Genre: Noise Rap
Favorite Tracks: “Teen X (feat. Future),” “Meh,” “Place,” “New N3on”
Is the coast clear?
I’m still surprised WHOLE LOTTA RED exists. Once shrouded in mystery, memes, and IG live snippets, modern rap’s DETOX is now sitting pretty on streaming services like any other ol’ thing. Clocking in at a month after its rabidly-awaited Christmas morning release (after, what was it, three false drops?), it only felt appropriate to let the dust settle on all of Reddit, Twitter, Twitch, Instagram, and YouTube completely annihilating the new Playboi Carti project. So goes the narrative for every one of the Atlanta visionary’s records, each met with general revulsion then overwhelming cult adulation, by his own fans no less: you really aren’t a Playboi Carti fan unless you once hated Playboi Carti.
I remember the DIE LIT drop fondly, scoring an early pirated leak and being indescribably disappointed with whatever that slop was. It wasn’t smooth, it wasn’t as abstract as his self-titled debut—the dude was really trying to make chart-toppers. Fast-forward a week, I was DJing a Paris S&M club-themed party in a pantry-sized Phi Delta Theta basement in Orange County and, on a drunken whim, decided to switch up the acid house with a “R.I.P.” vibe reset. Folks, we ripped apart the entire foundation of that leased four-bedroom home. It was a massacre. The next morning, I braved the one-mile jog from my apartment to the frat house to pick up my car, and, on a dead sober whim, popped on “Lean 4 Real.” I cannot properly explain what happened next, but I’d describe the feeling as last night’s alcohol, since dormant, suddenly reactivating like Godzilla rising out of the Pacific. I went from clear-eyed to shit-faced in under three minutes at 8:30 A.M. thanks to Playboi Carti. Song by song, experience after experience, DIE LIT joined PLAYBOI CARTI (an album that also took all of 2017 to warm up to) as an essential asset to my scumbag subconscious. Like a tall bottle of pure agave tequila or a vitamin-sized jar of uppers, these songs were, and still are, activators. Almost by their very design, it takes time for these projects to grow on you.
Each major LP has brought a subtle, yet definitive change in persona. The setlist-building rapper on DIE LIT is quite different from the dreamy, incoherent rambler on PLAYBOI CARTI, and the burnout screeching his throat raw on WHOLE LOTTA RED is an entirely new beast directly borne of those previous efforts. WLR is a creature of two distinct halves, one the remnants of a long-gestating development cycle and the other, and what has attracted most critical ire, an evidently recently constructed collection of tracks meant to replace the many leaks (Carti has, notoriously, opted to altogether cancel the releases of unreleased songs that had found their way onto Reddit) recorded under the guidance of executive producer Kanye West. Like how YEEZUS found Kanye discovering Death Grips a whole year later than everyone else, so much of this front half sounds like wannabe Comethazine, a dude already reaching for some of Ski Mask’s spotlight. West forces an “On Sight” onto the project with opener “Rockstar Made,” where Carti charges out the gate stretching his vocal range with raspy Corona lung on an instrumental that will rattle the walls of The Forum, but it’s a pale do-over of “R.I.P.” In all his humbleness, West gives himself a dismal interlude on just the second track: an album that legitimately experimented with the type of production on “Go2DaMoon” would be a welcome departure, but as it stands, it’s a few seconds of pre-show intro music for the eventual tour.
The complex mediocrity of WHOLE LOTTA RED’s first act continues on “Stop Breathing,” a song that is at once one of the stand-out best and most boring on the whole project. It fucking rules, with recklessly punk, head-in-the-clouds aspiration for gang homicides, and bars like “I just hit a lick with a mask / MF DOOM / I just rocked a show on some motherfucking shrooms / Fucked my biggest fan in the fucking green room” representing the scumlord incarnate the rapper best embodies, but what’s with the comprehensible lyrics and legible delivery, both unevenly mixed several levels above the beat? Your pivot to mumblethrash is steeped in… Sterilizing your act? The next track (“Beno!”) continues this newly picked-up delivery wherein Carti sacrifices his long drawl to make every word land like an individual round of ammunition. He’s certainly altered the style, but attention has been paid to the wrong aspect: God loves him, but I wouldn’t recommend hyper-focusing on his lyrical capabilities. It’s not that these songs’ deviations from the expected are implicitly bad, he’s contributing his slightly altered version of a perfectly fine, pre-existing sound, but when you go to Red Lobster, chances are you’re not going to order the chicken.
There are noted improvements. If “No Sl33p,” with its growled chant of “When I go to sleep, I dream about murder,” is the Satanic Panic-inspired track designed to get Columbine-era parents Marilyn Manson mad, then “Meh” is the actual Charles Manson recruitment ballad, cultivating such sinister tones in its crushing bass and twinkling keys. All I can see is a brown field of masked-up Russian skinheads head-bobbing in unison: we’re either blowing up a skyscraper together or I’m getting decapitated right here right now, but I know it’s strictly one or the other. This frenzied violence peaks on “New Tank,” filled to the brim with Carti’s freely conscious lines ranging from getting a case with dirt on his face to remarking that he has tattoos on his face to dealing with the insecurity that people think he’s gay? It’s feral, and an appreciated shot of acid after TikTok friendly, Lil Yachty hand-me-downs like “Slay3r,” which are then slotted next to tracks as unleashed and guttural as “Teen X.” Goddamn, is this song the product of a deeply unwell man. Pleading for “a lil X, a lil codeine,” the track whistles along with playful abandon, the ice cream truck loop engraving itself like needles in your neural cortex, with big brother Future hopping on to enable his pupil’s addiction. It may very well be the peak of WHOLE LOTTA RED, an unorthodox banger of profound distress that, had Carti spent the past two-and-a-half years truly wallowing in his vices, could have made for a thrillingly dour, fuller-bodied evolution.
