Earlier this year, I was faced with a surreal, worlds-collide moment when Lil Uzi Vert popped out at Wrestlemania at the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles to perform their increasingly inescapable hit “Just Wanna Rock.” Just a month before, I had seen him perform the same song during his sub-headlining set at Rolling Loud, basically at the same venue, just outside. The first time, I was there to cover the music; the second, I’d been invited by a wrestling-obsessed friend who had floor seats for the main event.
Here we are, three months later, and Uzi’s new album, Pink Tape, features a similar dizzying moment of professional and personal crossover. The late-album song “Nakamura” actually samples the ring entrance music of WWE wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura, someone Uzi undoubtedly sees as something of a kindred spirit. Wrestlers, in general, are kind of weird (to me), but Nakamura takes it a step further with flamboyant, borderline androgynous ring gear and a demeanor somewhere between very intense and incredibly stoned.
Rap fans love to talk about what “the Rap Game needs” because rap fans love to complain about what the “Rap Game” isn’t. The format has evolved so much from what it once was that its followers often feel caught in the lurch between always chasing the newest, latest thing and nostalgically wishing to return to the moment the genre was perfect for what they wanted (coincidentally, this time always seems to overlap with whenever a particular listener happened to be in eighth grade). Thank God we have Lil Uzi Vert, who can do both.
When Uzi first popped up on the scene from the primordial soup of SoundCloud, old-school rap heads were furious. Here was this kid from the streets of Philadelphia who seemingly bought all their clothes from Hot Topic and had pink dreads and facial piercings, as prone to yowling into the mic for extended bouts or hypnotically repeating a seemingly nonsense phrase over and over as spit a hot 16 full of punchlines and gun talk. Uzi wasn’t “real hip-hop,” and certainly couldn’t really rap. Except that Uzi was as much real hip-hop as the yay-slanging studio gangsters of yesteryear and actually could really rap their ass off if they wanted to — they just didn’t think they had to.
Now that Uzi is an established fixture of the hip-hop mainstream, they could have laid off the wild stylistic experimentation, gotten complacent, and just continued doing the same stuff that got them here. Instead, on Pink Tape they are doing stuff like covering System Of A Down’s signature hit “Chop Suey,” which has experienced a resurgence in popularity thanks to Zoomers on TikTok — people that grew with Lil Uzi Vert as their musical heroes the way millennials did with Jay-Z. Is it nostalgia that drove Uzi to record the cover or contemporary awareness? Who cares? It’s cool, whatever we who grew up on the original think.
Uzi straddles multiple genres across Pink Tape, opening the album with in-your-face braggadocio raps and immediately swerving into screeching trap metal on the very next song. There are screaming electric guitars and thundering 808s, futuristic anime references, squeaky voice crooning (645AR is somewhere punching the air), Eiffel 65 samples, horror-movie strings, and more. If anything here isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry — something on the tape probably is.
The “rap game” — an inaccurate moniker, shout out to Vince Staples — needs artists like Lil Uzi Vert to remind us that hip-hop has always been on the cutting edge, not stuck in the same, capitalism-serving patterns of “what works” (read: sells) already. That hip-hop was always for weirdos and misfits who did stuff like watch wrestling and read comics and played video games. Busta Rhymes once name-checked Hacksaw Jim Duggan; the Wu-Tang Clan members gave themselves nicknames like Tony Stark and Johnny Blaze; The Notorious B.I.G. started a verse boasting he had a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis.
Somewhere along the way as we grow up, we get stuck in what rap used to sound like and start thinking that’s the only thing it should ever sound like. Uzi’s primal scream, anything-goes, try-it-and-see-if-it-sticks approach to music is here to shake us out of that complacency and boredom. Even if it doesn’t always work — let’s keep it real: most of this isn’t really for me, personally — it’s there to open up a new avenue that hasn’t been tried yet. It’s there to pay homage to what did work but to ask, “What if we tried something new?” Lil Uzi Vert indulges all their impulses to make it possible to see what happens like Nakamura climbing to the top rope. You don’t know what you’re going to see next, but you know it’s going to be special.
Pink Tape is out now via Atlantic.
Lil Uzi Vert is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.