by Patrick Preziosi
If anyone were to ask you for either a time capsule of rap music in 2016, or an embryonic example of the seedlings of what’s become one of hip-hop’s equally richest and bewildering creative eras yet, you’d simply have to present them the 2016 XXL Freshman Cypher featuring Denzel Curry, Lil Yachty, 21 Savage, Kodak Black and Lil Uzi Vert. The recent total abandonment of release-date formalities has rendered the once tastemaking attempts of the coveted Freshman List somewhat moot, and 2016 was its last gasp of a swing at undeniable relevancy, before truly only being able to nab artists for the cover after their personal blow-ups (Trippie Redd, Ski Mask and Lil Pump all belatedly in 2018? The magazine only seems to be catering at this point).
The cypher is no technical marvel, save for maybe Curry’s machine-gun verse; rather, it captures a bunch of giddy kids, itching to break free from the shorthand descriptor of “mumble-rap” (read: not lyrical)… with the polite exception of Kodak Black. This thrilling sensation of all-around newness doesn’t even extend to the other, regrettable inclusions of Lil Dicky and Desiigner. The clichéd descriptor of it being a “lightning in a bottle moment” flies in the face of this new generation, but that’s just what it is. Kodak makes a point of drawling “who the fuck chose this sorry ass beat?”, but otherwise the rest are funny (21: “sent your bitch to the store cuz we ran out of soda”), surprisingly solid (Yachty), or zig-zag through melody, verbosity and unfettered joy with head-spinning versatility. And that’d be Uzi.
Uzi’s Lil Uzi Vs The World was one of a handful of breakout tapes from him and his cohorts –– including those beyond that year’s freshman list –– that caused quite a stir among lyrical hip-hop fans: 21 and Metro Boomin’s Savage Mode, Yachty’s Lil Boat, Playboi Carti’s Playboi Carti and the continuing reign of already elder statesmen, Future and Young Thug. However, the following summer, Uzi fell prey to the major label debut that was saddled with monotony and the occasional dip into indifference. Luv Is Rage 2, while featuring a grabbag of the typical Uzi quirks, as well as the effortless, Pharell-featuring “Neon Guts”, and the rightful superhit “XO TOUR LIF3” tacked on at the end, didn’t make a statement of any sort. It was a strangely harmless affair, what with a bedeviled Uzi on the cover rendered by none other than Off-White maestro Virgil Abloh, and the sole features besides Pharell belonging to The Weeknd and Nicki Minaj. Luv Is Rage 2 presented a new version of Uzi only fitfully, coasting along the ground already laid out by the album’s direct predecessor, as well Vs. the World and The Perfect Luv Tape.
Major label debuts by overnight rappers are almost always a dubious proposition, and Uzi’s missteps were entirely forgivable, especially as this new class of artists prided themselves on a steady stream of material to bestow upon fans whenever they’ve really felt like it. SoundCloud snippets and bootleg live videos contain troves of unreleased material that many clamour for; instead of continuing an only minutely dampened hot-streak, Uzi initiated a Twitter war with his label, whom he faulted with the holdup in a new album (“And if y’all do sign…sign 2 a major Don’t sign 2 a rapper or a Dj” he wrote, aimed at Atlantic imprint Generation Now). A game of finger-pointing ensued, Generation Now Don Cannon cofounder threw the blame back at Uzi who has a reputed “700” songsworth of material, Uzi leaks the Heaven’s Gate-baiting cover art for what is now Eternal Atake (released on Friday, March 6th), then leaks other singles, and somehow in all of this, manages to clapback in person at a shit-talking Rich the Kid in a crowded Starbucks.
Rather than be frustrated, it was hard not to feel for Uzi, who seemed at the end of his major label rope, burning bridges and even pledging retirement. At the same time, the promise of new music consistently bottomed out into disappointment, so when announcements and cover art started circling within the last few weeks, it was also hard not to keep expectations low.
Then came Eternal Atake. One week later, Lil Uzi Vs. The World 2. The feat is nothing short of staggering, in that Uzi has essentially crafted the first truly successful double album borne from the SoundCloud rap ilk. We’ve seen the likes of Migos, Drake and Future attempt similar, but those projects were cut at the knees by their streaming-minded bloat. Calling Uzi a classicist is a tad overblown, but there’s the same kind of intoxicating artistic indulgence that defines other classics of the form, such as it. The two sides are more Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness than they are Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever.
