clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Lil Uzi Vert vs. the Universe

The rapper’s excellent second album is focused on galactic concerns, but he’s conquering the planet he exists on

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week, Micah Peters surveys the world of music—from new releases to bubbling trends to anniversaries both big and obscure—and gives a few recommendations.

When you script a story, the first thing to establish is what your protagonist wants. In The Way Back, Jack Cunningham is a washed-up, never-actually-was who wants a second chance at glory, and perhaps life. Ralph Anderson wants to catch the melty-face guy in The Outsider, but can’t do so without assimilating the supernatural into his worldview. Rocky can’t sing or dance, so he wants to fight. Kim Possible wants to save the world. Ash Ketchum wants to be the very best.

It isn’t immediately clear what some of the most compelling protagonists want, or even if they want—Meursault from The Stranger, Mad Max, Lil Uzi Vert. They have no apparent motivations; they do things, but there’s barely an organizing principle to their actions. Meursault gets engaged to Marie and kills “the Arab” with similar indifference. Max Rockatansky risks his life over and over again for strange people he seems to care little for. Lil Uzi never spends less than $10,000 on a trip to the mall, but gets “dressed in the dark.”

The Philadelphia rapper’s new album, Eternal Atake, is arriviste rap as self-exploration. Or self-exploration as arriviste rap. In the past four years, Uzi’s profile has risen from SoundCloud obsession to double-platinum artist, to surprisingly versatile meme, to Twitter Moment–generating A-lister. Having been a stock person at a Bottom Dollar store fairly recently, he can now spend tens of thousands by accident just by leaving the house (“spent a hundred thousand right at the Beverly” he raps, on “Silly Watch”). The past two years of Uzi’s career, however, have been defined by frustrated progress—a protracted label dispute with Generation Now that nearly led to his retirement; scores of studio leaks; an ever-retreating release date for his sophomore album, making “What is Uzi up to?” an increasingly urgent question. The long-awaited Atake finally arrived a week ahead of schedule this past Friday, and it turns out the answer is retail therapy. “Pop” arrives about 10 minutes into Atake, and on that song Uzi screams “BALENCI” directly through his nose, as if trying to exorcise something. And then he screams it 15 more times.

Uzi’s rapping is the most impressive part of Atake. He’s garnered a reputation for funneling his zany hedonism through pop-adjacent songs, yet it seems as if he recorded “Pop” directly after watching G Herbo’s “Who Run It” freestyle, with bars as his only goal. In fact, Uzi has never rapped with so much skill and spite, save for when “Free Uzi” made its way online: His rampant train of thought sprung off the last word of each goofy boast and hit the next one running, the electro-midi beat whirred on and on, and the song faded out instead of ending definitively, so you could imagine Uzi went on rapping forever. My colleague Justin Charity described Kendrick Lamar’s rapping on Damn. as “athletic” and it is, but “Duckworth.” for instance, is athleticism sharpened by exhaustive drilling and practice. The “athleticism” on Atake is raw and gleeful and unfocused, like someone hoisting half-court hook shots and throwing alley-oops to themselves after a pickup game because they’re not tired yet.

The sound of Atake can echo this feeling of whimsy, specifically on “Celebration Station,” one of nine tracks produced by Philly production crew Working on Dying. The pre-chorus spins and twirls and brings you within inches of the railing, then the production thins out to one bouncing synth, yanking you back in for this staccato run:

Stackin’ this paper, you know that I get it up
I can’t be broke again
Talkin’ that shit, then that glocky gon’ hit it up
Headshot soak his mans

Working on Dying contributes to the album’s grimmer corners, as well, flipping a sound bite from the old Windows game Full Tilt! Pinball into the window-shattering “You Better Move.”

Atake follows a loose concept that touches on all the sci-fi buzzwords: aliens, abductions, spaceships. If you set aside bonus tracks “That Way” and “Futsal Shuffle 2020,” which we’ve already heard, there are 16 songs divided into three sections, each belonging to one of Uzi’s alter egos. Baby Pluto raps the best, usually about expensive cars, driving them over the speed limit, and sex without kissing. He has the first six songs. Renji is the sweet, affable Shonen Jump character who just wants everyone to get along—he apologizes, he wails about rejection, he still spends a bag at Bergdorfs, but it’s a small bag. The last is Lil Uzi Vert, who reconciles the other two alter egos, and concludes the album. “P2” comes just before the bonus tracks and serves as a sequel to “XO Tour Llife Part3”—three years have mellowed Uzi out about the demise of a fictional relationship. He borrows his own now-iconic melody and flips it into: “Everything I said, messing with your head.” After establishing that he no longer wants his lost lover back, he catalogues the things he has: a green Richard Mille, the pink slip to his car, “a whole ‘nother check.” But he doesn’t seem all that jazzed about any of it—he has everything, but like any compelling character, it’s as tough as ever to figure out what Uzi wants.

And that lends itself to the kind of unpredictability that begets magnetism and staying power. Everything about Uzi—his foreshortened interviews, unexplainable Instagram updates, good Lord, his outfits—contributes to his intrigue. Competing for his attention at any given time is some paramour, luxury purchase, or early 2000s top 40 song, moving our collective understanding of him nowhere. Maybe he just wants to dance. Maybe he just wants to buy clothes and chase women. Maybe he has designs on becoming the biggest pop star in the world. It could be all of these. It could be none of them. Either way, Eternal Atake Part 2 is on the way this Friday.

Now for some recommendations:

“Myron,” Lil Uzi Vert

A fun thing that happened while anguished Twitter users and IG Live comment section dwellers cried out for new music from Uzi was that he kept uploading footage of himself dancing. Three years passed between Uzi’s last LP and Eternal Atake, a hiatus that felt like an eternity to a rap fan, but still—it’s three years, not 12. Capturing his own footwork to forthcoming music was a fun way to plead for patience, and build hype.

All that said, I know I just got 18 new Uzi songs, and I’m grateful. But I need this one.

“Captain Hook,” Megan Thee Stallion

2018’s Tina Snow was an introduction to Megan Thee Stallion’s brasher, more aggressive alter ego, and last Friday’s Suga EP is a nine-song introduction to the Houston rapper’s “sensitive” side. The clearest distillation of this theme may be on “Crying in the Car,” where she sings about going hard in the face of financial and emotional hardship over a gospel-sampling Neptunes beat. “Captain Hook” is what you’ve come to expect from Megan, like vigorous and detailed rapping about what she needs in the bedroom—you gotta “find the clit with no navigation.”

For the record, the title “Captain Hook” references the curvature of a dick, not the villain from Peter Pan.

“Skybox,” Gunna

It has been an exceptionally good week for Epcot Center rap, a genre I just came up with. Criteria: giant, spacious production, chittering synths, thooming bass, overall arcade-y feel.