By Salvatore DiGioia | Photo by Billboard
Everybody knows the story of “XO Tour Llif3,” the oddball single from new-wave leader Lil Uzi Vert that unexpectedly turned into one the year’s biggest pop successes. As legend goes, Uzi impulsively released the song after losing a cell phone that contained his next album during a stage dive and, despite its difficult name (which pays homage to The Weeknd) and lacking of proper cover art, it immediately spiraled towards viral sensationalism, peaking at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100. Less talked about, however, are the three other tracks that Uzi released in that same spur of the moment — “LUV SCARS k.o. 16000,” “boring shit,” and “YSL.” Each of anthemic potential in its own regard, these Soundcloud hits capture Uzi in an alternative mode, one that appears to be his most natural. Still melodically whining, floating atop big drums and keys, he is more boisterous than goth boy rockstar. That’s the Lil Uzi Vert we knew before “XO Tour Llif3.”
Unique for its cerebral blending of Xanax-fueled melancholy and upbeat trap rhythm, “XO Tour Llif3” has become the centerpiece of Lil Uzi Vert’s often-told narrative, its gothic flair going on to underscore his entire 2018 release, Luv Is Rage 2. In wake of the song’s success, he was crowned by critics — perhaps even overly-accredited — as a kingpin of the ever-emerging emo-trap scene, a sub-genre more commonly affiliated with Lil Peep or Xxxtentacion. Just this week, Carrie Battan — covering a Lil Xan show for the New Yorker — called Uzi a “stepfather of the movement” and cited “XO” as a principal precursor to Lil Xan’s own depressed hit, “Betrayed.” While such comparisons surely helped guide Luv Is Rage 2 to Billboard’s number one spot in its debut week, at this point, they compliment Lil Xan far more than his “stepfather.” In fact, writers’ continued reliance on “XO Tour Llif3” to associate Lil Uzi Vert with the resurgence of emo’s soundscape ignores a vast sum of his discography and pigeonholes him into a certain persona, one which truthfully is not his best.
“So much water on my name, I need a boat or something,” raps a nonsensical Lil Uzi Vert on the chorus of “LUV SCARS k.o. 16000.” It’s not so much his insightful lyrics that make the song great, but the addictively cartoonish groan through which he declares that his “physique” is “flooooooded” with diamonds. “boring shit” is slightly more thematic, wherein he toasts to abnormality over an oddly soulful beat, as is “YSL,” on which success is celebrated over massive, rattling drums. Taken together with “XO Tour Llif3,” the songs make up Luv Is Rage 1.5, a place-holder EP that many hoped would be a sonic preview of the upcoming LP. But that was before “XO” exploded, before Uzi took the public’s interest in it to heart and went full 666 while re-recording Luv Is Rage 2 (remember, its original version was lost with his cell phone). By then, Uzi’s playful, otherworldly vibe had apparently been martyred on behalf of his demonic aesthetic. Marilyn Manson became the only subject on his interviewers’ agendas. Nobody cared about the three other songs on which he hardly seemed sad.
“Mood,” a new single by Lil Uzi Vert and producers TM88, Southside and Supah Mario that released on Friday, seems destined to reopen this conversation and make many who initially claimed “emo” re-consider. Sounding upbeat and at ease, Uzi sings on it over whiny synthesizers (similar to those on Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World) and proves more concerned with flexing on his haters (“All these diamonds on me, I don’t feel no pressure / Money coming in like I am an investor”) than delving into his satanic shtick. In fact, the song — which is Uzi’s first release since adding four bonus tracks to Luv Is Rage 2 — sounds more inspired by an inner diva than any of his frequently-cited heavy metal idols. Its bad and bourgeois flair, natural in a post-Rihanna pop climate, is especially apparent on the hook, during which Uzi complains, “Fuck these n*ggas ‘cause they always doing extra” before reaching for the hilariously simple conclusion, “When I’m in my car, wooooh!” The track is bubblegum simple — hardly deserving of its artist’s emo subtext. It’s also Uzi’s best song since March.
To be clear, happy-go-lucky Lil Uzi was not entirely absent from Luv Is Rage 2. “Sauce It Up,” “The Way Life Goes,” “Neon Guts (ft. Pharrell)” and “X” are all mostly positive, some of them even otherworldly. Yet, their accompanying baggage, much of which still comes across as vaguely inspired tantrum (“No Sleep Leak,” “Early 20 Rager,” etc.) managed to overshadow Uzi's more amicable side. For this reason, some fans expressed disappointment in Luv Is Rage 2, enough for Uzi to feel a need to do damage control by tweeting: “It a grow on ya … just like the first one did.” If it didn’t, you’d clearly be expected to move on to another “rockstar.” Or, at least, stick around for “20 Mins,” the singsongy bonus track that’d shortly be added to the album, outshining much of its content.
But now… Now we have “Mood,” a song which, despite being masterminded by a few of the same hands as “XO Tour Llif3,” threatens to undo the latter’s eerily gray legacy. On “Mood,” Lil Uzi Vert returns to his cartoonish utopia, boasting about money, jewelry, cars and women, as any other rapper might, but doing so with a giddy, innocent excitement that makes listeners forget he’s being materialistic. In wake of the song’s release, I’ve seen only praise, both for its ad-libs and returning to a classic Lil Uzi Vert sound. No one is surprised or upset that its artist isn’t mumble-whispering about suicide because no one ever truly believed he was emo.