How Lil Uzi Vert Became an Unlikely Superstar of the Streaming Era

12 minute read

The current top hip-hop artist in the world idolizes Marilyn Manson and Hayley Williams, has Super Mario and anime tattoos, wears women’s clothing and stands at a proud 5’5″.

Lil Uzi Vert, the 25-year-old self-professed rock star from Philadelphia, has rejected convention at every step of his young career. He makes strange genre-fluid music, releases albums on a haphazard basis and openly feuds with labels, journalists and other artists who have tried to corral him. But while fighting back against establishment forces has sidetracked the careers of many would-be superstars, Lil Uzi has somehow only grown in influence and stature.

And he’s currently hitting his highest peak yet: midway through March, his highly anticipated and oft-delayed second studio album Eternal Atake debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and racked up a jaw-dropping 400 million streams, claiming the fourth largest streaming week ever. Its second week wasn’t much different: a deluxe version of the album debuted at number one, with all 22 songs hitting the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously. This week, Chance the Rapper took to Instagram to dance to Uzi’s #6 hit “Baby Pluto” and scream, “UZI!”

How did such an alienating and iconoclastic figure ascend to the top of the pop music world? In a post-genre, streaming-dominated landscape, Lil Uzi has become the perfect avatar for the many changes happening in the music industry—and his creative choices have shifted many norms around genre, masculinity, and stardom. “He was one of the first young artists in the last half-decade to look at his creative output overall: how he was releasing, distributing, and presenting the music; the videos he was shooting, the way he was approaching his live shows,” Zane Lowe, a DJ and the Global Creative Director of Apple Music, says. “In the future, you’ll be able to see a lot of trends, attitudes and openness influenced by him—but he will always be ahead of that.”

In the wake of Eternal Atake’s release, several industry insiders and collaborators weighed in on how Lil Uzi has ascended to such rarefied air.

The Soundcloud Generation

In the mid-2010s, Lil Uzi began his rise on Soundcloud alongside a generation of young hip-hop artists weaponizing the uninhibited ethos and reach of the platform. While many of these rappers, from Lil Pump to Lil Yachty, found widespread success, Lil Uzi might best epitomize the spirit of SoundCloud, using the freedom of the Internet to stay true to his artistic vision.

His sound, which draws on the influences of emo and punk as much as it does Atlanta trap and Chicago drill, could have been pigeonholed and watered down into a singular hip-hop category if he had started his career at a conventional record label. But Uzi’s emergence on Soundcloud allowed him to not only make the kind of genre-defying music he dreamed of, but to garner a huge fanbase that’s alarmingly robust across multiple categories (he was named SoundCloud’s “Most Followed Artist” in 2016, just two years after he uploaded his first track to the platform).

As Uzi made the move from Soundcloud to signing with a record label, his faithful following enabled him to stick to his creative guns. Many listeners heard him for the first time on the number one Migos hit “Bad and Boujee” in 2016, for which he wore a Marilyn Manson shirt in the song’s video and opened his verse by repeating “yeah” over and over euphorically. While an older generation disparaged his seeming lack of lyrical content, a younger fanbase reveled in its absurdity; a version of the song in which Lil Uzi only says “yeah” for 5 minutes has racked up 5 million views on YouTube.

Six months later, Lil Uzi released “XO Tour Llif3,” which would go on to accrue a billion streams and become one of the strangest and most despondent songs to become a major hit over the last three years. The song is barely a rap song at all: instead, Uzi sings in an emo-influenced nasal whine. This rap-emo crossover would spread and become commonplace over the next year, with artists like XXXTentacion, Juice WRLD and Lil Peep all going mainstream.

“I feel like he’s hit on our platform like no other artist because he’s always setting the tone instead of always being a part of something that’s going on,” Lisa Ellis, the Global Head of Music, Artist Relations, and Label Services at SoundCloud tells TIME. “It’s obvious that he’s genre-agnostic and that he’s influenced by a ton of different things; he is making a path and he’s not fitting into something that’s going on.”

New Pathways to Success

Lil Uzi’s uncompromising force of personality extends far beyond his music. For many, his strong sense of personal style—an edgy but joyful aesthetic that brings to mind Avril Lavigne, an anime character, and a hypebeast—are as much a marker of his artistry as his spacey, complex music. On any given day, at a concert or on Instagram, fans can find Uzi popping off designer fits straight from the Chanel women’s runway show or a full Louis Vuitton look designed by friend and collaborator Virgil Abloh.

While he’s a big fan of high fashion, Uzi’s fashion taste is not as motivated by showing off the clothing of the moment as it is by a pure and unadulterated joy in dressing up in something that makes him look and feel good. While wearing brightly-colored clothing tailored for female bodies, he preens and struts, melding his bravado-filled rap bars with rejections of gender norms. “My pants they so tight, don’t know if they’re for her or him,” he rapped on recent release “Lotus.”

“His willingness to don clothing in an androgynous or gender-fluid aesthetic really kind of encapsulates where hip-hop was when he came out,” cultural critic Taylor Crumpton says, pointing to peers like Young Thug and Playboi Carti, who also favor wearing traditionally feminine apparel like skirts and dresses. “Uzi has this almost childlike joy, this kind of sensation of being happy and excited and giddy…his aura and confidence is not coming from a place of extravagance, but he’ll have an entire Balenciaga or Prada fit to go to the bodega and buy a beef jerky and ride an ATV. He moves with ease in a lot of industries where people have impostor syndrome or feel the need to be really over-the-top.”

