Magazine Feature

Artists to Watch In 2017: Lil Uzi Vert, Rap's Tradition-Bucking, Marilyn Manson-Loving Star

Lil Uzi Vert
Zach Wolfe

“I always try to be outside the box,” says Uzi, photographed on Dec. 5, 2016, at Means Street Studios in Atlanta.

Predictions 2017: Billboard forecasts the year's breakthrough artists, key shot-callers and industry innovators.

The 22-year-old rabble-rousing rapper Lil Uzi Vert has always defied genre conventions. He dyes his hair in an ever-changing spectrum of colors; he performs in a very Kurt Cobain plaid-on-acid-wash uniform; at his solo shows, he's more likely to crowd-surf than stay onstage. On Instagram, where he has more than 2 million followers, he follows a single account: Marilyn Manson, the androgynous rocker whom Uzi calls his greatest inspiration.

In just a year's time, the North Philly artist born Symere Woods has captivated a social-media-obsessed young audience with tuneful rhymes warbled over trap-inflected, electro-brushed beats. His single "Money Longer" rose to a No. 7 peak on Billboard's Rap Streaming Songs chart (and garnered more than 80 million streams on Spotify). On SoundCloud, the seven tracks on his latest release -- the 1017 vs. the World EP, a collaboration with Gucci Mane -- accumulated more than 22 million streams in three weeks. This summer he'll release his debut studio full-length, even as some elder statesmen of hip-hop call him out for rebuking rap's traditions, like WQHT (Hot 97) New York DJ Ebro Darden did when Uzi refused his request to rap over a DJ Premier beat.

"It's the evolution," says Uzi. "There are always people who are into the old way of doing things. I don't think it's a bad thing necessarily, but things change -- nothing stays the same. If you can stay true to yourself, you're always going to be legendary." Though he's often grouped with irreverent peers like Lil Yachty and Playboi Carti, Uzi spits with an electricity and a pointed sense of melody he gleaned from listening to rock. "His style, his approach and his voice: I don't think I've heard somebody as raspy since [Lil] Wayne," says ASAP Rocky, one of Uzi's idols.

"I don't like to categorize Uzi with any other artists in his class," says DJ Drama, the hip-hop gatekeeper who helped foster Wayne's and T.I.'s careers. "I just think time will tell. You got to give these kids a chance to grow." Drama discovered the young MC when Philadelphia DJ Diamond Kuts premiered Uzi's single "Dej Loaf" (an ode to the Detroit rapper) in 2014; a year later, along with his business partners Don Cannon and Leighton Morrison, Drama signed Uzi as the flagship artist on his Generation Now imprint, going on to oversee Uzi's debut mixtape, The Real Uzi.

Since then, Uzi's rise has been coupled with criticism (J. Cole recently took thinly veiled shots at both Uzi and Yachty on "Everybody Dies"), but he dismisses those digs as "background noise." Jay Z personally invited him to perform a solo set at the 2016 Made in America Festival, and Fabolous recently tapped him for the duet "Goyard Bag." "I think he's chosen," says Rocky. "Especially with social media and technology, he has the opportunity to be very accessible to his fans, and that's very important."

As for his impending release, Uzi -- who recently said he had been in the studio with Kanye West -- says he's trying not to overthink the moment. "I don't want to put too much pressure on it," he says. "I'm just doing me, and to me, that's what got me this far." He does have his eye on one feature, though: "Well, shit, man -- Marilyn Manson on the debut album? That'd be dope."


Sounds like - Laid-back lyrical style with a singsong rasp.

Big break - “Getting invited to Made in America. I never got to go, even being from Philadelphia, and the first time I went I performed.”

Where you’ll hear him - His debut full-length album and a tour, both due this summer.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Billboard.