“I’m not a Rapper, I’m a Rock Star” Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion and Hip-Hop’s Malleability

For music journalists, few acts are as appeasing to being documented by the written word as those labeled “indie.” Scan through your local college newspaper and I guarantee you’ll stumble upon at least one article discussing some schmaltzy local band, one with a cult following on campus and plays the town watering hole week after week. For these acts, any publicity is good publicity, and if cutting through the forest of indie music needs a tool, then local news makes for a decent machete.

It’s a give and take relationship; that lowly college writer (I was one not too long ago) can meet, and likely exceed his 600 word quota, and the band/artist gets some more clippings to fill out their media portfolio. It’s a win-win, though more times than not the artist/band in question seems to lean closer to the alt-rock sector of the vast spectrum called “indie.”

This grassroots approach is admirable, and the proliferation of the internet only simplified it. That is, until established artists start claiming whatever genre they feel most attached too.

Of course, genre labeling is a sticky situation. Just hop over to the tags section on Bandcamp and you’ll see a substantial listing of sound-descriptors that you may find unfamiliar. That doesn’t invalidate it being a genre, I mean, who am I to judge the technicality of shoegazing?

However, just as the sports world has embraced advanced metrics to determine how well a player plays, writers and musicians alike are always looking for ways to explain the seemingly inexplicable in the realm of music, despite the free-roaming nature of recorded sound.

Over some 40 years of hip-hop’s existence, rappers have been trying to nail down the exact essence of the sound’s namesake to no avail. Year after year, hip-hop births new sub-genres, splattering them onto the scene as they frantically try to support themselves in an attempt to be nurtured by the watchful eye of mother. At the risk of elongating this messy pregnancy metaphor, hip-hop, as sacred a goddess she is, is a busy mistress, finding inspiration from the likes of jazz and soul as much as she takes from dance and poetry.

Once such influence, rock, has been the subject of much debate within the greater community, as artists like XXXTentacion, Lil Uzi Vert, Vic Mensa and plenty others have taken to subverting the greater “hip-hop” tag in favor for claiming status as rock stars, playing up the trippy, psychedelic motifs not emphasized in the colloquial mainstream.

Young Thug
In both music and fashion Young Thug has blurred the lines of how rappers present themselves.

First and foremost this isn’t a discussion about whether any of these artist are actually rock stars. How you identify yourself isn’t really any business of anyone but the person in question, as fussing over the details leads to limiting one’s worldview and the commission of inequalities like the ban of trans individuals from military service. Instead, I’d much rather this become a dialogue about the possible consequences of rising artists claiming genres in an attempt to separate themselves from the masses.

Three weeks ago, Anthony Fantano of The Needledrop posed his viewers a question, simple in language, but deep in rhetoric. “Have we reached peak trap?” In other words, has the outgrowth of bass-filled, lean-drenched rap music from the American South hit its plateau only for an eventual decline, similar to the boom-bap New York City trend of the 1990s?

An answer to this question considers the recent boom of acts like Lil Yachty, Uzi Vert or Smokepurpp, each having clearly been influenced by the trap style, but deciding to inject their own flair into the United States’ most popular form of music. When XXXTentacion thrashes about on stage, shouting depressive lyrics and inciting violence among his fans, hip-hop “purists” scoff, as this young genre once defined by its coastal variants (East Vs. West, L.A. vs N.Y) is now subject to legions of internet-originating acts that can morph the idea of rapping anything they please. Hell, the transition isn’t even relegated to the rise of “Soundcloud rappers,” as hip-hop icon Lil Wayne attempted a jump to rock stardom beginning with strumming the guitar on his single “Lollipop” in 2008 and his follow-up rock album Rebirth, in 2010.

A brief aside, I grew up in the mid-90s and early 2000s. The first CD I purchased with my own (albeit chore) money was Kanye West’s The College Dropout, followed by 50 Cent’s The Massacre and Rick Ross’ Port of Miami. Each of these offer something different sonically, be it, 50’s clear grimy, NY influence, Kanye’s preference for classic samples or Ross’ radio friendliness. That said, I’ve since branched out, trying to consume any and all styles of hip-hop and other music, though I have a particular fondness for the efforts of Pete Rock, MF Doom, J Dilla, The Alchemist and Statik Selektah. The northeastern (and Dilla’s) penchant for crate-digging and sample-looping is something I find truly fascinating about hip-hop music, though I try to avoid letting it consume my enjoyment of other acts.

Despite these inclinations, the inspiration for this piece was none other than Uzi’s Luv is Rage 2. Meandering through these tracks and reading up on Uzi, like with this article on Stereogum, I began questioning why artists need to genre claim at all. Sure, neatly packing up one’s identity into a fashionable label that can be paraded across the internet makes life simple for fans of said genre. Arguably though, self-claiming a genre, particularly at early stages in an artist’s career, can spell trouble for artists that fail to satisfy the vocal fans and “purists” of those genres.

One of Uzi’s collaborators on his latest tape, Pharrell Williams, is a picturesque example of the value of avoiding genre labels, instead opting for building a creative empire that is universally welcomed and critically acclaimed. In a career that spans three decades, Pharrell has managed collaborations with New Jack Swing groups like Wreckx-n-Effect and Blackstreet, produce for pop acts like Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani, collab with electronic duo Daft Punk, and score a children’s film, all the while maintaining a clear presence in hip-hop with artist like Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and more recently Future and 2 Chainz.

A large key to his success has been this malleability. Sure, success stories like Skateboard P’s are hard to come by, but the ability for him to sneak into seemingly whatever genre he pleases has garnered him fans that can enjoy any portion of his work without calling out his deliveries in other fields.

Ultimately, not everyone can be Pharrell Williams, nor can everyone live the life espoused by the Shop Boyz. When in doubt, artists can always shoot for even bigger goals like taking on deification itself.

What are your thoughts on rappers, or artists in general claiming a specific genre? Let me know at bjohnson@tripleot.com or @bjtripleot on Twitter.

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