Fashion historian Shelby Ivey Christie makes the case that Uzi’s personal style continues in the legacy of musicians like Little Richard, Bootsie Collins, Prince, Busta Rhymes and Andre 3000 when it comes to redefining the aesthetics of black masculinity.

“In the black music landscape, Uzi has promoted a more fluid style in the traditionally hyper-masculine rap profession,” she tells TIME, noting that the black and brown LGBTQ community has long been fluid in their personal fashion. “Fashion seems to be a huge piece of who he is and something that he enjoys, so that comes through in his lyrics. He often takes shots at styles he doesn’t care for as well which exposes that he’s abreast of style trends and keeps up with the fashion landscape.”

When internet rappers are subsumed by the major label system, they are expected to play by certain rules, like sitting agreeably for a stream of magazine interviews, radio appearances and photoshoots. From very early on, Lil Uzi made it clear how much he chafed at this part of the job. He sparred with New York rap radio paterfamilias Ebro and showed up five hours late for his XXL Freshmen of the Year cover shoot; over the last few years, he’s barely done any interviews at all.

But Lil Uzi has been able to circumnavigate these structures by engaging directly with his fans. He frequently pops up on Instagram live while riding dirt bikes, doing jumping jacks or hanging out in the studio; he revels in dance challenges and plays along energetically when fans approach him with cameras on the street.

The response online has been staggering: the #LilUziVertChallenge, in 2017, and the Futsal Shuffle challenge, from December, both went outrageously viral; videos hashtagged #eternalatake have racked up more than 107 million views on TikTok. This week, Uzi returned to Philadelphia, where he hung out on a street corner and met incredulous fans.

“He moves in places that get the most attention from his audience, and does so in a way that feels very real and upfront and straight,” Lowe says. “You feel like you’re experiencing whatever he’s experiencing at any given moment.”

As Uzi gleefully moves through the real world, he’s also become the perfect fit for the rapidly growing streaming era, where a younger generation of listeners shift fluidly between genres. On Spotify, various new Lil Uzi songs can be found across a spectrum of playlists, from Pop Rising (for “That Way”) to Hot Rhythmic (for “I’m Sorry”) to Get Turnt (“Got the Guap”). Of course, he went straight to the top of Rap Caviar, Spotify’s premiere hip-hop destination, last week, as well. “It was a no-brainer for him to be on the cover of the playlist,” Carl Chery, the head of urban music at Spotify, says. “And what I’m seeing on the backend validates that choice, by the way fans are responding to it.”

“A Perfect Storm”

Eternal Atake has been a long time in the making. In 2018, Uzi began to publicly snipe at his label, Generation Now, hinting that they wouldn’t let him release it. He briefly retired, fell out with two former compatriots (Rich the Kid and Playboy Carti) and mostly disappeared as another rap generation rose to try to take his place.

To win back his popularity, Uzi could have followed the playbook of most rappers in the streaming era: by releasing an unending string of singles by high-profile producers, featuring famous rappers and tailored to go viral. Instead, Uzi took his time with Eternal Atake—nearly four years—in creating a concept album made to be listened to in its entirety. Eternal Atake boasts 18 tracks (the deluxe edition has 32) and is propelled by a narrative that features Uzi’s three different alter egos appearing in turn; its only feature is the indie R&B singer Syd, and most of the production is done by the Philadelphia collective Working on Dying, who he’s relied upon for years.

Bugz Ronin, a producer from Pennsylvania, met Lil Uzi in 2015. He’s been recording frequently with Uzi since then, and five songs he worked on ended up on Eternal Atake, including “Baby Pluto,” “Homecoming” and “Lo Mein.” Ronin says that Uzi often takes an unusual approach to his music: he often doesn’t hear what he’s going to rap over until he’s about to record. “He’s very in the moment,” Ronin says. “Most of the time I wait until he’s in the booth to play a beat on his headphones, so the ideas are fresh.”

Ronin’s favorite song of the album is “Homecoming,” in which Uzi raps frantically over a seizing trap beat. When Ronin started to make the beat in the studio, he assumed Uzi was just on his phone; instead, he was writing the whole song. “Homecoming” was done in a little over an hour. “It happened so fast—it was such a high,” Ronin says. “I don’t think he’s from here.”

At the end of “Homecoming,” a skit emerges in which Uzi attempts to eject himself from an extraterrestrial prison. While the concept perhaps seems too strange for mass consumption, Eternal Atake landed the biggest streaming week since 2018, when Lil Wayne released Tha Carter V. The album was also met with glowing reviews: “It’s a seamless blend of drill-influenced rapping, melodic crooning, and beats that are aware of hip-hop’s trends, but stretch them to places unimaginable,” Alphonse Pierre wrote in his Pitchfork review.

Keith Caulfield, the senior director of charts at Billboard, says that Eternal Atake’s astonishing success was fueled both by Uzi’s singular creative vision and a range of industry factors. “Part of it was we’ve waited so long. Part of it is streaming has become so enormous. Part of it is that hip-hop dominates streaming,” he says. “It’s the perfect storm.”

Lil Uzi’s success shows the shifting of many power balances—from album sales to streaming, from executive control to artist control, from rigid genre boundaries to a fluid free-for-all. Ellis noted that Uzi’s refusal to compromise his strong sense of self for convention or a trend is apparent when it comes to his personal style and the visual concepts for his work, going so far as to compare him to artists like Kanye West and Pharrell, whose creative endeavors span multiple channels.

“He has staying power and such a multitude of talents,” she says. “You could see him going into visual arts, you could see him going into fashion, you could see him going into museum curation. He’s not a Soundcloud rapper—he’s just in Uzi land.”

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