Over the weekend, Waka Flocka posted a hackneyed “your hip-hop/my hip-hop” meme to Instagram. But he took his observation in a surprising direction when he said that Lil Uzi Vert (the “your hip-hop” side of the photo, as compared to a bespectacled Nas on the “my” side) wasn’t hip-hop at all. “Lil Uzi Vert is rock, not hip-hop,” he wrote.
Does Waka have a point? Is Lil Uzi Vert a rocker, rather than a hip-hop artist? Waka didn’t detail his argument, so his reasoning can only be guessed at, but there are several strong possibilities as to why the ATL rapper would make that statement.
Uzi calls himself a “rock star”
This is true. Uzi has referred to himself as a “rock star” in interview after interview, and in song as well. But if calling yourself a rock star means you can no longer be a rapper, we have to let go of Lil Wayne (who, as much as we try to pretend it never happened, actually made a rock album and attempted to play guitar onstage). Let’s also cede Pharrell, who proclaimed himself a “rock star” back in 2001. Or, to take it back even further, let’s throw out Run-DMC, who took it even further and said they were not only rock stars, but rock kings.
A corollary to this idea is that by declaring himself a rock star, Uzi is denying that he’s a rapper. That’s not true—he openly refers to himself as a rapper with some frequency. But even if it were true, that’s not necessarily a disqualifier. Beanie Sigel, someone whose knotty, intricate lyrics show about as deep a devotion to the art of rap as you can get, denied he was a rapper on the his very first album. “I ain’t no fuckin’ rapper,” he spits during the intro to “Raw & Uncut.”
Beanie was hardly the only great rapper to deny, well, being a rapper. Jay Z himself expressed similar sentiments several years before.
Uzi dresses like a rocker, not a rapper
This gets to the heart of Waka’s implied argument (which, after all, was based on side-by-side photos, not sound clips). Uzi has a rock-influenced style, something that jokesters on the internet noticed immediately.
But the whole rappers-dressing-like-rockers thing was a Dipset staple back in the 00’s. In fact, Jim Jones even started a clothing line that advertised “his own blend of street and rocker style which he and his Dipset Crew made famous.” And the very first rap stars like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and the Cold Crush Brothers took their style from the rock and funk groups that were popular at the time.
Like it or not, many rappers today have made singing part (sometimes a large part) of their arsenal. Young Thug and Drake are as likely to sing a verse as they are to rhyme it. Nicki Minaj has been singing since her first album. And to take it back to, like, 15 seconds ago, the Cold Crush Brothers were interpolating popular songs into their act back in the day as well (peep here for a sweet Gilbert O’Sullivan rewrite).
Uzi has mosh pits at his shows
This much is true. Uzi and other new-school artists like Travis Scott have borrowed tricks like stage-diving and mosh pits from their rock and roll brethren. But wild crowds at hip-hop shows is hardly a new phenomenon. In this interview, Fat Joe describes watching a crowd react to Big Daddy Kane’s punchlines during a show in the 1980s. “I literally watched human beings, rap fans, try to run up the wall,” he told me. “Like, he ripped it so much that the crowd went so crazy that they were trying to run up the wall. I was seeing them trying to defy gravity. They couldn’t even control themselves.” In light of that, throwing yourself off a second-tier balcony starts to seem…understandable?
So, with the negatives gone, the question remains, why is Uzi hip-hop? It is pretty much inarguable that he makes rap music. He raps and sings over trap beats that are indistinguishable from those used by today’s top rappers, and created by the same people. He was signed and mentored by Don Cannon and DJ Drama, the men behind classic mixtapes from the likes of Lil Wayne and Jeezy.
But is being hip-hop somehow different than making rap music? This is a much thornier question, and one that gets to the heart of what might be bothering Waka, and certainly is bugging artists like Joe Budden as they try to negotiate rap’s changing landscape. And this is where the disdain young artists like Yachty have for the music that came before them begins to matter. However, if hip-hop means anything at all, it means omnivorously taking only the good parts of the past, and of what’s right in front of you, and shaping them into something new, whether that’s a Monkees record or a subway car.
Ultimately, that’s what Uzi is doing: taking elements of rock style and stagecraft, post-808s & Heartbreak hip-hop, and trap beats, and melding them together into his own unique stew. And that is the most hip-hop thing of all.
BY SHAWN SETARO