Hip-hop newbies are going off trail

Posted: September 12, 2017 at 1:48 a.m.

Lil Uzi Vert performed at the MTV Awards on Aug. 27; his new album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard.

Listen to hip-hop in 2017 and hear the darnedest things. There are rappers who rap in only occasional, seemingly random bursts. There are rappers who mainline the aesthetic and vibrating energy of punk. And there are surrealists who stretch out words and melodies like taffy.

The genre is arriving at its Dali phase, when all the old frameworks -- formalist lyricism, soul music DNA, mainstream pop ambition -- are melting into something only half-recognizable.

It all makes for a funhouse take on the genre. Its current ringleader is Lil Uzi Vert, whose new album, Luv Is Rage 2, comes on the heels of his breakout hit "XO Tour Llif3," a bitter and cheeky song about recrimination that's part punchy rap, part dreamy R&B and part melodic hard core. The song went from a post on SoundCloud to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.

As much as any album -- some of Young Thug's surrealist mix tapes and albums come closest -- Luv Is Rage 2, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard last week, encapsulates the moment: chaotic and slippery. Lil Uzi Vert, 23, is an intensely charismatic and unpredictable presence. One minute he is sweetly singing; the next, bleating; then he is rapping in tightly clustered sneezes. As structures go, he is lackadaisical. He raps and sings with the confidence of someone who knows that generations before him have made the rules, and also played by them, freeing him up to ignore them altogether.

In places, he is something close to a conventional rapper -- on "Dark Queen," about his mother, and "For Real" -- but he is just as likely to embody screamo and emo, spiritualized funk or abstract, pointillist pop. When he raps, he's almost gruff, but when he sings, he's sweet, whimsical, dreamy.

He is also petulant. Some of Lil Uzi Vert's most vivid breakthrough moments haven't been songs, they have been tiny bursts of attitude and sass: his tantalizing string of anti-interviews and gifs that telegraph his carefree energy.

Accordingly, his most urgent lyrics are about the depth of his indifference, and on this album, large swaths of which are about the collapse of a relationship ("X"), there is plenty of that. On the sparkly "How to Talk," he's breezy and snooty.

Broadly, though, his songwriting here is less specific than ever: He loves fashion, loves Ferraris, loves your girl. To call Luv Is Rage 2 inconsistent is the sort of critique that this album (and Lil Uzi Vert in general) seems to sneer at -- that it can still thrive even at its most casual is its charm.

But inconsistent it is. Few songs here achieve the structural elegance of "XO Tour Llif3." It's almost jarring when the Weeknd shows up on the excellent "Unfazed," a creamy, dirge-like collaboration. The only other collaboration on the album better represents the current moment: "Neon Guts" is produced by and features Pharrell Williams, perhaps the most rigorous presence in hip-hop of the 2000s. But around Lil Uzi Vert, his beats are corroded, his lyrics clipped and tight. He feels the tides changing, and wants to swim.

Luv Is Rage 2 may be the breakthrough moment for this approach to the genre, but it is also an early warning system for a coming wave: the generation of rappers who has made SoundCloud their home and petri dish, and who refract their approach to hip-hop through a Warped Tour lens.

But whereas Lil Uzi Vert is impudent and takes hip-hop bluster as a foundation, these artists instead tend toward the self-lacerating. For the last year or so, Lil Peep, 20, has been at the vanguard of this movement, blending hip-hop structure and attitude with the moody anguish of third-wave emo.

"Burn me down 'til I'm nothing but memories/I get it girl, I'm not the one," he sneers on the scarred anthem "Awful Things," one of several sharply serrated songs on his new album, Come Over When You're Sober, Pt. 1.

Lil Peep's SoundCloud releases were more skeletal, but on this album, he is seeking a path to pop maximalism, leaning more heavily into guitar rock while still singing like a rapper, delivering unerringly pretty melodies with grunge dissatisfaction. The ingredients are the same as Lil Uzi Vert's, but the proportions are different.

Where Lil Peep's manner of emotional excavation is flamboyantly scathed, XXXTentacion's is simply an open wound. On the intro to his debut album, 17, he speaks to the listener: "I put my all into this, in hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression."

In an anti-hero generation, XXXTentacion, 19, is one of the most worrisome. He had his breakout moment while in jail, awaiting trial on charges including aggravated battery of his pregnant girlfriend. His ascent in the 11 months since his arrest has been rapid and controversial. He has received public support from Kendrick Lamar, but has also inspired an ongoing online debate about whether someone accused of such crimes should be afforded a career in music.

Taking his anguish, and how he is publicly perceived, as starting points, XXXTentacion is jarringly raw on 17, which emphasizes spare folk-minded indie rock over hip-hop. (He still raps in places, like on "Everybody Dies in Their Nightmares," though with nothing like the spasmodic bark he displayed on his breakout single "Look at Me!")

The mood here is unrelentingly dark, from "Jocelyn Flores," inspired by a romantic partner who took her life, to "Carry On," which seethes with resentment at his circumstances and those he blames -- not himself -- for placing him there.

XXXTentacion has a way of expressing vulnerability while still lashing out. And avoiding straightforward hip-hop -- as he did on several of his other early songs -- here feels like a strategy, a way of re-crafting his image from the wicked to the wounded. The result is that he may become the first true rap star to barely bother with rap at all.

Style on 09/12/2017