Playboi Carti, Whole Lotta Red (2020)

Playboi Carti has lost himself in sound. The Atlanta rapper’s Whole Lotta Red, released on Christmas as a surprise present to fans, defies rap’s usual rules as meaning dissolves, trap’s sonic hallmarks are pastiched, impulsive segues continually disrupt the flow, and rappers can fly. You could spend weeks playing in the soundscape he’s created. 

Whole Lotta Red confirms Carti’s status as a protean innovator. Goofy, cackling, often barely noticeable, putting more energy into the ad-libs than the main verse, he completes a historical progression that started a decade ago with Lil Wayne and moved through Young Thug, among others: first, rappers eased the requirement that their verses make sense; then, that they enunciate clearly. With Carti, this particular lineage has finally reached its logical endpoint (although who knows what limits the next generation will push). Reducing his voice to just another aural element alongside the beat, one more pretty sound to complement the whooshing synthesizers and skittering snare drums, he steps further out of the songs’ spotlight, departing even more from the confines of traditional coherence. 

What’s left is a silly and delightful sensibility. Contra the claims of several rap critics, this music is not “post-verbal” (there are words, and sometimes they’re even audible), but lyrics are not the point, at least not in the way that rappers usually conceive them. Instead, Carti’s repetitive, dissociated verses and woozy beats (often courtesy of frequent creative partner Pi’erre Bourne) produce a disorienting rap impressionism, a style so mannered and distinctive it needs no subject; if anything, this music is preverbal, inducing a sort of amniotic unconscious state. It is as committed to luxurious immersion as shoegaze or ambient music, but it’s faster and crisper — it functions simultaneously as party music. 

Rappers have often described hedonism lyrically. In its jumbled, overwhelming neon rush as well as his zonked delivery, Carti’s music evokes it sonically. After years of mysterious leaks and occasional singles, his debut mixtape Playboi Carti (2017) delineated the boundaries of this style, and Die Lit (2018) expanded the template with thicker beats and more beguiling musical puzzles. Whole Lotta Red is longer and more varied, as he imaginatively toys with the formula; the songs are short, playful, and numerous. It has the variety of what used to be called a double album, before streaming-era commercial imperatives inflated every major-label release to distended size.

When Die Lit clocked in at 19 songs in just under an hour, it seemed at the time that Carti, too, was on the verge of succumbing to Spotify-inspired bloat. In light of Whole Lotta Red, whose 24 songs last just over an hour, it’s clear such abundance is crucial to the aesthetic experience. Usually hip-hop projects this expansive eschew unified coherence to allow for poaching, so that fans will pick their favorite tracks and include them on playlists, but Carti’s albums are playlists in themselves. Die Lit and Whole Lotta Red share a sense of mischievous excess with, say, mid-’00s Lil Wayne mixtapes, designed less as linear sequences and more as theoretically infinite wallpaper that you can tune into as long as you feel like. You can listen to the album all the way through in order, or shuffled randomly or according to your own sequences, and still get lost in the world these artists have created. (Playboi Carti is relatively tighter and cleaner, but it reflects the same chaotic sensibility.) 

Playboi Carti, Die Lit (2018)

Where most albums wear out once you’ve internalized their narrative sequence, Carti’s are practically inexhaustible. It’s easy to immerse oneself in the voluptuous beats of Bourne, Art Dealer, and F1lthy, producers on Whole Lotta Red who assemble a decadent array of slithering synthesizer textures so rich they glow. Carti himself often gets buried beneath warm waves of electronic sound, especially when lapsing into his signature yelping, high-pitched “baby voice.” Whole Lotta Red expands his vocal register, as he complements the baby voice with a number of newly invented, increasingly wild modes of delivery — most strikingly, a hoarse rasp, as when the opening “Rockstar Made” finds him struggling to croak the song’s hook and the dissonant keyboards drown him out.

Carti has a keen ear for repetition and constantly repeats phrases, bringing out the curious poetry of such gnomic lines as “I’m a dark knight bitch, yeah I can’t sleep/I fly in the sky, I got wings on my feet,” “I could fall out the sky and I still won’t feel nothin’,” and “When I go to sleep I dream about murder” (is he victim or perpetrator?). His taste for ad-libs persists, and throughout the album he rarely raps two consecutive lines without inserting some quasi-improvised exclamation between them. Some verses consist entirely of ad-libs, building dizzy echo chambers where countless chirping voices play call-and-response games; after the first chorus on “Stop Breathing,” he utters a panting, polyphonous refrain that the good folks at Genius have transcribed as: 

Ha, ha, ha, ha (Slatt, ayy)
Ha, ha (Yеah), ha, ha (Ayy)
Ha, ha (Yeah), ha (Oh my), ha (Yeah)
Ha, ha (What?), ha (What?), ha (What? Damn)

If ordinary standards of craft and coherence don’t apply to this music, that doesn’t exempt it from criticism. Although Whole Lotta Red has a whole lotta songs, many are fragmentary throwaways like “Place” and “JumpOutTheHouse,” which last under two minutes and hardly include anything but one refrain repeated over and over. In keeping with voguish SoundCloud rap experiments in minimalist brevity — Tohji’s “Propella” is one recent example — Carti’s fixation on snippets feels relatively underdeveloped, as he doesn’t sufficiently distinguish each track. Where each song on Playboi Carti and Die Lit inhabited its own self-sufficient ecosystem, Whole Lotta Red depends on the loopy flow that results from juxtaposing so many snippets together, making it greater than the sum of its parts. In this sense it’s more conventionally album-esque. 

Carti sounds more like himself on the longer, full-fledged conceits. “Vamp Anthem” rides a jerky, chopped-up beat that splices the organ chords from Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” as he declares himself a vampire in such a throaty growl you believe him, while on the groggy “Teen X,” he alternates between his already squeaky baby voice and a shrill Auto-Tuned chirp several octaves higher. In the past year, New York rapper 645AR has gone viral for using a similarly pitch-corrected chipmunk cadence. By mixing it freely with other modes of delivery, Carti rescues the style from the taint of novelty. “Control” is his sweetest confection: over glistening synthesizer chords seeping through distorted speakers, he gargles a series of stilted love confessions, stumbling his way through awkward rhymes and throat-clearing evasions (“Basically, what I’m saying is …”) that make him sound tongue-tied, while the beat captures the sound of a blush. 

Ultimately, though, Whole Lotta Red’s countless individual sublime moments are swept up in the album’s cumulative rush, and this is his secret. While even his weirdest contemporaries still feel the need to center themselves as performers, Carti’s willingness to disappear on his own songs runs counter to the egotist individualism that has characterized rap since its inception. When Young Thug, say, plays with pronunciation and melody, twisting syllables around into his own private language, he does so as a virtuoso trying to dazzle you; there’s technique involved, however eccentric, leaving traditionally masculine conceptions of skill and control intact. By letting oceanic sonics wash over him, Carti softens the boundaries between language and sound, between meaning and sensation, into an ecstatic blur. Floating through clouds, he finds oneness between the bass and the snare drums.

That a gaggle of hip-hop purists therefore refuse to recognize this music as rap at all shouldn’t bother Carti, the last artist who’d fuss over the definitions of words. Whole Lotta Red is rap, obviously, but, more importantly, it’s beautiful — surreal, colorful, sugary, impish, and wild. 

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...