Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
The story behind Lil Uzi Vert’s nihilistic 2017 smash, “XO TOUR Llif3,” is a classic tale of triumph through tragedy. It starts in 2016, when after creating potential hits with Future and Gucci Mane in a Miami studio, producer TM88 was ready to head back to his native Atlanta to master his soon-to-be successes. But he would get caught up in what would become January’s Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, where a perpetrator flew in from Alaska and took the lives of five victims.
“I was trying to board my flight and then we see a stampede of people just running towards us and we just ran on the plane,” he recalls. In the midst of the panic, TM88 let go of all his prized possessions — including the beloved laptop that held all of his hard work. “I ended up just dropping all my shit … I got back home and was like, ‘D–n bro, I have nothing.’”
So he had no choice but to remake all the beats on a cracked computer screen. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m finna make the best beats I’ve ever made in my life.’ I guess God blessed me with ‘XO TOUR Llif3.’”
After receiving a call from Uzi, who was in dire need of inspiration, TM88 dug up one of his old beats and began remixing it. A month later, Uzi surprised fans with the Luv Is Rage 1.5 EP release on SoundCloud. It featured “XO TOUR Llif3,” a song that helped change the course of an entire genre.
Its somber strings ushered in the Philadelphia rapper’s elegy, which put the remains of the cheerful feelings he had on Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” to rest, following the break-up with then-girlfriend Brittany Byrd. “I was speaking authentic on ‘XO Tour Llif3,’” Lil Uzi Vert told Billboard in 2017. “Anyone can relate: I was in a dark space, so I went with it.”
But it was much more than a dark space usually saved for the deepest corners of one’s diary. The rapper revealed heartache, suicidal thoughts and issues with Xanax abuse to the world. And with a singular lyric — “Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead” — Uzi temporarily halted the exorbitant themes of rap’s What a Time to Be Alive era.
“I think it affected people in general,” Reggie Rouse, program director at Atlanta radio station V-103, explains. “Whether you’re into hip-hop, R&B or pop, you heard this record on the radio or downloaded the song. You didn’t see a ton of that [at that time] but now it’s par for the course.”
That painfully honest revelation garnered Uzi’s highest-charting single to date (it peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100) and has been certified seven times Platinum by the RIAA. But pushing all of its grand accolades aside, “XO” helped open the floodgates of a surging subgenre: emo-rap. Its influence can be heard in a handful of millennial rappers, from Juice WRLD to the late XXXTentacion. With Uzi (who professed his fandom for Marilyn Manson and created massive mosh pits at shows) at the front line, these new-gen stars took rock’s teen angst and unabashedly claimed it for themselves.
“Lil Uzi changed the whole landscape of where music was starting to go. Ever since [its release], you started seeing more people, even producers use my [melodic] cadences,” TM88 explains. “I feel like the bigger the song got, it just made everybody want to be on that type of sound.”
That experimental sound is what Rouse attributes to the timelessness of “XO Tour Llif3”: “It’s one of those songs that still sounds great on radio. Not every hit can be played 5-10 years down the road and people still nod their heads to it.”