Playboi Carti is a Rock Star

To the disgruntled teenager, Playboi Carti is Jesus. To the concerned parent, Playboi Carti is the Antichrist. No matter which side of the spectrum you find yourself on, Jordan Carter is one of few rock stars in the rap game.
SAMUEL HYLAND

On any of the December nights in 1973 that Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention played the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood – a series of concerts that would become Roxy & Elsewhere (1974) – Zappa, for about an hour and a half, was the most interesting human being on Earth. Before audiences mostly comprised of countercultural post-hippies aged 21-and-below, he swaggered across the stage, monologuing about weed, improvising tales of high school diplomas rolled up and smoked, and digging at the education system with every opportunity he got, all the while surrounded by scantily-clad groupies strutting seductively at his side. This represented a dream for the vast majority of young listeners then: the lifestyle he purported, one with zeroes in categories of both fucks given and consequences garnered, was a dual epitome of swagger and success.

Yet, for the older generation, Zappa’s antics were representative of the opposite. Along with dozens of other long-haired spokespeople for a rapidly shifting musical climate, the Mothers’ frontman was everything that they didn’t want their children to be: drugged up, horny, and disillusioned with life. Although these are, for the most part, inaccurate exaggerations of what the typical rock star was (and still is) deep down, when a concerned parent saw something like Altamont on television, the very worst was what stuck. Because of this – in all cases Zappa and beyond – one of few sole common elements was that denial of old-heads made such movements that much stronger.

In many ways, Playboi Carti represents a continuation of what rebellious modernism Zappa’s heyday bred. Since exploding onto national scenes following years spent as a protege to Atlanta’s Awful Records, he has – with just an album, a mixtape, and hordes of unreleased loosies to his name – pushed music’s translucent boundaries to a point where one side calls him the greatest rapper of all time, and another refuses to address him as a rapper at all. Occasionally sporting a pair of devil horns on his forehead, he boasts a set of fiery red twists, a widely emulated vampire-adjacent fashion sense, and a cryptic internet lingo representative of the enigma he’s become over time. To the disgruntled teenager, Playboi Carti is Jesus. To the concerned parent, Playboi Carti is the Antichrist.

Born Jordan Carter, the rapper’s rhymes are just as horrifying to old-heads as his vibe is to mom and dad. Behind buoyant, trap-infused rhythms, you may find him spurting boastful idiosyncrasies in short bursts – or murmuring half-hums about hoes with no regard for any beat whatsoever – or speaking words that, in headphones, are clear per ultra-rare occasion, but in substance, are opaque. “On my mama, I’m a pretty young nigga like my mama, uh (Carti, Carti),” he spits over the cloud-rap synths of Wit Da Fanta (2016). “Niggas plottin’, trust nobody, uh / Catch a body off the bean, uh / Doin’ donuts, uh, in the lobby”: all three declarations are included within single lines of each other. For an older ear who grew up on Tupac and Children of the Corn, the initial complaint may have been that one couldn’t make out a word he said – but even with lyrics made perfectly audible, the grievance quickly becomes one of subject matter. Is it still hip-hop if you’re talking about doing donuts in the lobby?

“To the disgruntled teenager, Playboi Carti is Jesus. To the concerned parent, Playboi Carti is the Antichrist.”

In his latest widely dispersed snippet – a brief IG Live video that got the words THEY THOUGHT I WAS GAY to trend on Twitter – the enigma swirling the Atlanta-born rapper is on full display. It seems like he knows it. “Play that motherfucker,” he tells someone off-screen, as the stream starts. The instrumental that follows is loud and gritty, complete with intense basslines and floor-rumbling sustain. In the seconds that precede his verse, he dances the way a reptilious movie villain would emerge from his lurking spot: slimy, wicked, deceptive, vile.

From just over a minute of eerie camera glares and stuck-out tongues, some of the only immediately decipherable lyrics include a snarled “I’m robbin’ da bank,” “My bitch, she got cake,” and – as suggested by the Twitter trend – “They thought I was gay.”

