Playboi Carti, Rap Iconoclast

Playboi Carti, Rap Iconoclast

His recent album Whole Lotta Red boasts not just rockstar appeal but a sense of self-discovery and experimentation.

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When rappers coronate themselves as rock stars, they’re usually either staking their claim to the zeitgeist (Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles”), partying with abandon (Shop Boyz’ “Party Like a Rock Star”), or flirting with oblivion (Danny Brown’s “Die Like a Rockstar”). When Playboi Carti declares himself a rock star, as he does throughout his restless second album, Whole Lotta Red, the persona is shorthand for a liberating fugue state.

Carti’s pursuit of the rock star life is less about hedonism or mythmaking—though there’s plenty of both on the album—than about perpetual motion and transformation. The record is a rush of sounds and ideas delivered at maximum intensity and with supreme confidence.

Before this album, Carti was known for his reserve. A fashion model and a rapper of few words, he distinguished himself from his peers by cultivating an air of mystery. Avoiding social media and releasing music infrequently, he became the rare rapper who listeners felt didn’t share enough. Many of his most popular songs were leaks that circulated among fans, a trend that drove up the demand for his official releases. When those releases came, Carti was a closed book. His sparse songs and performances prioritize mood and energy over narrative or presence. Hearing him mumble and ad-lib over the strobing beats of his previous releases and assorted features, one could easily mistake him for a DJ rather than a performer. Even on his hits, like 2016’s “Broke Boi” and 2017’s “Magnolia,” his voice sinks into the mix, a texture rather than a presence.

On Whole Lotta Red, he’s the center of attention. While he remains uninterested in sustained flowing, still rapping in splatters and scats, he has evolved as a performer. He spends the record contorting his voice in thrillingly unpredictable ways—wheezing, croaking, wailing, whining. The bass-heavy “JumpOutTheHouse” is a blitz of acrobatic yelps, squawks, and chirps. Though virtually every lyric is repeated and every line is a flex, the song is propulsive and streamlined, Carti’s shifting delivery pushing the number forward. “Meh,” another bass-boosted track with a synth line reminiscent of g-funk, works similarly. In the first minute of the song Carti goes from a murmur to a mousy squeak to an increasingly strained rasp, his mood swinging with each leap in tone and register. He’s gone from being a cool, distant performer to being direct and mercurial.

Born Jordan Carter and raised in Riverdale, Ga., Playboi Carti cut his teeth in the orbit of Atlanta’s Awful Records and New York’s ASAP Mob. In different ways, the two collectives of rappers and producers primed him to be the spark plug he is now, the former pushing him toward adventurous, colorful sounds and the latter sharpening his attention to style and aesthetics. His debut album and self-titled mixtape were shaped by these affiliations. Carti presented himself as a free-spirited party fixture and aesthete. Over lush and bouncy tracks, he sang of guns, benders, and luxury brands. The organizing principle of this sound was fun.

Whole Lotta Red is more antisocial and refined. The 24-song album has only three features, one of them, by Kanye West, so superfluous it’s basically Carti flaunting his access to top talent. Otherwise, the record is a concentrated heaping of Carti alone. There are fewer party chants here. Instead, Carti opts for knotty, stream-of-consciousness lyrics that span his obsessions, his nightmares, and the occasional joke. “I’m in love with them drugs, yeah, I’m kissing the cup,” he quips on “Rockstar Made.”

He often voices his distrust of strangers and rivals. “Stop Breathing” pivots from heartthrob boasts to a breathless extended verse that mourns a dead brother, shouts out incarcerated friends, and refers to MF Doom before simmering into a void of negative space and shouts. Carti’s exhaustion is audible as the song explodes, then bottoms out, his voice growing raspier with every line. “Punk Monk,” a highlight, turns Carti’s wariness of strangers into a mantra. “Know your gang, know your gang,” he warns before casting the music industry as treacherous and detailing the many ways it has driven a wedge between his peers and friends. The song features one of the few moments of narrative on the album and is the clearest distillation of its central thesis: Carti has found himself.

He’s not exactly alone. Though the guest list is short, the roster of producers runs deep, extending into the double digits. This yields a smorgasbord of arrangements and styles, ranging from synth-heavy jams (“Place”) to distorted ragers (“New Tank”) to spacey ballads (“Control”), all of these backdrops rich with detail and thrust. Carti navigates this sprawl nimbly, singing, rapping, screeching, and growling as the situation demands.

Range and malleability can be liabilities when an artist is unfocused, and Carti isn’t yet a jack of all trades—“King Vamp” and “Vamp Anthem,” his goth and very on-the-nose odes to vampire movies, are particularly uninspired. Also, his rock star dispatches are clichéd, leaning hard on tales of sex and drugs. Still, Whole Lotta Red is a marvel of self-possession. There are few moments where Carti doesn’t feel in total command of his pinballing ideas. His fixation with rock star iconoclasm nudges him toward increasingly baroque performances, especially on the live-wire backing tracks, which can sound like video game characters throwing and taking punches.

The best part of this constant forward momentum is that Carti’s wanderings never obscure his origins. As much as Whole Lotta Red claims rock as its lodestar, the record is rooted in rap’s deep sense of place and autobiography. “I can wear a business suit and speak proper / Or I can put a hundred niggas on and buy them choppers / See, ’round my part of town, that’s how we get down / I’m from Fulton County, li’l bitch, that’s no cap now,” he raps on “Control.” This moment, and subtler ones where Carti shouts out his brother and openly sings and raps in the styles of such stylistic forebears as Key! and Chief Keef, present rap as his home rather than a point of departure. As rappers like Post Malone and even Kanye West have declared rap disposable and stagnant, Whole Lotta Red is a reminder that the genre continues to be a space for experimentation and self-discovery

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