It was a dreary Sunday evening as I filed in line outside the venue. In front and back of me were countless teenagers, whose average age probably fell between 16-19. I’m only 23, but I felt like an old man for the first time in my life. All around me I heard the phrases “we lit” and “that shirt is jiggy,” which only added to my new geriatric identification.
I’m describing the scene of my recent trip to a Lil Uzi Vert show. Seeing the disparity between the others in attendance and myself had me reflecting on why I was there: Was I too old for this music? Am I just trying to hold on to some remnant of my college years? How is it benefitting me to be here?
These questions stuck with me long after I finished raging to “Do What I Want” and “Money Longer.” I tend to be drawn to intense, aggressive (and often offensive) artists that put their bodies on the line for live performances. But I don’t tend to think of myself as intense or aggressive (though mildly offensive).
In the past, I’ve attended shows for artists with similar intensity, including Travis $cott, the prime example of “the rage,” but these questions seemed to resonate with me more so on my drive home from the Lil Uzi show.
Yet, in the midst of my first “mid-life” crisis, I was still happy with my decision to go to the show that evening. Despite my intellectual concerns, I felt lighter and not in the sense that I’d just sweat out five pounds, which was probably true, but in the sense that I didn’t feel the weight of life’s natural pressure. I was able to examine recent changes in my life with a unique clarity. For the next few days I felt more creative, ideas came to me almost effortlessly and, as a result, I was more productive.
I’d had a cathartic experience, and I didn’t even know it.
You may have studied Greek tragedy at some point during your schooling and, if so, you probably remember talking about catharsis. I was first introduced to the concept of catharsis in my early college years as a Classical Studies major. (If you’re unfamiliar with this field, it’s basically the study of Ancient Greek and Roman language and culture. It’s also the quickest way to be unemployed after college).
Simply put, catharsis is the experience of releasing suppressed emotions, engaging with them, and, hopefully, overcoming them. This experience can manifest itself in numerous ways. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined catharsis in his “Poetics” as the “purging of the spirit of morbid and base ideas or emotions by witnessing the playing out of such emotions or ideas on stage.”
For Aristotle, the stage meant the theater. In his mind, watching images of murder and betrayal in a dramatic form allowed a person to moderate emotions that could lead to such actions. By seeing the logical extension of destructive sentiments, you can better protect yourself from being consumed by them. Scholars have compared this to the way in which watching football or UFC can be cathartic for violent urges. Aristotle goes on to say:
“This is a practical purpose that drama may also serve, but it has no particular connection with beauty or truth; to be good in this purgative way, a drama has no need to be good in any other way”
It’s easy to see how this relates to the music of Lil Uzi, Travis $cott, and other young rappers who carry this “rock star” mentality. Just as the story of Oedipus doesn’t aid the direction of our moral compass by giving us an “ideal” orientation, neither does the music of these artists. Their lyrics often contain tales of indulgence, violence, and misogyny. But the goal of music is not always to speak out against these realities. In my case, seeing Uzi act out the insecurities in his life allowed me to see my own indulgent tendencies.
This was especially obvious when he performed “P’s and Q’s” from his recent project, “Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World.” The track details the origin of Lil Uzi’s widely publicized relationship with Brittany Burk. According to “P’s and Q’s”:
“She had a n*gga that was on the music scene
Like haha oh well, now your girl with me./
Like, Austin was holding her up, yeah, um boy please. /
Like, bye-bye Austin, hello to Lil Uzi.”
Clearly, something changed in Brittany’s relationship with Austin and all signs point to that change being the introduction of Lil Uzi. Yet, despite the fact that Uzi “won” Brittany over from her previous boyfriend, he still feels the need to make an entire song about it, which indicates some level of insecurity about the situation. Each night on tour he has hundreds of kids screaming about the lack of money in Austin’s bank account. When Don Cannon’s accordion-like keys signaled the introduction of that song, I knew what was coming.
Uzi enthusiastically led the crowd in chants of “oooh sing it, he ain’t got no money, yeah!” In that moment I saw a potential version of myself on stage. Had I been blessed with the same talent and opportunity that Uzi has, whether you respect his rapping ability or not, I could just as easily have made a song that stemmed from my insecurities. Though I don’t have the same life experience as Lil Uzi nor can I identify with this specific situation, I would have found a way to pump up my ego in a song. Seeing this display of insecurity was sobering.
It challenged me to check any insecurity of mine that might be out of control and bleeding over into my attitude or treatment of others. It was purgative in the classical sense. Now, I’m not faulting Uzi for this or making any claims about his character as a result. He’s only 22 for Christ’s sake. Just like anyone, I enjoy seeing artists mature and work through personal conflicts in their music and I think that learning from their experience can help inform our decisions. So if Uzi is insecure, I want to hear about it. If he wants to seek justification in the voices of his fans, I want to be one of those fans.
The wisdom of the Ancient Greeks tells us that art is not always meant to show the best in man. Sometimes we need to hear a moralizing story from J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar, while other times a cathartic mosh pit led by Lil Uzi is the only thing that can purge you of the inner demons.
The cathartic potential of trap music is one of the reasons I think it’s important and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Of course, the lyrical content is offensive and vulgar, it’s a reflection of the world that created it.
There is much heated “discussion” going on right now between “old heads” and “the new wave” about what constitutes hip-hop. Some say you need bars to be considered a hip-hop artist, while others like Lil Yachty claim that “getting turnt” is all that you need.
I believe that speaking about oppression, whether internal or external, is what makes a song essentially hip-hop. Uzi is simply electing to speak about internal self-imposed oppression. Sometimes, as he says, the enemies are too close. Recognizing the cathartic power of the trap sub-genre of hip-hop brings a much-needed balance to this meta-discussion of hip-hop. We all have to admit that the real answer to the question, “what is hip-hop?” contains more nuances than we previously thought.