Once again, the issue to longtime hip-hop listeners becomes one predicated on the question of whether this is even hip-hop at all. Over decades of a cultural renaissance spanning from the late 70s, the crux of hip-hop music has entailed a focus on lyricism rather than production; in years where beat-boxing rose up in place of advanced production technology on street corners in the Bronx, words were the only substantial element that made rap relatable on a human level. This dynamic fostered a trend wherein all MCs were – and, in a way, still are – unofficially judged by how well they could reflect what communities they emerged from. It was more tradition than artistic statement for albums like Illmatic and Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous to tell living stories of Queens and Harlem respectively, or for the genre to swiftly become split – like a widespread network of gangs – into specific territories across the United States. Words were the weapons of choice, and they waged real wars. 

So, when the turn of the century saw rap’s backbone suddenly shift from content to production, the gaping rift exacerbated by Carter today emerged as a small, but impossible-to-ignore crack in the surface. “Hip hop died when beats became more important than lyrics,” Facebook user Double D wrote in a 73-line 2015 post entitled “I Miss Hip-Hop.” “We don’t get a thing from rappers today / They don’t understand the importance of KRS one, Public Enemy, Rakim, Big Pun or Jam Master Jay.”

A well-known instance of similar musical conservatism came in the summer of 2019, when Lil Nas X teamed up with Billy Ray Cyrus to release Old Country Road. After topping the Billboard Country charts, as well as winning Musical Event of the Year at the Country Music Awards, questions arose from lifelong listeners of the genre regarding whether the song was truly country. It escalated into a nationwide discussion about appropriation in various art forms, on to cultural gatekeeping, then racism in general. The question still is omnipresent in cases like these: when is it appropriation, and when is it appreciation?

Sitting most closely adjacent to Playboi Carti’s place in rap history is the controversy that surrounded Bob Dylan’s 1965 Newport Festival set. Prior to the performance, Dylan grew famous for playing the blues exclusively on acoustic guitar; the genre of blues, at that point, was predicated on acoustics the same way rap music was once predicated on lyricism. In a defiant pre-show decision, however, (one described in attitude by Newport roadie Jonathan Taplin as “Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here”), Dylan resolved on a whim to perform with a Fender Stratocaster. The decision to go electric was extended to his entire backing band, the entirety of which forewent acoustic instruments for newly-manufactured electric versions. They were violently booed off the stage. Bob Dylan did not return to the Newport Festival for another thirty-seven years.

On a macro scale, Playboi Carti’s chapter of hip-hop history etches him into a category reserved for once-in-a-generation acts like Dylan and Zappa. Nothing to do with talent or skill, it is a category reserved for individuals who spearhead the transition from single phases of their respective genres to the next, weathering stubborn countercurrents, and bypassing non-believers en route to a permanently altered artistic landscape in which the next generation of creatives may thrive. Is Playboi Carti a hip-hop artist? No. At least not just a hip-hop artist. Playboi Carti is a rock star – one of few in rap – who, with his enigmatic aura, elusive self-made universe, and parental nightmare fuel, is ushering in a counterculture that threatens to top the one Zappa and co. incited fifty years ago. As we near the release of whatever it’s taken him two long years to come up with, all signs point to matters just getting started.

One of the most eclectic things about Carter’s version of rock-stardom is the means by which it is fostered. Whereas rock stars of decades past gloated – whether intentionally or unintentionally – about their superstar status via off-stage antics, nationwide autograph-signing excursions, or endless hunts for good press, Playboi Carti retreats behind the shadows cast by his own influence, letting a legion of devoted fans construct for him a cult-of-personality that serves to fill in gaps left by his lack of physical presence. In a rare GQ interview released recently as part of the magazine’s Men of the Year series, he told the journalist Jewel Wicker that “I’m always at home by myself. I don’t really go out like that at all, unless I have to. Studio and the house. That’s it.”

In some ways, much like how it’s worked for everything else surrounding him, his introverted approach to the public has made him all the more sought-after. Mere Instagram stories of his ring in flurries of reposts from hip-hop news sources. Newly-released photoshoots of his circulate the web within hours. Misinterpreted captions – written, of course, in his secret language – bring avalanches of false rumors proclaiming that an album is on its way. 

