Three projects in, you know what you’re getting with a Playboi Carti album. When the squeaky-voiced, non-sequitur technician first appeared on the scene in 2017 with “Magnolia,” his style was a revelation — or the death of hip-hop as we know it, depending largely on your personal taste and, well, yes, how old you were. Now, though, no matter how unhinged his chaotic energy becomes, there are essentially no surprises on a Playboi Carti album — other than the fact that the album even exists.
Such is the case with Whole Lotta Red, the long-awaited, oft-delayed, most recent effort from ATL’s hip-hop Dadaist. The fact the thing even exists feels something like a minor miracle; after a year-long hype cycle that saw deconstructed tweets teasing its coming, several aborted release dates, and increasing fan fervor, it finally arrived, fittingly, on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, it didn’t get the triumphant reception one might have expected from such an anticipated release.
Instead, fans complained that the album represented a “whole lotta skips” rather than a compilation worthy of the hype. It has its defenders, to be sure — and I find myself alarmed to be one of them — but on the whole, it’s garnered the sort of collective response that in hindsight would seem a foregone conclusion for an album this magnified in the public consciousness. Simply put, there is no way to live up to this kind of hype, at least not in the moment.
But with Carti, it’s hard to know what anyone could have expected in the first place. More than anything else, it seemed what drew so many young fans to Carti in 2017 was his rebellious refusal to adhere to any accepted convention of hip-hop. “Magnolia” was nothing if not a three-minute collection of ad-libs over an absolutely slobber-knocking Pi’erre Bourne beat. He wasn’t so much rapping as he was being raptured, speaking in tongues more than he was expressing a gift of gab.
When he delivered more of the same in 2018 with Die Lit, there was a similar expectant backlash as well. Fans who’d since grown a little, learned about some new artists, and grown in their musical sophistication perhaps expected proportionate growth from Carti as well. However, appearing in a perhaps even more stripped-down form, Carti’s gift for expressing himself through dizzying displays of cathartic yelping and mangled chants probably disappointed those fans, who are likely the ones even more disappointed by Whole Lotta Red, because they were probably looking to the new project to “make up for” its predecessor.
Those who wanted Carti to restore the feeling of three years ago might have been better served searching elsewhere for their hit of nostalgia. The very essence of what he does rejects that sort of codification, rejects formalism, resists categorization and classification. Besides, in the meantime, we’ve experienced a hellish presidency, a global pandemic, social upheaval on an international scale, and the “a-woken-ing” of social media — all such chaotic events that looking for comfort in the chaos Carti peddles is like jumping into the ocean during a typhoon, just hoping to get dry.
For one thing, the leaks that had fans clamoring for the finished product, like the TikTok-favorite Young Thug collaboration “Pissy Pamper,” are nowhere in evidence here. Nor is false start lead single “@ meh,” which arrived with a dull thud in April, just as global lockdowns were beginning to put a damper on summer festival plans. Perhaps it was knowing there’d be no mosh pits that numbed fans to its release and now that the year has dragged on long enough for us to adjust our brains to a new normal, those kinds of works just can’t hold the same excitement.
That’s a shame too because if you approach Whole Lotta Red without the expectation of formalistic “growth” from Carti, it’s a pretty enjoyable, throw-on-and-veg-out, vibe-generating hour of unconventional party music. The rumbling “Rockstar Mode” the moody “M3tamorphosis” with Kid Cudi, the quirkily-titled “Meh,” “ILoveUIHateU,” and more are exactly the sort of frantic, skin-tingling trap that antsy hip-hop fans miffed by the constraints of this year’s wordy, regimented spate of critical favorite rap records would look to for relief in simpler times.
Although Kanye delivers an uninspiring verse on “Go2DaMoon” and the album meanders around the time “Punk Monk” kicks in at track 15 — with nine more tracks to go — Whole Lotta Red is, for better or worse, as close to a classic Carti album as it gets. He’s never been the lyrical mastermind, or even much of a hook master. He’s energy, raw, diffuse, crackling, and yes, chaotic. While there are definitely some skips here, they’re the result of conventional or repetitive production, not Carti’s yelping and yowling. If audiences are finally getting bored with his anti-real-hip-hop stance, the good news is that there are plenty of choices along the spectrum to offer some more predictable comforts.
Whole Lotta Red is out now on AWGE / Interscope. Get it here.