The four-track, slam-dunk stretch of “Place” through “ILoveUIHateU” delivers on the initial largely theorized premise of how WLR was going to feel, these tracks lacking the utter reinvention of the final product and instead instilling the soaring rush of narcotics swirling in your bloodstream that “Half and Half” and “Long Time” once did. It’s emotionally evocative, serotonin-replenishing, shoulder-shimmying classic shit. The project goes out sad, wrapping up with “F33l Lik3 Dyin,” simply one of the worst tracks he’s ever made, drawing out the rhyming of “girl” with “world” and then “learned” on a sing-songy love ballad realizing the worst possible scenario of a D-side, throwaway Kanye vocal sample getting flipped into a SoundCloud beat. It’s tough: the first half continues to grow on me, but I understand a lot of the vitriol when the project starts and ends in your bad graces.
Remember that 48-hour period where Iggy Azalea got headlines again for exposing the depths of how awful a father Playboi Carti is? Unfortunately, the worse of a person we learn he is, the better the music gets. Debauchery hits especially different when you know the dude riding the beat is scummier than you (sorry, I don’t make the rules, rock and roll did). The Weeknd works in an incredibly similar register, translating his scornful self-acceptance as luscious, sub-zero R&B, but Carti relishes in the mayhem of drug mixing and pussy-hopping with the splendor of a baby voice and a surplus of bubblegum beats. Your nastiest weekends are his whole life: in another musician’s hands, it’d be a horrifically self-satisfied Zoomer sugar rush, but there’s a reason why your timeline won’t shut up about this dude. He’s effortlessly manufactured not just a mood, one evolving the base scatting of mumblerap, but the very essence of being caught up in it. He makes this look like breathing. And look, yeah, this new vampire cosplaying thing is weird. Kind of cute, sure, in a “my cousin likes to dress up as leather-clad BLOODBORNE characters at PAX East” kind of way, but “King Vamp” and “Vamp Anthem,” while totally solid, are indicative of a larger issue on WHOLE LOTTA RED. The latter is an ideal score for the Metro ride to the cybergoth rave, he nails it, but the former’s childishness is so hilariously at odds with the devilish merchandise released alongside the album drop. Yes, when I think of “When the sun comes down, yeah it’s time to creep!” I certainly envision a Pagan ritual, sure, buddy. Not to mention, it’s the second song on the album where he pulls a Village People chorus of spelling out the name of the track, but here’s the greater issue: he’s reaching for something that just isn’t innately natural to him. He’s trying to capture a sound that’s, frankly, old hat. That’s never been Playboi Carti’s M.O. On “Punk Monk,” he remarks that the label tricked him into thinking he could keep long-time producer Pi’erre Bourne around, revealing WHOLE LOTTA RED as less of a mythic pièce de résistance and more a mea culpa.
Solitude bars these blockbuster albums, from Uzi’s ETERNAL ATAKE to that criminally horny Ariana Grande tape, from establishing mythologies. Maybe there’s a sub-sect of TikTok I’m not privy to that’s recreating the sense of walking a few blocks in your neighborhood and knowing what’s consuming the cultural consciousness based on the three-second snippets you hear from the cars that drive by, floating out of open apartment windows, and seeping out from the boutique storefronts blasting their house playlists, because other than exponentially running up the numbers of streaming data, I doubt these online spaces guide the culture as much as doe-eyed millennials claim they do. “On That Time” feels like pure mosh pit fodder, but that’s conjecture: for all I know, in a non-pandemic world, 19-year-old e-girls are breaking each others’ noses to “Sky” at The Observatory in Santa Ana. WHOLE LOTTA RED is a project made to leech off of this enthusiasm, to elevate itself via the adrenaline of its live performance. Without a 30k-deep Camp Flog Gnaw mosh pit producing enough sweat on Dodger Stadium pavement to trigger a monsoon over Chinatown, the sloppy engineering of “Rockstar Made” ends up the most forward-facing element of a track desperate for pyrotechnics. Playboi Carti’s worst songs were still more interesting than your favorite rapper’s best, but on WHOLE LOTTA RED, the rockstar’s poorest merely resemble the norm. He’s one of the most steadfast, confident musicians alive today: so why does his latest feel self-conscious about Drake fans’ negative reception to his “Pain 1993” verse? There’s tons to pick at in WLR, but any time I do, I’m brought back to “M3tamorphosis,” the most transportive, atmospheric five-minute stretch on the album, where Carti scores his own Cudi hums, rattles the Earth with ground-shaking 808s, and runs up the GPU with every drum in the kit—can you really tell him shit?