But sometimes, the soul behind the enigma emerges. In October of 2019, following an Instagram post captioned “<48hours! locked in” that proved to not be referring to his album’s release timing (it was reported later that he meant to say that he’d been locked in the studio for that much time), supporters grew noticeably impatient. Later on in 2020, a fan expressed grievances through a comment posted on his then-latest flick: “Carti listen you have disappointed us many times with this album release and we still worship you. We are in fucking quarantine rn. Plz bless us.” “i never left . hey . stay wit meh . I o you da world n i kno it . I love u n everyone . N my universe <3,” the rapper replied.

“His raps may not impress you, but much like guitar-slinging, parent-frightening art legends of decades past, his ethos is more than enough to fill in the gap.”

Similarities can be drawn to Kurt Cobain, the ill-fated Nirvana frontman who, too, pushed musical boundaries for younger generations before dying by suicide in 1994. In one of the last interviews he gave while he was alive – this one to legendary rock music critic David Fricke – he went on record saying: “It’s really hard. I have to admit I’ve found myself doing the same things that a lot of other rock stars do or are forced to do. Which is not being able to respond to mail, not being able to keep up on current music, and I’m pretty much locked away a lot. The outside world is pretty foreign to me.” Cobain went on to talk about the joy he felt in being able to visit a club for the first time in a while, mid-tour on a rare night of rest. The band were in Kansas City with no idea of how to spend their free time. They called into a local college radio station to no avail, before visiting a bar in which they hit it off with local band kids. “I really had a good time with them, all night. I invited them back to the hotel. They stayed there. I ordered room service for them. I probably went overboard, trying to be accommodating,” Cobain said. “But it was really great to know that I can still do that, that I can still find friends.”

Like Cobain, a big part of Carter’s reality is hidden behind thick walls of unintentionally implemented propaganda. Similar to how it was difficult to see Kurt Cobain for himself amidst swirls of angry imagery, an unavoidable drug abuse narrative, and controversy surrounding subject matter, it is near-impossible to see Playboi Carti for himself behind obscure rhymes, cryptic goth wear, and an added layer of linguistic secrecy that makes matters all the more complex. The Playboi Carti of the early 2010s got to where he is now through the public — whether it be gaining inspiration from listeners encountered in H&M shops, getting Awful Records partygoers turnt up enough to break the floor, or being taken under the wing of A$AP Mob in New York City, the presence of others was a consistent catalyst for growth. With the Playboi Carti of today, it’s hard to say that he’d be open to hanging out with fans in a Kansas City bar – not because he doesn’t appreciate the support – but because so much of what makes him intriguing right now is the side of him that he doesn’t let us see.

In this way, he employs the same tactics to his rapping as he does his overall persona. In his raps, obscurity is the only thing you are guaranteed to register. Reflective of the secretive lingo he uses online, he spits verses as if he’s the only one allowed to understand what’s coming out. Then, in the rare moments in which he speaks clearly, what he’s saying doesn’t often make much sense to the general public. With life in itself, his indecipherable mumbles equate to the mysterious veil behind which he spends a majority of his time operating. The moments of clarity in verses, on the other hand, equal his rare moments of displayed acknowledgement of his impact on followers: like when he responded to the Instagram comment. Yes, you can roughly translate his reply to an apology, mixed with the unspoken ultimatum that new music will someday come. But – in terms of substance – since that exchange, there has been no Whole Lotta Red-related content officially released. Just this week, even, the mystical second LP surpassed Lil Uzi Vert’s long-awaited Eternal Atake in wait time.

