MusicWeekend

Reveling in the Beauty of Emo-Rap

Critics overstate the extent to which Uzi and other new rappers have absorbed the influence of emo, which lately seems to have become a buzzword for vulnerability and interiority.

“Got a colorful aura/like I got neon guts,” sings Lil Uzi Vert on his debut album, Luv Is Rage 2, out since August. The simile fits: flashy, fidgety, hyperactive, Luv Is Rage 2 inhabits a childishly exuberant Day-Glo aesthetic that glimmers. Uzi’s Auto-Tuned squeal matches the glassy electronics to produce a music of synthetic highs and sharp contrasts, sweet jitter and melodic burble, Fruit Loops and chemical residue. Rappers usually hit this pitch of surreal intensity on individual singles, or intermittently over the course of a mixtape. It’s weird and arresting to hear the mode sustained over an album’s length.

Through a series of increasingly eccentric mixtapes, Uzi surfaced last year as an exemplar of so-called SoundCloud rap, embodying the splotchy intensity, warped trap hooks, tuneful ache, and strategically deployed lo-fi distortion characteristic of rappers using that particular online distribution platform. “Erase Your Social,” which saturated hip-hop radio last winter, typifies his style. Uzi’s friendly chatter, going round and round in a never-ending melodic spiral, adorns clattery metallic percussion and a shiny hypnotic electroloop, at once mechanical and achingly pretty. The song sounds more repetitive than it actually is, given Uzi’s rapid-fire delivery, stringing together a long succession of similar polysyllabic rhymes and swallowing the consonants, constantly shifting, as in, “Cash on me”/“napped on me”/“snapchats on me.”

His guest verse on Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” confirmed his ascendance: after four minutes of pleasing, comically timed back-and-forth between Offset and Quavo — more conventional rappers despite their signature ad-lib cross-dialogue — Uzi rasps out a squeaky groan, complete with emphatic yeah!’s, as skewed rhythmically as they are parched vocally. The slow, slinky, irresistible “Bad and Boujee” would have been a hit without him, but Uzi’s wacky, dehydrated verse, either the year’s best or worst depending on who you ask, made him notorious. Suddenly, his kaleidoscopic synthesis of croak and melody was a new rap archetype. Luv Is Rage 2 squeezes this synthesis into as coherent a shape as will receive it. Sleek, upbeat, hooky, dizzily gaudy confections result.

“XO Tour Llif3,” the album’s lead single and Uzi’s biggest hit so far, swerves to life over rattling snare drums, spiky, plinky electronic shimmer, and translucent keyboard stabs reverberating jauntily around the beat. Uzi raps quickly and nervously, starting in his lower register before abruptly jumping up to an Auto-Tuned cry halfway through, warbling as ebulliently as one can while wailing a chorus that starts “I don’t really care if you cry” and ends with “Push me to the edge/all my friends are dead.” It’s a startling refrain for what’s superficially a party song, and indeed, there’s a pensive air about the whole album superficially concealed by the polish.

Critics overstate the extent to which Uzi and other new rappers have absorbed the influence of emo, which lately seems to have become a buzzword for vulnerability and interiority. To my ears, the only SoundCloud rapper who earns the emo comparison is XXXTentacion, whose creepy, dull, acoustic laments could scare anyone off an emo-rap hybrid. Nonetheless, the advent of Auto-Tune in hip-hop has opened an oddly confessional space. Vocal gloss provides a foil for interiority, reflecting and amplifying whatever emotion happens to be there; it’s as if the ability to croon feelgood major-key melodies as beautifully and synthetically as one’s favorite R&B singers coaxes from rappers an exuberant, receptive emotionality suddenly enabled by form and technology. Uzi joins an honorable lineage of rappers using the instrument as neither a pro forma pop device nor an alienation effect, conveying soul death, but simply because it’s gorgeous. His delivery, keeningly high when he daubs on the Auto-Tune, occasionally lower and more natural when he’s straightforwardly rapping, glows with wistful cheer, creating a bizarre and welcome mood. The beats, themselves consisting of reflective surfaces, mirror him, twitch for twitch, bounce for bounce, jolt for jolt, excessively sugary as a conscious aesthetic strategy.

Luv Is Rage 2 opens with a lustrous synthesizer effect that resembles an electronic accordion, blowing and vibrating as Uzi gurgles a breezy melody, whose harmonic signature intermittently repeats throughout the record. Hereafter begins a competition between Uzi and the spiraling keyboards to see who can out-chatter the other. “444+222” deploys a jumpy, syncopated drum machine that keeps starting and stopping, leaving Uzi’s vocals to float around small sonic echo chambers for brief moments before coming in again. “How to Talk” glides over smooth electronic waves while an increasingly perky Uzi utters various romantic stipulations in rapid, garbled spurts, tying the melody and the words to his own jittery sense of rhythm.

Elsewhere, his confessional moments ache: “The Way Life Goes” — a midtempo ballad that reassures the heartbroken, “I know it hurts sometimes but you’ll get over it/you’ll find another life to live” — saunters genially to a tune whose deliberate major-key simulations of care and concern add sweetness to the wobbly synthesizer underneath. “Feelings Mutual” strings a steady drum preset to a moderately dinky keyboard, bleeping irregularly at an increasing pace and aligning with the beat in tricky patterns, all the better to offset Uzi’s declaration that “I can’t feel/my body’s numb/it’s because I’m so hurt.” The much-vaunted contradiction between rap and vulnerability is a facile one — genre and mood are not opposites — but Uzi’s feelsy songs confound; even when he’s sad, he’s irrepressible.

That’s Luv Is Rage 2’s secret. While zigzagging between several extremes, the album is unified by a prevailing mood, with concrete musical correlatives, an openhearted goofiness reflected in Uzi’s pitch-corrected babble and the gushy, slithery, hard-candy beats. Ping-ponging off digital walls, whooshing through vacuums of electronically treated air, trickling through a textural squishiness that complements the sharpness of Uzi’s vocals, the music defines a caffeinated, sugar-drenched spirit of play that never wears out. Whether cheer proceeds from musical form or vice versa is irrelevant to a performer this excitable, this eagerly distracted by each new hook and each fresh click of the drum machine.

Luv Is Rage 2 sparkles, radiating energy imbued with color and light. For SoundCloud rap, the album’s quite polished, and despite the globs of distortion floating through the mix, the beats and Auto-Tune click together into a bright, smooth, scintillating musical surface. By album’s end, Uzi’s excitement has congealed into a daze, albeit a joyful daze, and one wonders if staring at the sun too long is one reason he’s so thrilled. Yelping, crooning, adjusting the glitter in his voice to the glitter of the beat, he’s the rare artist whose creative urge is to revel in beauty.

Luv is the Rage 2 (2017) is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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