Playboi Carti 'Whole Lotta Red' Is The Sound Of 2021 Whether You Like It Or Not

Playboi Carti 'Whole Lotta Red' Is The Sound Of 2021 Whether You Like It Or Not

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In the days leading up to Christmas 2020, demand for Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red was at an all time high.

The 18 months following 2018’s Die Lit were wallpapered with the usual Carti snippets, SoundCloud leaks sourced from producers and group buys, promised release dates coming and going. Collaborations with Lil Uzi Vert, Offset and Smooky Margiela were coaxed onto the internet, tracks that would never see official release, racking up millions of plays for everyone except the artists.

Social media was ablaze when the album dropped: “Carti missed;” “Whole lotta mid;” “where’s RIP Yams.” Whole Lotta Red is hoarser, harder-edged and far less user friendly than those leaks or the albums that preceded them. Initial reactions were mixed. Some fans clung to compilations of leaked snippets from 2019 rather than playing the actual album. Whole Lotta Red isn’t quite the “fuck you” heel turn of executive producer Kanye West’s Yeezus, but the message is equally crystalline: this is not Die Lit 2.

In practice, that translates to an inversion of his usual formula. Hazy synths and singsong earworms shrouded in spacey melodic beats still appear on Whole Lotta Red, but the bulk of the album is cloaked in harsh electronic tones, sawtooth oscillators and blown-out drum machines. It sounds like a future dystopia crawling with vampires, where every technorave devolves into a violent blood orgy.

While some artists made albums about quarantine in 2020 (Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now) and others ignored it entirely (Drake’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes), Carti distills the emotions of fearful isolation down to their purest form without ever mentioning Covid-19. He’s in the house on his own, growing increasingly paranoid, literally gasping for breath. “If I die it’s gon be real sad/ so I fuck on my bitch like it’s our last/ I’m a rockstar so I never can relax,”  he says with jitters on “Die4Guy.”

Leaving aside how album producers Starboy, Outtatown and Art Dealer dictated the year in SoundCloud rap, it’s the raw humanity beneath the pentagrams and plastic fangs that makes Whole Lotta Red the indisputable album of the year. It’s palpable on “Punk Monk,” when Carti sighs “I gotta worry bout me,” exhausted by “some friendly ass n****s,” and on “Over,” when he gets too lit and wonders aloud “how the fuck we got to where we started? This love don’t feel how it felt when we started.”

Carti’s songwriting has always blurred the lines between hooks and verses, but here song structures fall away, demonic chants turned to meditative mantras by sheer repetition. The beats are shinier, harder, drenched in the pinkest pink or light-devouring vantablack, the militant stomp of “Stop Breathing” and “ILoveUIHateU” giving way to the dizzying neon gyrations of “M3tamorphosis” and “Not PLayin.”

But while the style might be new, the substance is familiar: after all, rage beats are just plugg beats with more electronic influence (take it from MexikoDro and Popstar Benny). That identical sonic scaffolding helps unify older leaks such as “Place” with new cuts like “Slay3r” and “Meh,” so although the album rips through ideas at a breakneck pace, those swerves and left turns never veer into whiplash. And that’s on an album where a Bach sample segues into a Maaly Raw beat.

When it comes to mainstream success, Carti’s constant reinvention is a double-edged sword, where fans eager for the next “Magnolia” or “Foreign” end up playlisting other artists making similar songs. In fact, Carti’s biggest hit in 2021 wasn’t from Whole Lotta Red, but his feature on Trippie Redd’s “Miss the Rage,” which nails the aesthetics of being a rager without actually embodying any of its meaning.

There will always be more demand for Carti’s music than supply, the raison d’etre for a legion of copycats. But this is the first time his imitators haven’t been scrambling to catch up. Tripp At Knight feels like a Carti homage, but while it certainly gestures towards the rage sound, Trippie’s imitation of Carti is largely rooted in 2019 rather than 2021.

Elsewhere, Mario Judah had the audacity to call Whole Lotta Red trash, appealing to fairweather fans who miss Die Lit enough to shovel down the shlock Judah calls music.

Which is to say, there’s still plenty of “new Carti” for people who like his old shit and already bought the old album. But the sound of Whole Lotta Red was everywhere in 2021. Yeat, Ken Car$on and SoFaygo have been running with the baton all year, and 2022 will likely see more of the same as labels rush in to profit. Carti didn’t invent the rage, but he popularized and put his own stamp on the sound, weaving in Bon Iver samples and his best rapping to date.

In a year flush with big budget releases that came and went (Migos, J. Cole, Lil Durk & Lil Baby, Young Stoner Life, Drake), Whole Lotta Red stands apart for its clarity of purpose and efficient execution. Executive producer Kanye West’s DONDA had a similarly grandiose vision, but the final product was overlong and overwrought, belabored to the point of boredom.

Here, West’s deft touch is evident not only in the album’s production and mixing, fine-tuned for arena tours and AirPods alike, but in Carti’s raps, which unfurl new pages of his personal history and corners of his psyche. His vocal performance too takes after West’s best work. Carti raps and sings and screams into the mic like he’ll never make another album.

In Anne Rice’s 1988 novel The Queen of the Damned, the immortal Lestat de Lioncourt has taken up as lead singer of a human rock band, confessing his murderous sins over electric guitar. Rice’s reinvention of the vampire founded the modern mythology of a seductive bloodsucker, a precursor to the Edward Cullens of today. Lestat is typically monstrous and occasionally altruistic, a bisexual fashionista and an egomaniacal antihero, unwilling to abide by the rules of vampire society. In 2021, he would be draped in Givenchy, ordering prison shankings, rapping circles around Kid Cudi, going “bananas one time,” demanding to know who his lover fucked in the next room.

He might as well be the blueprint for Carti’s new role as “King Vamp,” the latest chapter in the rapper’s evolution from popstar to rockstar to ruler of the undead. Semi-automatic dracos are made in Romania and Dracula was too. Whole Lotta Red is the sound of a new legend dying to be born. It’ll be album of the year in 2022.

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