to the service, or at least what remains, is a showcase of Migos-esque triplets titled “IN DA FIELD (FREESTYLE),” dated January 2014. It’s a comparatively restrained version of the rapper, but even then, there were flashes of brilliance coming from that helium-infused voice that would eventually transform him into a star. By the time his label-backed debut mixtape, Luv Is Rage, arrived in October of the following year, the word was out: Uzi had something special.
A narcotized amalgamation of rap styles that emerged in the early part of the 2010s, Luv Is Rage is the sound of Uzi nudging one era into the next. Embedded in the DNA of songs like “Yamborghini Dream” and “Belly” is the whimsical trap of Migos and Young Thug (who is featured on the former); “Safe House” warps the viscus bellow of Chief Keef while “Banned From TV” and “Right Now” absorb the syrupy industrial maximalism of Travis Scott. Uzi may be among rap’s preeminent sponges, but he never finishes a track without leaving the residue of his own singular panache. He shines brightest through the mischievous refrain of “7am” — an almost taunting earworm of a hook — and the tape’s crown jewel, “Top,” in which he ping-pongs effortlessly between the woozy brooding of the chorus and the anachronistic shapeshifting of the verses, as if he is his own feature.
Still, for all of Luv is Rage’s impish tinkering, it’s Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World that sounds like full surrender — a tight and concise snapshot of Uzi’s liminal period as he transitioned from one to watch to simply The One. All of his signatures are here: freewheeling cadences, playful ad-libs, spring-loaded melodies, sticky hooks and an ear for beats as intriguing as they are repellant (look no further than the kooky accordion backdrop of “Ps & Qs” for proof). He offers up an audible feast for the digital age, cherry-picking everything from the gripping noir of Chicago drill to the bubbliness of ringtone rap and the infectious melodicism of early aughts pop-punk. Even the artwork, modeled after Bryan Lee O'Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, and the title, after the graphic novel’s namesake film, nod to turn-of-the-decade staples.
It opens with the jab and cross of “Canadian Goose” and “Hi Roller,” both firmly in Uzi’s sweet spot. On the first, he’s frenetic, jolting between flows and littering the lyrics with references to fashion brands (and a stray Mewtwo); on the other, he lethargically wraps his verses around the track’s protrusive squeal in order to get to the next “yuh” ad-lib. Uzi’s phrasing seems to defy the laws of physics: When he declares “diamonds all on my teeth, so I barely can talk,” the beat drops out for a second, but the way he crams the words together gives the effect that time itself has slowed. It’s a trick of the rapper’s but it’s also to the credit of Maaly Raw, another Philly native and the man behind both of those beats. Armed with Fruity Loops and a stock laptop speaker setup (true to SoundCloud’s DIY ethos), his “that be Maaly Raw” tag became inseparable from Uzi’s ascension. His beats tailored to Uzi’s childlike energy, opening up just enough space between the thunderous 808s, manic hi-hats and quirky lines of synth for his counterpart to provide syllables of percussion intertwined with those sugary melodies. Speaking with FADER in 2017, the producer credited Uzi with bringing out his best: “He likes the weird sounds just like me … he takes me to my full potential.” And together, alongside Don Cannon, they unlocked the magic that is “Money Longer,” Uzi’s first commercial coup.
All charisma caked in bravado, the track had enough firepower to convert skeptics into believers, netting him his first entry on the Hot 100. The verses on their own are primed for memorization, but that hook — you can practically see the eye roll and the shoulder shimmy as Uzi quips “money got longer, speakers got louder, car got faster.” His inflection resembles that of a kid teasing another on the playground. The other part of the hook, “it do not matter,” could very well be a slogan of his. The idea of staying present, going with the flow, whatever happens, happens is another consistent thread in his interviews. It manifests in his music, in the literal sense, at the moment of creation: no writing, only feeling.
Uzi has commonly talked about being inspired by rockers like Marilyn Manson and Hayley Williams of Paramore. (As an increasing number of up-and-comers claimed to be rockstars, Uzi was on the road with actual rockstars, opening up for Fall Out Boy and Wiz Khalifa on their 2015 Boys of Zummer tour.) That grungy punk inclination shows up most prominently in a single fleeting moment on “Baby Are You Home,” when he laments “girl I made you famous, ain’t no need to thank me” in a wailing flurry of harmonies that would make Kurt Cobain proud. The elongated section of “yeah yeahhhh, yeah yeahhhh, yeah yeah”s in the middle of “Ps & Qs” also has something to do with that sphere of influence. But as for the emphatic repetition in the verses — of “Ps & Qs” and elsewhere — that honor probably belongs to Mike Jones, who Uzi cites as one of his first guiding lights. But in marrying his joy with his angst, his music takes on dual identities.
There’s a melancholic undercurrent that runs through Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World, as it does his entire catalog, like a rainbow pouring out of a deep, dark void. When he’s nursing the blistering wounds left by lost lovers — often pushed away due to his own misdeeds (see: the Metro Boomin-crafted “You Was Right”) — or craving those same lovers even when they’re already in reach, as in the emotional vortex of the WondaGurl-produced closer “Scott and Ramona,” it’s fitting. But other times, even within that same song, at the center of all the beautiful women, expensive jewelry, high fashion and exotic cars lies an existential emptiness. “I love my songs like my children that I don’t have,” he explained to Apple Music of the sorrow that pervades them. “Once the song is over, it’s over, onto the next. It’s sad. I can’t make one song forever.” Perhaps that’s why Uzi’s music sounds the way that it does — he’s chasing after infinities that reality can’t offer.
Since Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World was first released, there’s been plenty of pop and rap and pop-rap made in its image. The hues of its colorful idiosyncrasies have crept into some of the most calculating and sanitized corners of music, but in its time, these weren’t the kind of songs made to chase the charts. They were born of Uzi’s quest to create something that could mirror the unpredictability of his interior life, cultivated and ushered by the internet into the material world — to even have them in-hand, pressed to wax once more, feels like a lucky accident, or some sort of strange miracle. Before a slippery verse on Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” helped net him his first No. 1, before the nihilist anthem "XO TOUR Llif3" rocketed him to a whole ’nother stratosphere and before he rode the SoundCloud wave straight to the Grammys with a Best New Artist nomination, there was this. Listen close enough, and it’s possible to hear the past, present and future at once, a cosmic singularity giving birth to an entire universe.
Briana Younger is an N.Y.-based writer whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, NPR and more.
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