The hip-hop of old was built upon an unwritten covenant built on the rock of transparency between artist and listener. This is one of many categories in which old-heads may find lack in Carter. Over the course of Tupac Shakur’s rape trial spanning 1994 and 1995, the rapper was public about his plight in a way that saw all things put on the table. Yes, this was, in part because it was what his global celebrity demanded of him – every time court let out for recess, he was greeted with a sea of microphones shoved into his face – but the aspect that fans grew to appreciate was his grace: he took each blow with stride, defending himself in interviews with the same poetic confidence he exhibited in his raps. It became known that Gangsta Rap itself was on trial with Shakur, and any negative image of its primary name-carrier could very well tarnish its reputation on a national scale. “Every moment he was on, he was alive; he was emoting Pac-ness,” Touré, a journalist who covered the trial, said of his demeanor. “A lot of people take a break. You know, they go onstage, they do their thing, they get off, and they repose a little bit or a lot. But Pac was just always on, and everything he did was contributing to what we thought of as Pac-ness.” Many point to Tupac’s performance in court as a make-or-break moment in the longevity of gangsta rap as a genre – he made it. 

With similar weight upon his shoulders, in times where controversy spills into the public eye, Playboi Carti would much rather find refuge in the shadow of influence that has yet to forsake him. When, in 2017, he was arrested on charges of domestic battery for a violent altercation with his then-girlfriend, the silence of his team raised eyebrows across age groups. And this year, when he welcomed a son alongside Iggy Azalea – the kind of public event that gets any other celebrity a ton of practically required press – he remained, once again, silent on the matter, letting the updates to the public come exclusively from his spouse, and allowing narratives to create themselves via tabloids and social media chatter. This week, in the brief re-emergence that saw the THEY THOUGHT I WAS GAY Instagram livestream and the release of his GQ cover story, he also danced around issues surrounding him in some rarefied Twitter activity: “I told da bit shut up! My son crying,” he wrote in his first tweet since the 29th of April. Iggy Azalea – who he split up with not too long prior – understandably thought the tweet was addressing her. “Did you?” she asked in a retweet. After some expected public silence from her ex-husband, she updated followers on the situation, tweeting later: “I just spoke to my sons father and apparently that isn’t meant to be about me. Apparently.” Having grown angry with fans offering commentary on the ordeal, her next three tweets said, respectively:

Y’all wrong as hell for your dumb ass Lil tweets. Why I gotta log on and see my name dragged in dirt over a random cryptic ass tweet, that hasn’t got shit to do with me! For WHAT!? I mind my business. I hope your Mac & cheese burns in the oven on Thursday. Night!

And yes, I’m pissed the fuck off. As I should be. As you would be.”

Then “Stream midnight sky by Miley Cyrus.”

In the meantime, the next trio of Playboi Carti tweets said, respectively:

OUt of MY boDY ! WHOLE TAPE

HeY

we bACk!!!!

Although Tupac Shakur and Jordan Carter are on two completely different sides of the spectrum when it comes to public perception, there is one notable fact that hip hop fans continue to revisit: Playboi Carti was born on the exact same day that 2Pac was murdered. 

For those arguing the case that Playboi Carti is indeed the greatest rapper of all time, this has served year after year as confirmation that on that night in 1996, what invisible hip-hop powers exist passed the torch from Shakur to Carter — that what we see today is, if anything, a continuation of Tupac’s legacy.

The other side vehemently rebukes this claim. “That don’t mean shit don’t ever put them in the same category,” one Twitter user commented under an XXL mention of the dynamic. When another reply simply stated “Cartis better tho,” one of over fifty responses begged the user to refrain from reproducing at all costs.  

No matter whether mystical powers were at play on September 7, 1996 or not, though, what the coincidence does do is embolden a raging question mark bridging the chasm between rap’s past and rap’s future. While one person, shown Die Lit, may ask “Is this what rap has come to?”, another may inquire of All Eyez on Me: “Is this what rap used to sound like?”

Both rappers opened new chapters in a shared hip-hop history. Like Frank Zappa at the Roxy and Bob Dylan at Newport, they stood at the corners of today and yesterday, persevering past non-believing jeers and etching permanent redefinitions into respective musical dictionaries. Playboi Carti’s contribution to hip-hop’s own dictionary – alongside delivery and lyrical content – sits within stardom: Jordan Carter is a rock star. His raps may not impress you, but much like guitar-slinging, parent-frightening art legends of decades past, his ethos is more than enough to fill in the gap.  

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