Whole Lotta Red – Playboi Carti
Playboi Carti’s new project is enterprising and starkly unique, combining his various styles of old with an exciting new punk sound. However, based on Whole Lotta Red, one would be justified in their concern for his emotional well-being.
OVERALL RATING: 8/10
FAVORITE TRACKS: Rockstar Made, Stop Breathing, Slay3r, New Tank, Teen X, Vamp Anthem, Control, On That Time, Sky, Over, ILoveUIHateU, Die4Guy, Not PLaying, F33l Lik3 Dyin
LEAST FAVORITE TRACKS: Go2DaMoon, M3tamorphosis, King Vamp
If 2020 felt like a long year, just imagine the plight of the starved Playboi Carti stan. Deceived by the hermetic Atlanta rapper, born Jordan Carter, who had previously announced his highly anticipated second studio album Whole Lotta Red more than 800 days prior, the average Carti fan spent their days surviving off what felt like prison scraps. Persisting merely with meager CDQ leaks scattered across the internet, fans of the reclusive MC became increasingly hostile towards an album which seemed like it simply didn’t exist. But, on December 21st, Carti released official cover art for the album to his previously silent social media accounts, quelling the incessant debate surrounding the record’s existence. Whole Lotta Red was finally coming.
Upon hearing the official announcement of Whole Lotta Red’s completion, fans began an almost theatrical countdown to what was, by many fans’ standards, a make-or-break record. With his ardent followers having waited longer than two years for the project, expectations concerning Whole Lotta Red were astronomical. At the same time, with no lead single for the LP released, any conception of the artistic direction Carti would take was at best speculation. Carti was untouchable – his only communications with fans being cryptic Twitter tidings – and as a result, fans’ collective conception on what Whole Lotta Red’s sound would be was based purely on what they saw on the outside. Would they hear the old Carti, who lived his lifestyle according to his playboi nom de plume? Would they hear the Carti from Die Lit, liberated in his effortlessness? Or would Whole Lotta Red’s sound mirror the vampiric yet feminine rockstar which had caused so much online controversy?
On the onset of Christmas, the album was officially released on all platforms – and if social media was any indication of whether the album fulfilled its monumental expectations, Whole Lotta Red was nothing more than an abject failure. On my music Instagram page, fellow fans seethed with discontent at the album. “He smoking too much opium and watched too much vamp diary,” one commenter wrote. Others castigated the album as “ass”, “mid but I wasn’t expecting more”, or “stinks”. One questioned, at my insistence that the album was more than people were initially viewing it as, whether I was high. The “wholelottared” Twitter hashtag became a dumpster fire of angry fans raving against the album’s apparent disappointment. Only minutes following its release – the album is 63 minutes total – those same “fans” were speculated to have caused the rapper to end an album release party on Instagram Live due to their hostility.
“Whole Lotta Red is a cohesive vision of a futuristic, punk-rock iteration of hip-hop, whose daring risks cement Carti as one of the creative paradigms of an increasingly stale mainstream.”
For those who covet the traditional rollout and presentation of hip-hop albums – an affair touting extravagant guest features and name brand production – Whole Lotta Red will be as simple as you made it out to be upon first listen. However, to characterize the project as such would be a facile depiction of an album whose quality is evident upon any further listening. Initially masked under the ostensibly simple presentation of Carti’s elementary rhyme schemes and repetitive lyrics, Whole Lotta Red is an extravagant and vibrant project which holds the potential to redefine the conventional benchmarks of mainstream rap. Similar to 2018’s Die Lit, Carti’s confidence in his enterprising new-age artistic vision is loud (literally) and clear. His cathartic performance of emotion takes complete control throughout, blowing up any preconceived, leak-influenced notion of what his mystical second LP would sound like and turning it on its head. Whole Lotta Red is a cohesive vision of a futuristic, punk-rock iteration of hip-hop, whose daring risks cement Carti as one of the creative paradigms of an increasingly stale mainstream.
From the very beginning of Whole Lotta Red, it is immediately clear that Carti has crafted an entirely new musical persona. This persona, however, is not a snakeskin-shedding of Carti’s previous artistic sound; instead, the new Carti simultaneously unleashes once-hidden passions whilst building upon each of his previous albums’ greatest strengths. Whole Lotta Red’s opener, “Rockstar Made,” is not only emblematic of the diversity of Carti’s sound, but also of the album’s dominant ethos. Carti spits as an extension of the beat, which pits booming 808’s and piercing background melodies against each other gladiator-style. In a way only Carti can, he somehow manages to turn the word “homicide” into a nose-scrunchingly fire adlib. Following in the sonic footsteps of “Rockstar Made,”, the similarly frantic “On That Time” reproduces the lyrical simplicity of his eponymous debut and combines it with a deranged, blaring beat to engineer a mosh-pit ready concoction. “Vamp Anthem”’s sampling of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” is” is sculpted straight out of Bram Stoker’s 1992 film adaptation of Dracula, laying macabre organs over an indelibly energetic vocal performance.
