Who’s the biggest rap act from Philadelphia?
Has to be Meek Mill, right? The North Philly rapper is riding high since getting out of prison in April. He just released an acclaimed album, Championships, and hip-hop royalty like Drake, Cardi B, and Jay-Z lined up to be on it.
Or maybe it’s the Roots, the respected Philly collective with their own festival on Penn’s Landing annually, who hold forth nightly as house band on The Tonight Show. Everybody loves Questlove, right?
Sorry, but if we’re going by the chief metric of how the music industry measures popularity in the digital age — the number of times an artist’s songs have been played on Spotify, the dominant streaming service — those are wrong answers.
The right one is Lil Uzi Vert, the 24-year-old emo-rap rock star born Symere Woods, who headlines at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday with unnamed guests.
Lil Uzi’s name is on two of the most unavoidable — and irresistible — pop hits of the last two years. Early in 2017, he was featured guest on “Bad and Boujee,” the viral earworm by the Atlanta trio Migos that has been streamed over 500 million times. That’s six times more than “Dreams and Nightmares,” Mill’s signature song.
But “Bad and Boujee,” in which Lil Uzi boasts of his vast riches and epicurean lifestyle — “Countin’ that paper like loose leaf / Gettin’ that chicken with blue cheese” — is not his biggest hit, by a long shot.
That would be “XO Tour Llif3,” the despondent yet catchy song from his chart-topping 2017 album, Luv Is Rage 2; the hook repeats the anxiety-ridden words “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead.”
“XO” was one of the best songs of 2017, and a most popular one: Thus far, it has been Spotify-streamed 929 million times, ranking 27th on the all-time list, just behind Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.” (Who tops the list, you’re wondering? Of course it’s Ed Sheeran, with “Shape of You” at 1.9 billion.)
Lil Uzi is one of the avatars of emo-rap, a breakout star of the hip-hop iteration that emphasizes melody and moodiness over old-school virtues like skillfully articulated wordplay.
Known for face tattoos — Uzi’s got the word Faith on his forehead — and sometimes mocked as “mumble rap,” acts like Uzi, Lil Xan, Juice Wrld, and the late Lil Peep, who died last year of a fentanyl and Xanax overdose, are also often labeled “Soundcloud rap,” after the streaming platform where many first uploaded their music and built an audience.
Emo-rappers are as likely to identify with tragic rockers like Kurt Cobain as tragic rappers like Notorious B.I.G. Bragging about sexual conquests and material possessions is still de rigueur. “New Patek,” the Lil Uzi song released earlier this year as fans await his album Eternal Atake, is about acquiring the super-expensive Swiss watch that has replaced Rolex as preferred wrist jewelry among conspicuously consuming rappers.
But Uzi builds a bond with fans by admitting the spoils of stardom aren’t truly fulfilling. With mainstream inspiration from Kanye West’s bummed-out and Auto-Tuned 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, and Drake’s sensitive 2011 Take Care, emo-rappers don’t shy away from their feelings.
Teen angst is in their wheelhouse, vulnerability not something to be afraid of. On his posthumous album Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, Lil Peep, whose face was tattooed with the words Cry Baby, sang: “I hate everybody in my hometown, I want to burn my high school into the ground.”
Lil Uzi, who grew up in the Francisville section of North Philadelphia, hails from a city with a proud tradition of emo rock, with bands like Modern Baseball, the Wonder Years, and Algernon Cadwallader.
The sad-boy trick that Uzi effectively pulls off is to bring the heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness that comes naturally to emo-rock bands in his hometown to a wide hip-hop audience on songs like “Malfunction” — where he raps about how “no one wants to die alone.”
Emo-rap can be lethargic, with slurred vocals and a sluggish pace. Lil Uzi sometimes operates in that realm but often kicks it into a higher gear. His 2017 single “The Way Life Goes,” from Luv Is Rage 2, has a slowed-down chorus that could not be more cry-on-my-shoulder comforting: “I know it hurts sometimes, but you’ll get over it / You’ll find another life to live.”
A remix of that song featured a guest rap from Nicki Minaj, and Uzi returned the favor this summer when he dropped in on her set at the Made in America festival. Minaj’s show was otherwise tepid, but Uzi’s appearance electrified the crowd, snapping the Ben Franklin Parkway audience to attention just as he had two years earlier when he played a frenetic, attention-getting early-afternoon set on the fest’s Rocky stage and served notice that a new hip-hop star was being born in Philadelphia.
Uzi is a manic, unrelenting-energy live performer. The rapper who named himself after an Israeli submachine gun due to the rapid-fire delivery he sometimes employs, will not be boring at the Wells Fargo Center. As a showman, Uzi flirts with danger, in stage-diving, punk-rock style. He calls himself a rock star, not a rap star. But when he’s running shirtless through festival crowds inspiring headlines like "Lil Uzi Vert risks it all and leaps 20 feet into the audience,” he can seem more like a track and field star.
That wildcat spirit has built him a young base of fans tired of underwhelming hip-hop showmanship. In 2016, The Fader published a story called: “8 Lil Uzi Vert Fans On Why Older Listeners Don’t Understand His Music.”
Some geezers do, however. Pop artist Jeff Koons calls Uzi “brilliant” and told the Guardian he often lifts weights listening to Uzi. And Uzi’s artistic hero Marilyn Manson, whom the rapper refers to as “the pale emperor” and with whom he’s collaborating on Eternal Atake, has praised Uzi as a fellow transgressor. “You can’t fake real,” Manson has said about Uzi. “I think he has punk rock in him. He’s a little crazy ... smart. ... He has an attitude like I did and I like that about him.”