Lil Uzi Vert is new emo
Above all else, Lil Uzi Vert’s new album Luv Is Rage 2 is present. It is simultaneously the best indicator of where rap is today and a perfect harbinger of where it will be, for better or for worse.
It’s funny to think how Uzi’s skyrocket to fame largely came from a place of derision. His verse on Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” was the target of plenty of memes — particularly that ubiquitous, croaking verse-opener, “yeah yeah yeah.” It’s comparable to how Young Thug blew up after the widespread confusion over what the hell he was saying on the Rich Gang hit “Lifestyle.” But many mistakenly took that emphasis on style as an omission of content. Sometimes it was true. Plenty of Young Thug’s lyrics are simply non sequiturs. Plenty of Uzi’s lyrics are pointless.
Plenty aren't though, and what Uzi has done better than nearly any other up-and-coming rapper now is marry that focus on an aesthetic style with lyrics and a delivery that are deceptively profound. It’s an approach that feels particularly fitting for the rap scene today, where personality and style seem constantly at the forefront. With the overabundance of Soundcloud rappers and the ease with which a flow can be co-opted, rappers who are going to truly make it need to separate themselves from the pack. A consuming, recognizable persona is one of the best ways to do that.
Uzi could have stopped there. His sing-song voice has a way with melody, and it’s often easy to remember the rhythm of his tracks because of how well he can simply ride a beat. It’s reminiscent to how Young Thug’s voice can function more like an instrument than spoken word. Uzi’s voice, though, actually blends with his production in a slightly different way, seeping into the bass lines and synths, whereas Thugger’s voice often stands on its own plane. He works particularly well with producers who fill rhythm into every gap and let Uzi slide along within the space between percussion.
Burgeoning producer Maaly Raw certainly has such an ear, and has managed to achieve turn up perfection more than once with Uzi; the A$AP Mob track “Runner,” for example, and “Money Longer,” from Uzi’s well received Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World, are two of the most infectious tracks I’ve heard in years. Raw’s beat pattern has a strong influence here, and he lends a hand on track two, nine, 10, 13 and 15.
But his newest release, Luv Is Rage 2 (the follow-up to his debut mixtape Luv Is Rage), manages to solidify Uzi’s reach past just club anthems. Nowhere is this better exhibited than the last two tracks, “Dark Queen” and “XO TOUR Llif3.”
The latter, released as a single in March, became an enormous, unexpected hit, and is certainly one of Uzi’s best. All of those inherently messy thoughts he has tried to articulate before — listlessness, solitude, sadness — come to fruition in what equates to a shimmering scream for help, equal parts Future and Bright Eyes. It’s a direct and compelling expression of a rapper’s struggle with depression and substance abuse, tackling his mental state after his breakup with ex-girlfriend Brittany Byrd. His only friends are Xanax — “Please, Xanny, make it go away” — and dead presidents (money) — “All my friends are dead.” The track is unflaggingly honest and cuts right to the heart, Uzi’s voice breaking with exhaustion at the chorus (a hallmark of emo bands from the ’80s and on, which this track is reminiscent of).
The former, “Dark Queen,” deals with the complexity of his relationship with his mother over a brooding, spacious beat produced by Maaly Raw and Rex Kudo. He addresses her directly, talking about her concerns for him and his appreciation for her. It’s a clear stand out on the album, showcasing the same kind of straightforward honesty that he does on “XO TOUR Llif3.”
This is where Uzi truly excels. He has plenty of fun, bouncy, loud tracks, and these aren’t too far off from that formula. But instead of simply flexing over the beat and repeating the same clichés we’re so used to in the genre, Uzi turns that on its head.
We haven’t seen work quite like this since his debut, so it’s fitting that Luv Is Rage 2 marks its follow up. Uzi’s last two releases, Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World and The Perfect Luv Tape, while both well merited as party music, didn’t scratch too far below the shiny rhinestone surface, with perhaps the exception of “You Was Right.” But even on that track he sounds like he’s in a haze, attempting to make an apology but getting lost in his fame on the way.
Rather, the best precursor to this album is the final track from Luv is Rage, “Paradise,” a pop-inspired song that walks the line between optimism and sadness: “Paradise / It’s somewhere that I’ve never been before / I just wanna be there when I wake up.” Uzi wants better, but lets himself play in the limbo. That gray area felt lost in some of his later tracks, replaced with material obsessions, but it comes back in full force on this release, and the result is songwriting that is at once nuanced and controlled. On the addicting “X,” he asserts “Yeah my life’s a mess / But I’m also blessed.” “Neon Guts,” assisted by Pharrell, is both a celebration and the manifesto of an alien.
But what Uzi loses on this confessional is the succinctness that made his last two projects so approachable. The first four tracks and The Weeknd feature could all be cut and nothing notable would be lost. It’s the baggage that comes from Uzi wanting to push further but being unsure of where to cut back. There’s a danger that comes when your album starts off on such a low note — some may simply stop listening entirely.
Nonetheless, Lil Uzi Vert has accomplished what he set out to do here, and if this is any indication, his trajectory from here is starred.
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