Uzi’s two modes –– rapid fire, free associative verse, and smeary, autotuned singsong –– converge through the two albums, with an excess of both spilling into the other. Uzi maintains a more hard-nosed flow on the first half of Eternal Atake, and allows guests like 21 Savage, Lil Durk and Young Nudy to maintain such sturdiness on Vs. The World 2 when his voice aims for the stratosphere. The expected adoption of alter egos (Baby Pluto, Renji, Myron) allows for Uzi’s style to become more compartmentalized; if there’s a stylistic quirk you’re missing on one song, it’s definitely present elsewhere, and vice versa.
Uzi initially chose his gun-toting moniker for his ability to cram syllables into increasingly speedier bars, something that became more eclipsed by his balladeering streak (in hindsight, he foresaw the rapid ascent of DaBaby). Hearing him string blocky bars together into refreshingly simple punchlines is more than heartening, such as the opening of “POP” (which later sees him rhyming “Balenci” with itself 16 times in a row):
Got a bitch, yeah, she look so good
But on the real, she in denial
Diamond water, yeah, it look like a river
Look like I’m standing in the Nile
If you really didn’t get the last line
Then your level on the brain of a child
EA is full of nuggets such as these, abetted by some of the more muscular production Uzi’s rapped over for some time (courtesy mostly of Brandon Finessin). “Lo Mein”’s gunplay is delivered over dueling synth arpeggios and hi-hats and “You Better Move” is all bass rumble and muted siren-sounds, with Uzi unleashing the ultimate diss: “I’m an iPod man, you’re more like a Zune”.
The second half of EA foresees the more melodious entirety of Vs. The World 2, with its cloudrap-indebted production and Uzi’s higher register taking on a more incantation-like tone, apparent on the ebullient “Celebration Station”, the genuinely lovely, Syd-featuring “Urgency”, or the deliriously blown out “Chrome Heart Tags”, where the rapper pushes his range as much as he seemingly can. This carries over into the all-in-all more casual Vs. The World 2, which features more singing, more guests, and more earworm hooks (“me and the moon relaaaatteee”). It’s a relatively baggier affair, with gratingly intrusive verses by Lil Durk and NAV, the latter whom Uzi has such a baffling affinity for. However, Uzi’s proverbial father figures, Young Thug and Future, slot in nicely, and Chief Keef –– the cult star whose influence is perhaps most widely felt amongst Uzi and his peers –– lends Thot Breaker-esque production and verses to the outstanding “Bean (Kobe)”. As tag-team releases between stars have been in vogue for the past few years, Keef and Uzi prove they could be a more than formidable duo.
Eternal Atake reigns as the more impressive of the two albums, though Vs. The World 2 provides a handy dose of nostalgia for the groundbreaking sound Uzi spearheaded, especially on the Young Thug aided “Money Spread” and “Strawberry Peels”, the latter of which possesses an expectedly smooth Gunna verse. If Vs. The World 2 is taken simply as the “pop” side, you could do a lot worse than the catchy though interchangeable likes of “Moon Relate” and “Lotus”. Releasing the two projects one week apart, though insisting that they be taken together, speaks to the new musician-fan pipeline that Uzi has cultivated, and that label drama momentarily disrupted. He challenges and teases us with one of his most loosely experimental works yet, whose closest analogue to “XO TOUR LIF3” is “P2”, a literal repurposing of the same beat, with the same depressive sentiments echoed across an impressively similar rhyme scheme. Fans are then rewarded with the mythical sequel to his most popular mixtape, a more pop-minded project with a beefy guestlist. It’s not only significant that Uzi returned after such a drought of new material, but also that either Eternal Atake or Lil Uzi Vs. The World 2 would be a generous offering from any rapper. But to be behind and remain at the center of both of them, that’s something only Lil Uzi Vert can do.
Patrick Preziosi is a graduate of Literature (BA) from the State University of New York at Purchase. Based in Brooklyn, NY, Patrick began pursuing film criticism after a foray into music criticism. Patrick has written on film for Little White Lies, Metrograph Edition, Photogénie, The Purchase Phoenix and the Irish Film Critic.
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