Even though Playboi Carti is clearly a bona fide rockstar who makes music outside the norms of what is expected from mainstream hip-hop, the production and delivery on a handful of songs from Whole Lotta Red also build upon the hip-hop tradition of imitation. Through this, Carti reveals an oft-doubted awareness of his fans’ expectations, attempting to emulate that which has pleased before. “Slay3r” sees the Atlanta native adopt the triplet-flow created by his hometown, while the 808 Mafia-produced “Beno!”’s effervescent jumping melody sounds straight out of Eternal Atake. In a nod which feels almost like caustic humor, Carti samples the popular-yet-controversial hip-hop blogger Akademiks on “Control”. Even with this joking touch, the song sees Carti spit some of his most personally honest bars yet. He is rich, and can buy whatever he wants – “Tell me what you want me to do (Slatt) / I can wear a business suit and speak proper (Proper) / Or I can put a hundred n****** on and buy them choppers.” But, as the song’s title suggests, the most important parts of his life are outside the grasp of blue Benjamins and disingenuous gestures of love: “Basically, what I’m saying is, I can’t change, but / But for you, I would do things and / Maybe one day I’d get on my knees and give you a diamond ring,” Carti serenades over frequent collaborator Art Dealer’s dancing synths.
With the project amounting to 24 tracks in total, it is obvious Carti is unafraid of the perils of quantity. Admittedly, the project is too long, and some songs seem to appear purely due to his desire to appease featured artists’ cult-like followings. Carti carries “Metamorphosis”, with Kid Cudi providing a lackluster and musically grey verse. Cudi is, as he was on MOTM3, clearly attempting to modernize his sound at the expense of the artistic honesty which led him to his current hip-hop stature. “Go2DaMoon”, which features the illustrious executive producer of WLR, Kanye West, is a frankly dreadful song whose production sounds as if five beats were stitched Frankenstein-style into one. However, in Carti’s return to his polemical baby voice on the Future-assisted “Teen X,” he proves wholly that issues in collaboration on Whole Lotta Red fall solely on other artists’ inability to adapt to his style; Carti’s baby voice and Future’s imitation of it are bursting with the expressiveness essential to any successful adaptation of the high-pitched inflection.
When left to his own devices, Playboi Carti has the capability to create truly beautiful compositions which eschew his rockstar psyche. “ILoveUIHateU”, the Pi’erre Bourne produced track which samples “It’s Yours” by T La Mac and Jazzy Jay (1984), sees Carti in his pure element. Over a glossy and exquisite beat, Carti raps about wanting to “d[ye] my hair red just to look like a pint of red”. An epitomization of Carti – musical beauty transposed over glorifications of promethazine – “ILoveUIHateU” reminds listeners that, although they collaborate only twice on the album, Carti and Pi’erre hold a connection that remains as essential to Carti’s sound as it was years ago. Whole Lotta Red’s final track, the Bon Iver-sampled “F33l Lik3 Dyin,” is a haunting reminder of the fracturing effects of stardom. Contrasting exultations of a Jimi Hendrix-esque, hedonistic embrace of fame with sudden remarks of his genuine wish to cease living, Carti concludes Whole Lotta Red in an unsettlingly morbid manner: “Uh, rockstar shit like I’m Jimi Hendrix / Popstar baby, like I’m Jimi Hendrix, yeah (All my life) … And I know I’m dyin’ (Woah) / This shit got me dyin’ (Woah)”.
In its entirety, Whole Lotta Red presents Playboi Carti perched perilously at the edge of a cliff. The album is fast, rushing with adrenaline and emotion – but it is also on the brink of falling off a ledge, with no return in sight. Carter’s lifestyle is filled with everything he dreamed of – sex, success, and a sky-high salary – but as much as it may seem so, he does not entirely belong here. Speeding down the runway of life is exhilarating, but the things which are most important to us can be lost in the blur. The sporadic nature and lyrical paradoxicality of Whole Lotta Red tell us that while Carti is in love with momentary bliss, he is also destroyed by its emptiness. While I am extremely excited at Carti’s embrace of an ambitious and compelling new sound, one cannot help but worry that his life may not be as curated as he would like us to believe.