All it took for rapper Lil Uzi Vert to make national headlines in late February was a single snide remark. On a visit to New York’s Hot 97, the 22-year-old Philadelphia MC butted heads with cantankerous host Ebro Darden when he refused to freestyle over the beat from Gang Starr’s 1994 song “Mass Appeal.” “He’s making me rap on that?” Lil Uzi Vert asked dismissively. From there, he was drawn into a back-and-forth with the station’s other morning hosts, which served to highlight the generational divide between older hip-hop fans who see DJ Premier’s boom-bap sound as a timeless artifact of rap’s golden age, and younger listeners who don’t have the same connection to the era. The conversation remained civil, but Lil Uzi Vert hammered one point home: “You see me, bro — I’m a rock star. I’m not rapping on that type of stuff.”
Lil Uzi Vert’s star has been on the rise since late last year, when he released his first major-label mixtape, LUV Is Rage, a bold set of bass-heavy trap music (“Top”) and straight-ahead party anthems (“7am”). After a national tour that winter with his peer Playboi Carti, he released Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World, which hit Billboard’s Hot 100 chart with two singles (“Money Longer,” “You Was Right”). His seemingly exponential rise has been abetted by word-of-mouth buzz around his thrilling live shows; much like his peers Travis Scott and Lil Yachty, he makes adrenaline-fueled music perfectly calibrated to make club crowds wild out. Lil Uzi Vert frequently mentions in interviews that he only started rapping a few years ago, and one can hear that distance from the traditional fundamentals of rap in his vocal style: His verses are frantic and fast-paced, but never tight, and they often display the most character when he stops mid-thought to change his mind. (On this year’s “Too Much Sauce,” he brags that his “diamonds shine like Dasani ... mmm, more like Voss.”) At times, he dips into the rapid-fire style that inspired the “Uzi” in his name, calling back to older Philly rappers like Meek Mill and Peedi Crakk. For the most part, though, Lil Uzi Vert values melody and mood over wordplay to an extent that can put him far outside of rap’s historic borders. He’s gushed in interviews about taking inspiration from the shock rocker Marilyn Manson, and earlier this summer, after a split from his partner Brittany Byrd, he uploaded to SoundCloud the melodramatic track “Stole Your Luv,” tagged as “alternative rock.”
Lil Uzi Vert certainly isn’t the first rapper to dub himself a rock star; in many ways, he’s following a pattern set by Kanye West, who in 2013 famously told Zane Lowe, “Rap is the new rock and roll. We are the rock stars.” This choice of words suggests a level of freedom that is not typically available to even the most successful black artists. Even though black men and women started rock and roll, the phrase still connotes whiteness: Rock stars for decades were given the leeway to indulge in the excesses of life sans repercussion. Kanye’s insistence on rap as the new rock is an assertion of rap’s worldwide power, its rightful place as a respected, canonical genre, and its creators’ displacement of white guys with guitars in the cultural hierarchy. Lil Uzi Vert’s insistence on being a “rock star,” not a rap star or a rapper, is similarly a means of charting a new path and identity. The old conversations within rap — debates about the value of lyricism, regional rivalries, disputes over street cred and internet buzz — are uninteresting to the generational wave that he represents. He’d rather look forward into rap’s future than back at its past.
By June, Lil Uzi Vert’s assertions seemed more prescient than ever. In a near-repeat of the earlier Hot 97 incident, Lil Yachty — the Atlanta artist behind this spring’s acclaimed Lil Boat — stumbled through his own prove-yourself freestyle, offering “I’m not a rapper” by way of excuse. When Ebro hit back, asking why he wasn’t taking the exercise seriously, Yachty sheepishly replied that there really isn’t much about rap, as such, that he takes seriously. His friends, his fans, his image, his music — all these things are clearly important to Yachty, based on the rest of the Hot 97 interview. But the art of rapping, the old methodology of proving oneself on the mic, or the existential state of mind involved in that process? Not so much.
For years, rappers have made symbolic pushes away from that title as a way of claiming realness. New York City’s global ambassador, Jay Z, said as much back in 2001 on “Heart of the City”: “I’m not looking at you dudes, I’m looking past you / I thought I told you characters, I’m not a rapper.” During his rise to national prominence circa 2005, Atlanta’s Young Jeezy took a similar tack, preferring to be identified as a trap star rather than a rapper. In both cases, the implication was that they were supreme hustlers, theoretical underworld bosses whose reach extended far outside the recording studio, as opposed to simply being artists telling stories. Still, this new framing imposed new limitations: When authenticity is predicated on toughness, it can be a hard role to shake off, especially when those poses play into the stereotypes of violence that are already connected to black men in America. Those racist connotations remain with rap music, even in 2016, even in the genre’s birthplace. When “rapper” is seen as a synonym for “thug” or worse, there are good reasons beyond genre restraints for a new artist to shy away from that name and search for room to freely develop.
