Lil Uzi Vert Has a Modern-Day ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on His Hands

By
Lil Uzi Vert. Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella

Released for free at the end of February, Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” has rapidly proven itself to be the most popular song of the young Philadelphia artist’s career, racking up over 70 million listens on SoundCloud alone; later rereleased on Spotify and Apple, the song’s streaming numbers have lifted it to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. Popularity doesn’t always equate to quality, but “XO Tour Llif3,” along with being Lil Uzi’s biggest song, happens to be his best, as well as an ideal introduction to him. Melding nerdy animations and rock-star habits with fashion-mongering, Atlanta trap production, and Auto-Tuned vocals, the song is the clearest proof he’s developed a distinct and inimitable sound of his own.

When Uzi rose to prominence in 2016, he seemed to do so in contrast to the dominant tradition of rap in his home city. Born Symere Woods in Philadelphia, the artist had carved out a style of his own that shared little in common with the classic heritage of Philly street rap inaugurated by Schoolly D in the ’80s, sustained by Beanie Sigel and crew in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and most prominently represented by Meek Mill in the 2010s. While those artists made their names focusing on the cold, bare facts of urban violence and deprivation, Lil Uzi had opted for a different mode of presentation — one where leaping 20 feet into a sea of fans, as he did at Miami’s Rolling Loud festival over the past weekend, was considered normal.

Like Will Smith, the Roots, and Eve before him, Uzi offered a homegrown alternative to the prevailing Philly paradigm, but his style had little in common with any of these outliers. As countless commentators noticed, he owed as much to the example of rock artists — whether punk, pop-punk, or shock rock — as he did to that of rappers. He talked about his girlfriend, a designer named Brittany Byrd whose pink hair contrasted nicely with his purple, all the time.

He liked nerdy stuff and was open about liking it. The cover of his 2016 breakout mixtape Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World featured a jaunty anime-style rendition of the artist with Byrd, like a small cat, resting on his head; the title invoked the film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a cornerstone of later-aughts nerd culture. The beats owed at least as much to Atlanta producers, especially his patron Don Cannon, as it did to Philly; his voice was Auto-Tuned as often as not. Like New York City’s A$AP Rocky, Lil Uzi had a pronounced interest in merging the worlds of high fashion and streetwear. If the established canon of East Coast rap had long taken substance to be a style of its own, style, for Rocky and Uzi alike, was a substance of its own, one worth cultivating at all costs.

You like me, I will love you always till the end of time
It seems like I’m always on that thin line
Like
808s & Heartbreak, Kanye with a little hentai
Samurai Jack on a journey, on my lonely, always rocking Vêtements

The quote above, from “Boring Shit” — the first song on Luv Is Rage 1.5, a four-track SoundCloud playlist Uzi released in February to tide over fans until the summer release of Luv Is Rage 2 — encapsulates most of the aesthetic: a mix-and-match collage of sounds and cultural references held together by the concept of “animation.” As his guest verse on Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” amply demonstrated, Uzi is capable of cartoonish levels of exuberance. Between the chart-crowning success of “Bad and Boujee” and continued touring with the Weeknd, it was clear that 2017 would lead the artist to still greater heights than the year preceding.

That much was predictable — fame leads to more fame, until it doesn’t — but few could have predicted how swiftly he would ascend as a mainstream figure in his own right, not merely as a wingman for more established acts. “Bad and Boujee” isn’t his only appearance in the top ten: For the past four weeks, “XO Tour Llif3,” the third track on Luv Is Rage 1.5, has been hovering between Nos. 8 and 10. All indications suggest that the song has yet to peak, the most important indicator being that the song is supremely catchy: Not since Future’s “Fuck Up Some Commas” has a song lent itself so readily to repeated plays.

Produced by 808 Mafia stalwart TM88, “XO Tour Llif3” conveys a somber sense of wheels spinning in place, an impression underlined by a stasis-courting music video, in which an animated, miserable version of Uzi drives a car without getting anywhere. The beat is half the story: Expertly weaving a woozy synth woodwind, a trickling synth chime, a pounding 808, loose but deft hi-hats, and what sounds like an old-school tape recorder clicking on, it’s a marvel in its own right. But Uzi’s sung and sung-rapped lyrics are equal to their setting: Delivered in a crisp but disheveled patter, they cycle through a series of rock-star tropes long familiar to trap aficionados — money, sex, drug use. But these tropes color, and are colored by, a persistent sense of pain — despair amplified by the attempts to suppress it through luxury, sport-fucking, and Xanax ingestion. (In this light, the titular connection to the Weeknd isn’t accidental, but very apt.)

The immediate source of grief is his girlfriend; she’s deceiving him, and maybe he’s deceiving her too. “My Brittany got mad, I’m barely her man now.” But despair, like love and rage, is an emotion that gathers one’s entire being into its orbit. The empty space where the girlfriend once was dilates until it spans other losses the artist has suffered. Elsewhere on Luv Is Rage 1.5, acknowledgments of dead friends (Ninety, Chico, Wee, Doo Dot) are concentrated into an unforgettable refrain: All my friends are dead, push me to the edge.

The line wouldn’t sound out of place on an emo chorus — in fact, it’s a perfect emo chorus — but it takes on new color and depth in a rap context because it isn’t just a metaphor. Though Uzi doesn’t fit the gritty aesthetic prevalent in Philly street rap, he grew up in the same environment as its practitioners, a world where a young man is very likely to see at least some of his friends die. Though it’s easy — he makes it easy — to be distracted from this reality by his relentless proliferation of style, what “XO Tour Llif3” makes clear is that Lil Uzi Vert hasn’t abandoned street rap so much as he’s expanded its range of expression. By applying the operatic death-courting and death-defying postures of Dashboard Confessional or Marilyn Manson or Smashing Pumpkins to his own lived experience, he’s created a genuinely new version of the hip-hop elegy.

New, and not a little weird. Unlike Chance the Rapper’s “Acid Rain,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” or Meek Mill’s “Lil Nigga Snupe,” to name some other distinguished elegies of recent years, “XO Tour Llif3” is peaking on the pop charts in a huge way, which means it’s resonating with millions of listeners for whom “All my friends are dead” is true only metaphorically. Uzi’s hardly the first rap star whose friends have been killed, but he might well be the first to achieve superstar status by saying so directly, again and again.

If this already seems dissonant and grotesque from an observer’s view, it could only be that much more disturbing from the artist’s perspective. Like the heights to which he’s rising, the edge he’s being pushed toward isn’t just a figure of speech, and in both cases the people who are driving him in that direction aren’t his enemies, but his fans. Luv Is Rage 2 is likely to further accelerate his rise, but as the Rolling Loud set suggests, the higher one gets, the further one can descend. I can think of another drug-dependent rock star who, by cobbling together a disheveled new aesthetic through which he could transmit his personal misery with unprecedented intimacy and simplicity, became extremely famous — and also even more miserable. Uzi hasn’t quite yet reached Kurt Cobain levels of notoriety, but “XO Tour Llif3” already seems like more than a just great song. This is just a hunch, but it feels definitive for millennials in the same way that “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” another song fusing precision, vitality, and raggedness, felt for Generation X. Here’s hoping the heights it lifts Uzi to aren’t the prelude to a fall, whether figurative or real. The “Vert” in his name refers to the Y-axis, but though he’s definitely going fast along that line, it doesn’t actually specify which way.

This Song Is Lil Uzi Vert’s Own ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’