Rap is a genre with a low point of entry and few rules. As Phonte once put it on Little Brother’s criminally overlooked but critically acclaimed major label debut, The Minstrel Show: “Dope beats, dope rhymes, what more do y’all want?” Of course, this was at a time crunk music dominated the airwaves and record labels clamored to find the next big ringtone hit. 13 years later, it feels like Little Brother’s brand of rebellion through adherence to tradition is not only quaint, it’s as played out as the ringtone rap they once railed against.
While one has strangely become the standard for the best-selling, most successful rap acts of all time, the other has been supplanted by the even more contrarian rule-breaking of Soundcloud rap, led by rabble-rousing rebels like Lil Uzi Vert, XXXtentacion, and the purveyor of perhaps the most virulent strain of anti-establishment, punk-hop, Playboi Carti.
The latter just released his latest audio Molotov cocktail, Die Lit, to a truly astonishing level of acclaim. It’s his “official” debut album — whatever that means in 2018 — for AWGE and Interscope Records and it’s a truly bewildering distillation of the anti-rap, Soundcloud rap ethos. As one listener put it, “Playboi Carti made an album of Adlibs & ya’ll flipping shit over it.” Its success — and very existence — tests the boundaries of Phonte’s 2005 thesis inquiry, begging the question of just how far rap can get deconstructed before it stops being “rap.”
Contrary to popular belief, I ain’t old. Check the records; I’ve found value in projects from any number of rappers other critics of my generation would have dismissed out of hand, simply from the presence of skinny jeans and face tats. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out Playboi Carti. This isn’t about old; it’s about a very basic set of rules that define a genre and the pressing need to stop trying to shoehorn musicians into its box, simply because they’re Black kids making music over heavy 808s.
For instance, Lil Uzi, Carti’s closest collaborator and simplest stylistic analogue for the purposes of this argument, may have broken down exactly how much rhyming is strictly necessary to fit a rap traditionalist’s criteria for “rhyming over beats,” but he is still doing just that, at least as recently as last year’s Luv Is Rage 2. The rhymes are simple, they’re spacey, they may not even necessarily follow through a cohesive set of ideas or thoughts, but that’s never exactly been a prerequisite for good rap. I defy anyone reading this to provide a bar-for-bar translation of the dense, esoteric slang-slinging of Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night or RZA’s Bobby Digital In Stereo without the aid of Genius or The Wu-Tang Manual.
However, what Carti is doing simply is not rap.
That’s okay though! I think for too long, the idea that refusing to accept the hip-hop classification of a given work has been considered synonymous with hating on that work on its own merits. That’s not what I’m saying here; just because Carti’s album is not rap, doesn’t mean it’s bad for whatever it actually is. But calling it “rap” does both it and rap a disservice. It means judging Die Lit by a set of standards it is desperately trying not to live up to. It means that rap doesn’t get to just be rap anymore.
Sure, there’s been plenty of genre-blending in recent years, but what artists like 6lack, Bryson Tiller, Drake, DRAM, Jidenna, and others have done has always been rooted in the simple, two-rule principles of rap music. They’ll always go back to “dope rhymes” and “dope beats,” and therefore will always have at least a toehold of a reasonable argument for classifying them rap.
If Playboi Carti’s oddball collection of raps and stream-of-consciousness jazz scatting has to be classified as rap, it flattens what Black entertainers are capable of making — everything necessarily has to be rap simply because of the only criteria that seem to apply when categorizing Carti into the genre. It’s all surface, a young, Black entertainer vocalizing over 808 drums — which have been lifted and transplanted into just about every other genre from pop to rock since its precipitous rise in popularity with the advent of trap — must be rap, and insisting on anything else is just old head bellyaching.
I have to repudiate that, because that means comparing Carti, whose art people obviously like and accept as its own thing, to the Kendrick Lamar’s and J. Cole’s of the world, which just isn’t fair to Carti. By their standards, hell no, he’s not a good rapper. Compare him to his closest contemporaries — Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Xan, Lil Skies –and he still doesn’t hold up. He doesn’t even try. The work Playboi Carti does on Die Lit may bear some of the hallmarks of those ostensible “peers,” but “R.I.P.” isn’t rap any more than “Rapper’s Delight” is disco. Comparing his “Home (KOD)” to J. Cole’s similarly-titled “KOD” leaves one wondering what, other than a reliance on similar instruments, these two tracks have in common that makes them the same genre. Many jazz musicians play guitars — does that make them rock stars?
Die Lit may or may not deserve its praise. I, for one, don’t like it. Its beats are too repetitive, which wouldn’t be half as bothersome if the lyrics over them weren’t also endlessly looped and nonsensical. There’s nothing there for me to hold onto. That’s okay, too. A lot of people clearly enjoy it for what it is, just like a lot of other people agree with me. But the time has long passed for us to stop calling whatever it is Playboi Carti is making “rap.” For something that inspires so much discussion, so much derision, so much dedication, his music deserves its own designation. Call it what you want — new things need new names