The generational split in rap is perhaps most obvious on social media. It can be argued that the cadre of artists who are being touted as rap’s future can articulate and express their lives with more clarity via Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat than on record. Lil Uzi Vert’s Twitter account is full of videos of him rocking out to his own unreleased music; rising Chicago star Famous Dex, on Snapchat, gives a near minute-by-minute account of his rise in success; Playboi Carti’s Instagram is infrequently updated, but each photo arrives ready to be placed in a fashion lookbook. Music videos once offered stylized glimpses into rappers’ worlds of luxury, but in 2016, smartphone footage of diamonds in the backseat of a car can achieve the same effect. The more off-the-cuff media allows artists space to goof and play around without the artifice or expense of music videos. That’s part of why Travis Scott’s image — all black, always, with gold fronts and a luxurious coat — arguably inspires more mimicry than his actual music. The true aspirational quality of these artists is to try to look like them, feel like them, be them, not just listen to their mp3s.
Live performances by these artists often follow a similar mindset, where technical prowess is far less important than whipping the crowd into a frenzy and feeding off the energy they provide. These aren’t artists who sullenly stalk the stage or flood it with a hundred hangers-on, as rappers of an earlier generation might have. They jump into the crowd, leap across the stage, and do their best to get even sweatier than the kids in the mosh pit. They seem to understand that their fans didn’t buy tickets to see these energy balls spit unmatched rap #bars — they’re here to party. As a result, footage of a Lil Uzi Vert or Travis Scott show often looks similar to a punk show (though not as extreme as one of Lil Uzi Vert’s favorite influences, the controversial rocker GG Allin). You can see Uzi’s fans screaming his words back to him as he parades around the stage, relishing each second. An audience still exists for technically-skilled rappers — J. Cole did go platinum with no features, and Kendrick Lamar is a beloved and respected artist. But there’s clearly another wide world out there for rappers whose primary appeal is about melodies, clothes, and hair. These performances are meant to entertain, rather than impress.
Late last month, Lil Uzi Vert released his newest project, The Perfect LUV Tape — another step in proving how little he cares about how he’s perceived by rap’s gatekeepers. The tape leans heavily on an oddly uniform chiptune style that also recalls contemporary EDM acts like Marshmello and Slushii; the only exceptions are “Money Mitch” and “SideLine Watching (Hold Up),” a pair of tracks produced by legendary trap maestro Zaytoven, and even those retain Lil Uzi Vert’s trademark looseness. The latter’s hook goes “Hold up, hold up, hold up ... let me catch my breath,” as if he is just getting up to speed with what’s happening on the track even as he’s in the middle of recording. Listening to the tape, one is reminded of the moment in his February interview with Ebro when Lil Uzi Vert mentioned that his favorite song on Kanye West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak was the electro-infused “RoboCop,” a deep cut whose ’80s synthpop style remained a path less traveled for Kanye in his later career. The Perfect LUV Tape demonstrates that the younger listeners looking up to him weren’t afraid to pick up West’s baton.
Years after rock’s cultural peak, the idea of the rock star retains a tight grip on the popular imagination. There is a reason that HBO commissioned a prestige drama about a 1970s music executive, not a specific rock star — the allure is more about the idea of rock stars than any one in particular. When Lil Uzi Vert calls himself a rock star, he isn’t necessarily comparing himself to Kurt Cobain or even Prince. He’s using rock and roll to shorthand a world where creative black males can keep pushing boundaries. It’s less about particular musical styles or ways of dressing, and more about shaking free of old rules and hierarchies. While some decry the apparent fact that Lil Uzi Vert doesn’t care about his forefathers, that Kanye is too tied up in fashion meetings to properly finish his album, or that guys like Playboi Carti and Lil Yachty are simply Tumblr mood-board fodder, they should relax. These are signs of genre growth, not stagnation. As Kanye articulated to Zane Lowe in 2013, there is a hard limit to the number of doors that rappers are allowed to open. One cannot escape blackness — nor are these artists trying to — but by adopting a new title for their artistic pursuits, they’re challenging the terms of an unfair deal.