A member of rap's ascendant new class, Lil Uzi Vert's newest release is worth exploring to discover what direction the genre is taking.
Before the age of social media, gauging an artist’s success was pretty simple: checking the Billboard charts was the equivalent of “Scoreboard!”, and the numbers rarely lied. But now, with more outlets than ever for a musician to make their mark, there’s no guaranteed path to fame. Sporting millions of plays on Soundcloud, but with few formal reviews to show for it, Lil Uzi Vert is a decidedly current artist, for whom digital currency might be worth even more than, or at least becomes a path towards, traditional metrics. Though there is always the matter of discussing the music.
Like most trending rappers, Lil Uzi Vert is undoubtedly indebted to the Atlanta trap sound, enlisting chief architect Metro Boomin for two of Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World’s tracks, but he also receives a quartet of productions or co-productions from fellow Philadelphia native Don Cannon. This confluence of modern critical acclaim with a well-known veteran unsurprisingly makes for a sonic landscape with few flaws. Most artists, for whom on-track confidence is a must, would accept these beats as an indicator that they’ve made it to the big leagues, but for the self-professed “rock star”, Lil Uzi Vert holds some reserved views on the subject.
In a January interview with Complex, he had this to say about working with Atlanta’s production gatekeepers: “I honestly skipped levels. I don’t think I should be working with them right now. I think it’s too early.” And during his Nardwuar interview in which he proved to be one of the few artists who could match the interviewer’s legendary energy, while Nardwuar presented Don Cannon and DJ Drama with old school records, Vert responded with “You guys are boring!” Noisey called him “an old head’s worst nightmare". Though there is always the matter of discussing the music.
Save for Kendrick Lamar (who is still a master at this), one current indicator of a rapper’s ability to ascend lies not within what they say, but how they say it. On Vert’s late 2015 release Luv Is Rage, he showcased a melodic talent on the hooks of opener “Safe House” (“You ain’t safe in the saaaaaafe house!”) and “Top” (“Who the fuck are yooooooou?”, but vs. doesn’t immediately present itself as a release featuring many moments like these. Instead, on most moments where he reverts back to melodic rapping, as on “Grab the Wheel”, it occurs with less intensity. The three exceptions to this are the triumphant “Money Longer”, a Don Cannon production, and the two tracks with Metro Boomin behind the boards, the relationship-centric pairing “You Was Right” and “Baby Are You Home”. The latter two tracks sound grabbed straight from the What a Time to Be Alive sessions, glistening and ready for the sung raps that Drake and Future do so well. Lyrically, however, most rap tropes are hit upon in rapid succession without many interesting variants on the subjects. This isn’t to say that songs with high replay value can’t be made from this -- see Madeintyo’s hypnotic “Uber Everywhere” for just how valuable hitting on the right phrase could be -- but vs. doesn’t contain many offerings of this nature like Luv Is Rage.
So there was the matter of discussing the music. Lil Uzi Vert closed 2015 out with the impressive Luv Is Rage and created an even greater demand for his music. Eleven of the 16 tracks on that release have cleared one million plays on Soundcloud, and in a little over a couple of days of existing, vs. sports hundreds of thousands of plays on each of the nine tracks. This isn’t the most essential offering of rap’s newest class of stars; that honor goes to Lil Yachty’s perplexingly enticing Lil Boat. Nor is this Lil Uzi Vert’s own best work. To properly understand the direction rap’s going, however, one must delve into his catalog. The Pokemon and Scott Pilgrim references, like Lil Boat’s opening Finding Nemo sample certainly nod towards their youth. This shouldn’t turn listeners away from experiencing this generation’s offerings – on the contrary, engaging with the music as these artists work out their sound one release at a time is a fascinating journey. Not everything’s going to land successfully, but then again, Lil Uzi Vert is a musician looking to expand the traditional definition of “success".