How artists like Lil Uzi Vert are reinventing the summer jam into darker, bolder territory

Consider these the anti-summer anthems.

Published June 16, 2017 7:43PM (EDT)

Lil Uzi Vert performs at The Budweiser Made In America Festival on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP) (Michael Zorn/invision/ap)
Lil Uzi Vert performs at The Budweiser Made In America Festival on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP) (Michael Zorn/invision/ap)

This post originally appeared on The Fresh Toast.

Fresh Toast

Picture comforting sun rays while you lay on warm beaches, waves rolling gently into the break, or perhaps as you rest upon a beaten-down grassy patch, awaiting the next act of a music festival. Outdoor Sunday BBQs either in a park or your backyard, family or friends that are your family surrounding you, lifting clear-bottle beers in jubilant celebration that it is most definitely summer. Neon pink sunsets combined with tropical vibes. There is reason to rejoice.

Our collective summer fantasies reside in these places. We associate summer with familiarity and fun, amidst environments old and new, or wherever will house our needed R& R. Summer is about escapism in this way. The lingering desire to deposit all your worries and troubles—all the crap inherent in this thing we call life—and forget the harsh realities of the world.

For this season, we need music.

A whole economy revolves around summer songs. These jams we loop repeatedly as we dance and vibe and enjoy ourselves for once. All the biggest artists chase crafting the perfect summer anthem and even more writers and bloggers fight to predict what this year’s song of the summer will be. Big rewards in that game. Because summer songs soundtrack your fun and if there’s one feeling we’re all currently after it’s fun.

But what if you can’t? What happens when you stop having fun and the fun starts having you? Because summer also harbors bleaker realities than portrayed on Instagram or summer anthems. This season also features boozy, self-destructive nights, sexy flings that bloat into something sour, and days when the sun flips sides, from friend to enemy, and threatens to beat you into sweaty, hazy submission. Meanwhile, percolating overhead is the crushing, crushing FOMO that you aren’t experiencing every fun summer fantasy you see your peers Snapchat and tweet about.

For that season, we also need music.

A whole subgroup of songs exist in this cloudy, needle-y vein. Some artists like The Weeknd and Future have mined entire careers out of it. These songs and artists accompany summer as much as the prototypical jams that bop and glide off into bliss, and often abut one another in bars and clubs. These are the Anti-Summer Anthems. Their sounds are dire and minor-key; numb. Their creators are consuming substances stronger than alcohol out of necessity, not desire. They look exactly like Mark Wahlberg near the end of Boogie Nights—vacant stares to nowhere, sweaty paranoia and itches that can’t be scratched, wondering just how the hell my life arrived here.

A song like “XO TOUR Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert, for example. Uzi’s first words on the track are “Are you alright?” and you suspect he’s referring to himself, his muse Brittany, and you, too. On the hook, Uzi wails through auto-tune garble, “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead.” Excuse me. A more accurate representation would be, “PUSH ME TO THE EDGE!! / ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD!!!!” This isn’t blush neon sunsets; this is like the sun setting and questioning if it’ll ever rise again. Then, when no one’s watching, you quietly ask if you secretly prefer the sun never emerging again.

Much of this ties to the track’s arrangement. As TM88 (who produced the song) explained, the percussion sits atop the melody. The clapping trap rhythm urges the beat forward with this instigating momentum, while the half-timed plinking notes want to drag the song down. Through this push-pull tension bursts Uzi with his emotional trauma coated in rockstar cries and addiction lies. “Xanny help the pain, yeah / Please, Xanny make it go away,” Uzi pleads.

Few might call “XO TOUR Llif3” a song of the summer, especially when compared to feel-good anthems like DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” and Calvin Harris’ “Slide.” But if those songs occupy summer days, Uzi’s “XO TOUR Llif3” own the night. The song doesn’t permeate backgrounds of clubs and parties like traditional summer jams. It holds center of attention, demanding listeners sing along. The kids at Coachella eagerly accepted the call to action.

Your connection to an Anti-Summer Anthem is visceral. Think of what songs you blasted last summer. Though breezy hits were in rotation, so were tracks like The Weeknd-assisted Future record “Low Life” or Desiigner’s “Panda.” Both deep escapes into rampant hedonism as if morning won’t come. Massive albums like ANTI, Rihanna’s middle finger to pop expectations, and Kanye’s Life of Pablo, a tormented genius in spiritual crisis who rips apart his psyche to discover what’s left, dominated playlists and radio and summer tours. All while Kanye begs for “No More Parties in LA” and Rihanna proclaims “Fuck ya white horse and ya carriage.”

Songs of the Summer contenders, these are not. But these Anti-Summer Anthems provide soundtrack for the season, too. Pinpointing when exactly these songs entered the culture is difficult as you’re discussing pop music trends over decades of time. When did we all become so addled with addiction and emotional affliction? If I had to guess: Probably within the last 100 years or so, sometime within what we label Modernity. Okay, a better question: When did we ask our pop stars to express that feeling in public?

You could continue through multiple summers and find examples of these Anti-Summer Anthems. Just two years ago, we bumped Travis Scott’s “Antidote,” where he warbles, “Poppin’ pills is all we know.” Around then no one could stop dancing to The Weeknd’s coked-out “Can’t Feel My Face,” which the crooner later immortalized on “Reminder” with “I just won an award for a kids show / Talking ‘bout a face numbing off a bag of blow.” The latter was a case where Song of the Summer and Anti-Summer Anthem coincided, though that rarely happens.

If those previous songs were experimentation of the form, Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3” is its evolution. A giant, undeniable banger masking a deeper, cloudier numbed-out cry for attention. Summer jams glorify the breezy, relaxed nature the season’s days embody and what every vacationer is supposed to strive toward. But records like Uzi’s remind us even in the summer, day still turns to night.

By Brendan Bures

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Desiigner Future Lil Uzi Vert Music Summer The Weeknd The Fresh Toast