Playboi Carti Is A Master Of Mind Control

On Saturday night at The Forum, Playboi Carti broke every rule of performing I’ve come to expect from a live rap concert. Carti’s set was more like a DJ set at a rave; instead of witnessing athletic feats of breath control or charismatic interplay between the artist and his fans, we essentially watched a silhouette dancing through the fog, occasionally punctuated by the flamethrowers at the front of the stage

Fans couldn’t even see him for most of the concert. The production must have melted a metric ton of dry ice for smoke effects. He could’ve had a body double for all anyone could tell (a possibility for which there is a non-zero chance, considering his comments about being inspired by MF DOOM, who was known to pull that trick a few times in his day). But If it sounds like I’m down on the performance, I promise it isn’t because I am. If anything, I was impressed. Here was an artist creating atmosphere, wresting full buy-in from his fans by sheer force of will, personality, or mind control.

I can attempt to posit reasons for what I saw as a disproportionate response to the apparent level of effort going into the performance. My first guess is that Carti’s fans, which from my observations mainly seemed to hail from zoomers and the younger end of the millennial spectrum, come from an era where like 75 percent of their lives are lived online. Again, this isn’t a diss; this is a generation that has barely known a world before Netflix, YouTube, UberEats, or the big 3 of social media (Instagram, Twitter, TikTok). Hell, most of them probably never had a Myspace page.

Maybe for them, the appeal isn’t in watching how artists transform their works on stage, it’s just in seeing them in real life. In concert, this person with whom they engage largely as an abstract concept via text, images, short video clips, and an inch square profile picture becomes… well, real. Three dimensional, dynamic, tactile. Perhaps rather than coming to be entertained, they’re coming simply to connect in a world that seems to be constantly so but is really more isolated and individualistic than ever before.

They aren’t just here to watch, they’re here to commune, to participate. And maybe Carti is, too. After all, artists are every bit as subject to the lonely experience of existing in a digital world as anyone — maybe even more so, because of the nature of life spent locked in studios or on the road.

And maybe, because artists like Carti and his peers largely owe their success to the internet rather than the hard-earned grind of growing a fanbase through grueling live performances at tiny venues and developing over time, they’ve never learned to appreciate the technicalities or nuances that prior generations did. I hate to say it, but maybe that’s okay. I once wrote that Carti doesn’t really deserve to be trapped into the box of expectations that the rapper label comes with. Perhaps that includes the ones that say rappers must perform all of their own vocals without support, that they must be experts at talking to the crowd, that everything has to be curated and polished to the point of making it all appear seamless and easy.

On the other hand, maybe Carti really just has mind control over these kids, like the vampires he often references in his public communique. Maybe he just really is tapped into a different wavelength that tickles the basic instinct to wild out and move around and the fact that I remember AOL chat rooms just makes me old as hell. But as he closed out his set to deafening chants of his name, I was struck by a sense that I had just glimpsed the future… If not of hip-hop as an institution then of some as-yet-unnamed wave of pop culture fueled less by virtuoso than vibes.

One thing that was heartening to see: kids having fun safely. In the wake of the Astroworld disaster in Houston the night before, I could sense the tension of concern that this Carti show could get out of hand in the same way. After all, just weeks before, Playboi Carti fans had torn up his venue in Houston when the concert was canceled at the last minute. Yet on Saturday at The Forum, the chaos was controlled and fans’ youthful exuberance was encouraged. It showed that you can still have this kind of show if you maintain a certain level of respect and consideration. By all means, wild out. Just know where the line is, and keep all your toes on one side.

The Narcissist Tour continues Tuesday, November 9 at Gallagher Square in San Diego, CA. You can see the remaining tour dates here.