The story of Lil Uzi Vert being held hostage by his record label is serious, but it’s all too common among young artists.
“Why the fuck I even sign this shit as a deal? Motherfuckin’ set myself up. What other way was I suppose to let this shit go?”
That’s Lil Uzi Vert, in a video posted three days ago. Clarifying a much more drastic statement from a few days prior (“I’m done with music I deleted everything”), he singled out his record deal as the reason for his lack of new music and overall frustration. If you’ve been following this story for longer than the past week, it’ll come as no surprise that the 2015 contract Uzi inked with Generation Now, an Atlantic Records imprint founded by DJ Drama, Don Cannon, and Leighton Morrison, is continuing to plague him.
The cracks first began to show on March 2nd, 2017, when Uzi issued a warning to up-and-coming rappers, apropos of nothing: “ALL MY YOUNG N****S DONT SIGN TOOOOO A LABEL IM YOUR ELDER LABELS DO FUCK SHIT …..2® They send and okay records and fuck up ya soundcloud.” A month later he went further, clarifying that his anger stemmed from delays to his then-unreleased album Luv Is Rage 2. “Can I honestly tell y’all why this album ain’t drop,” he tweeted. “It’s because of a Old Person who doesn’t Understand what’s going on right now……Can You Guess Who?” He then retweeted responses from two followers, both of whom guessed Drama, who was 39 at the time.
Other cries for help, though less drastic than his recent threat of quitting music altogether, also surfaced within the past month. There was a tweet warning artists against signing “2 a rapper or a Dj,” with Uzi explaining that in those situations, “Its Just Easier When The Time Come For That Fake Shit.” And in a slightly more subtle fashion, Uzi even slipped the line, “Tryna figure out how I’m gonna get out my deal” into his recent collaboration with Shabazz PBG (below).
Disputes between artists and their labels are as old as popular music itself. Without them, Prince would’ve never had to change his name to a symbol to continue recording music, Radiohead would’ve never released an album with a “pay what you want” price tag, and Tom Petty may have never joined the Traveling Wilburys. To say that a higher percentage of artists are unhappy with their deals in 2019 than they were in 1999 or 1969 is very, very likely false. Of course, Prince couldn’t exactly rush to his cellphone and explain his feud with Warner Bros. on Twitter in 1992, so we may hear about a higher percentage of the contract disputes that occur these days.
But in modern hip hop, which since the start of the streaming era has become the most lucrative musical genre in the country, we do seem to be in the middle of a distinct trend of young artists feeling trapped by their deals. It’s not entirely limited to the late 2010s (see: Snoop Dogg leaving Death Row in 1998 or any number of Cash Money artists realizing they’d been cheated out of millions in the early 2000s), and it’s not entirely limited to rappers who are just starting to get popular (see: Lil Wayne, to blow up Birdman’s spot again). More often than not, these disputes arise between young-ish rappers who are a year or two removed from their first viral moment and the labels with which they signed a few years prior.
Young Thug is a popular example. The subject of a convoluted bidding war that reached its height in 2014, when it seemed like everyone and their mother was claiming to have a contract with him, Thug watched as two potentially huge hits, “Stoner” and “Danny Glover,” fizzled out before they could receive adequate backing from a major label. His first major hit, “Lifestyle,” was allowed to be so because it technically wasn’t released under his own name, instead bearing Birdman’s “Rich Gang” moniker (*aggressive hand rub*). When the dust settled, Thug was shifted from one struggling Atlantic imprint, Artist Partners Group, to a more promising one— the then-new 300 Entertainment— with the terms of an old deal carrying over (you can read a much longer, more accurate summation of this convoluted process here). Since then, many fans would argue, Thug’s been beholden to the whims of his label, who have continually shelved his long-awaited HiTunes project in favor of releases that feel more like stopgaps.
Many of Thug’s rumored early deals, including ones with Gucci Mane‘s 1017 Brick Squad and Future‘s Freebandz, mirror the trajectory of Uzi’s. Drama and Don Cannon– the latter duo being well-respected names in rap music, although perhaps to a slightly lesser extent than Gucci, Future and Birdman. Thanks to arguably the most successful mixtape franchise in history (Gangsta Grillz), both DJ Drama and Don Cannon have name recognition and clout, though those have admittedly waned considerably in recent years. To a young rapper, getting an offer from a living legend must often feel like an unknown actor getting tapped by Martin Scorsese for a starring role. The only thing is, actors have one of the strongest unions in the country— there are almost no guarantees in place for musicians.
So you’re star-struck, and on top of that you might be broke, and you might be lacking a lawyer or agent. It’s got to be tempting to sign that dotted line. When you hear Drama tell it, it really sounds like him and Cannon were doing Uzi a huge favor, even putting him on the map, by offering a deal. “When we found [Uzi], he didn’t have a real situation going,” he told Pigeons & Planes in 2017. “He was doing things on his own, trying to get his music on. I felt like with our supernatural abilities we could take him out of here, and that’s basically all it comes down to.”
But it doesn’t take more than two minutes of internet sleuthing to poke gaping holes in Drama’s tale. First, he claims that Uzi “didn’t have a real situation going” before his deal. Beyond the actual download numbers put up by Uzi’s breakout 2015 tape Luv Is Rage, released two months before he signed with Generation Now, even the goddamn press release announcing his signing admits to the momentum Uzi had before he so much as inked anything: “LUV IS RAGE lit the online world on fire upon its original October 2015 release.” How’s that for a real situation?
Then, let’s look at Drama’s “supernatural abilities”— not those he had in his Gangsta Grillz heyday— but those currently possessed by his imprint. As a matter of fact, head on over to Generation Now’s website. Oh, what’s that? It’s a dead link? The account’s suspended? I would imagine it’s pretty hard to take an artist to the next level when you don’t even have a functioning website. Sure, Atlantic’s the main machine behind Uzi, and the mega-label certainly had a hand in pushing “XO Tour Life” to #1 last year, but that could easily happen without Generation Now’s nonexistent clout. So while Uzi has the resources of a major label, he’s got to okay everything he does with the heads of a small imprint (which, I repeat, does not currently have a working website).
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Power 105.1
The plight of artists like Uzi and Thug does, however, have some upside for the rest of hip hop. In addition to Uzi offering advice to currently up-and-coming rappers, you’ve got plenty of people who’ve lived through multiple eras of label fuckery (like Jay-Z and 50 Cent, to name two) reaching out to popping youngsters and warning them before they make decisions that could haunt their financial and artistic futures for years to come. You’ve even got artists who’ve been around for a few years and managed to either sniff out possibly predatory deals or remain completely independent. Kodak Black says he turned down deals from two idols, Boosie Badazz and Birdman, before inking his major contract. Young Dolph, ever the beacon of hope in a dark world, claims to have mulled over a lucrative deal before ultimately declaring, “Fuck the 22 million!”
One can only hope that Uzi’s plight is short-lived, and if not, then at least a learning experience for others. As long as music is making money in capitalist economies though, someone’s always bound to get shafted. The worst part? It’s twice as bad for women in hip hop and R&B.