If you've been living on hip-hop forums for the past couple of years, there's a likely chance you've been exposed to "LIL UZI LEAKED SONG" or posts of that variety. Such leaks could sell for upwards of $1000 on certain parts of the internet, as obsessive fans form groupbuys just to get their hands on often half-finished material.
Behind every leak is potential that translates to increased anticipation for the eventual product that will drop, and no artist has capitalised off this better this decade than Lil Uzi Vert.
Of course, Lil Wayne did it first during his legendary two-album run with Tha Carter II and III; between them, a plethora of leaks where Wayne went berserk over both classic and original beats. It solidified his status as The Greatest Rapper Alive of that era and propelled Tha Carter III to platinum status in its first week.
Uzi's career has also taken a similar trajectory. He first gained national attention with 2015's Luv Is Rage mixtape which led to a signing with DJ Drama and Don Cannon's Generation Now label. Hailed as one of the hip-hop's brightest newcomers, Uzi's laid-back yet futuristically quirky sound was a welcome deviation from the slowly saturating trap sounds of the time. The breakneck rapping he employed was also reminiscent of Wayne's brand of punchline raps. Both were more style-over-substance but the proficiency in their craft led to fan adoration.
And like Wayne’s early career, Uzi rode his wave of hype and dropped multiple mixtapes in a year, 2016's Lil Uzi Vert vs The World and The Perfect LUV Tape. There wasn't any major artistic progression in either project, but Uzi executed his strengths perfectly and gave fans more of the same high-quality material he had been putting out, which was more than enough to satiate their appetites.
While Uzi was building up his career through official releases, there were also leaks that quietly supported his eventual reach of superstardom. Being as prolific of a rapper that he is, the leaks that found their way online were often of similar quality to his official material, sometimes even surpassing them. Songs like Sanguine Paradise and That's A Rack were both teaser tracks for his latest album Eternal Atake, but both were leaked months prior and picked up strong fan attachment. It reached the point where the backlash from the official Sanguine's slightly different beat was so fervent, Uzi had no choice but to revert it back to the leaked version’s original production.
Even Uzi's biggest hit, XO Tour Llif3 couldn't escape the curse of over-expectations. The song didn't leak and instead first gained life on Soundcloud but its official release also had production changes, resulting in fans bullying producer TM88 into switching it back. However just like leaks, hardcore fans (or stans) clamour for every piece of content they can come by; and when they do get their hands on them, the attachment with said music is often so strong that any major sonic deviation by the artists from what fans want can result in distaste.
The protectiveness of their leaks then leads to blind anticipation for an artist to follow up on the sound they've unwillingly been glued to. Generally, leaks are songs that aren't meant to see the light of day, with many of them being ideas or stepping stones towards a more comprehensive sound. Expecting and forcing artists to conform to a style that they weren't planning to have in the first place is selfish and unreasonable.
Being able to "own" your favourite artist's work weeks (or even months) before the general public boxes these fans in a domain of exclusivity, leaving them with a sense of entitlement of being a "better" fan then others. I would know, since I still own a 60-song playlist of Kanye West leaks dating back to his pre-College Dropout era. Their conceit can be justified though, as these are often the same fans who would pay $100 for a t-shirt that promotes a song which probably won't end up on an album.
In Lil Uzi Vert's case, his official releases are often in the same vein as the leaks, thus meeting expectations while improving upon his unchanging sound that fans adore. Yet, capitalising off leaks is a move best used by artists that rarely venture out of their established lanes.
Thus, enter Kanye West's Jesus Is King.
The album's disastrous roll-out has been well documented and reception for it has been tepid. However, the most intriguing part of this era has been the slow drip of Yandhi leaks since, which many believe to be the initial version of the record before its religious makeover. Leaks of tracks like Selah, Everything We Need and Water have the classic Kanye energy that JIK sorely needed. He sounds invigorated on these songs and the production present had the sonic layering of Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye.
Yet for some reason, they were all stripped of these factors and what we were left with was an album that preached surface level gospel over toned-down, discounted versions of the existing production. Fans were feverish for Yandhi when it was first announced, and eventually getting JIK was still an exciting though disappointing offering. Yet with each leak, JIK's quality is further soiled while the legend of Yandhi grows ever larger.
With every leak listened to, it becomes a case of "what could've been" or "what could be". How can fans justify Kanye West's recent artistic choices if Jesus Is King was what he deemed to be better than the leaks? The intrusion of listening to them results in a warped perception of what fans believe their favourite artist to be.
Would JIK's quality have improved if the Yandhi sessions never leaked? No, but the souring of impressions on both the record and Kanye's career wouldn't have spiraled out of control. Just as Lil Uzi Vert's career has been defined by the hype born of his leaks, Kanye's future material will be held up to a standard that wasn't even made for public consumption in the first place.
Leaks are a double-edged sword, and its power falls entirely in the hands of fans.