I thought I was done with 2020 album releases, but one of the most highly anticipated albums in years dropped on Christmas Day, so here we are. Wildly experimental and highly polarizing hip-hop upstart Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red has been teased for over two years now, leaving fans in a frenzy after his past album Die Lit scored both rapturous praise and befuddled dismissals. Carti placed the genre on the operating table and set at work dissecting it, distilling it down to the quirky vocal cadences, ad-libs and repetition that Pitchfork called a “perversely infectious sugar high” and “rap that fundamentally recalibrates the brain’s reward centers.”
Call me a boomer, but I didn’t get it then, and I’m not sure I get it now – even as Carti switches up his sound and dives into a hyperpop-esque world of brightly coloured synths and grinding punk-rock energy on his latest. If anything, to me Carti continues to present the zany energy of someone like a Lil Uzi Vert or Young Thug without any of the charisma or presence that makes their bizarre sonic diversions so enjoyable. It’s like Carti can’t convince himself to commit to the bit, except on a couple occasions here where he commits so hard it loops around to being hilarious – a so-bad-it’s-good kind of guilty pleasure effect. There’s certainly something to be said about the improvements Carti has made here when it comes to ear-grabbing beats, as well as the almost hypnotic vibes he presents on a level that few of his peers can achieve when you start zoning out a bit. It taps into an animalistic, primal instinct buried deep in the primordial soup. To an active listener, however, it’s hard to make it through the full 63 minutes without feeling like your brain is evaporating.
The project opens with “Rockstar Made,” featuring a slightly toned-down version of Carti’s now-infamous and always highly obnoxious “baby voice” over a rumbling bassline and some garish synth guitars as he breezes through a hook so repetitive even Lil Pump would look at it and laugh. It’s truly strange that on almost every track here, even when Carti gets out of the main hook, he feels the need to say almost every line he delivers more than once. It’s true that repetitive hooks, when they tap into the right kind of carefree fun, can be extremely enjoyable. Carti just brings a dead-eyed and robotic cadence that leaves all of the build-up of energy to the instrumentals – a tactic that sometimes legitimately works with all the insanity going on across this project, but falters more often than not. The album’s early goings also give us “Stop Breathing,” a track opening with a disorienting cacophony of ad-libs, a chorus entirely constructed of breathing noises and another lifted from a Gucci Mane song before turning into a diss track with genuinely murderous intent as he blows out his vocal cords with XXXTENTACION-level uncomfortably and concerningly visceral style, and “Beno!,” the album’s most obvious Lil Ui Vert rip-off with its cartoonish and colourful instrumental. For all the adulation Carti receives for being this transformative visionary, we sure get a lot of generic trap cuts as well. Tracks like “Slay3r,” “Control” and “Punk Monk” essentially just see him running through overused flows and flexing his wealth and rockstar lifestyle like literally everyone else in the game, adding a couple questionable lyrics on top.
I wish I could say the project is improved by some of its big-name features, but there’s some seriously phoned-in material here, and it’s not even because they’re trying to emulate Carti’s style. It’s getting to the point where putting Kanye West on your album says more about the lead artist’s clout-chasing than Kanye himself, but he continues with his string of unhinged and offbeat features on “Go2DaMoon” that just make this lifelong fan disappointed at the artists continuing to indulge someone who clearly needs help. Carti’s barely even on the track, delivering 12 staccato lines near its conclusion. Future’s appearance on the laughable “Teen X” isn’t much better. The track’s biggest problem, however, is Carti legitimately droning an alternating two-note falsetto pattern in the background for the ENTIRE DURATION OF THE TRACK. It genuinely makes me feel like I’m locked in a mental asylum. On the other hand, Kid Cudi’s verse on the 5-minute track “M3tamorphosis,” which hilariously dwarfs every other track here in length, is genuinely the album’s greatest moment. Carti’s singing is more ear-splittingly awful here than anywhere else, but Cudi harnesses the beat’s futuristic punk energy with an energetic melodic triplet flow and some welcomingly lyrical moments.
I’m unsure how much of it was ironic, but the other moments here where I bought into Carti’s style the most were when he turned up his most widely ridiculed aspects to their maximum. “JumpOutTheHouse” has already been mocked endlessly, but Carti’s exaggerated baby voice and gleeful repetition give it the kind of completely unique quality that I strive to find. It also just might be the musical equivalent to Sharknado. I’ll give “Vamp Anthem” credit for creatively flipping the J. S. Bach organ theme that turned into a horror staple, but Carti’s sleepy, stuttered flow is nothing novel. The track “Over,” buried near the album’s end, is genuinely fantastic. Coasting over a single-bar but wildly infectious synth loop that sounds like it comes from the PC Music camp, Carti smooths out his vocals and takes things to a woozy cloud rap territory.Unfortunately, here are also quite a few tracks on Whole Lotta Red that don’t even reach the two-minute mark, as trendy songs continue to get shorter and shorter. Instead of a radio hit getting right to the hook, however, Carti’s scatterbrained style just make these tracks feel like half-baked fragments of ideas that rush off to something else and leave the listener with whiplash. Brief tracks like “No Sl33p,” where Carti essentially just repeats a single, ominous bar in a half-whisper, and “New Tank,” where Carti screeches the end of his lines like an angry bald eagle, come back-to-back. It’s extremely trying on the psyche. Tracks like “New N3on,” “On That Time,” “Place” and the aptly titled “Meh” come and go with so little substance that they don’t even have time to register in your brain as something you should be paying attention to.
By the time you get to the end of the 24-track long project, you’re essentially just letting your eyes glaze over and waiting for Carti to release you from the stupefying trance he’s placed you under. On some level, I have to respect the fact that the trance exists at all. It’s certainly a way to escape from the insanity of everyday life and forget about things for a while as you enter the Playboi Carti void. The final tracks see him running through the same sounds and ideas he’s already addressed earlier on, and at the end of my second listen-through here, I’m far too exhausted by the music to express any coherent thoughts on it. Playboi Carti is everything and nothing all at once. Playboi Carti invented music and then destroyed it. I’m truly unsure about how to evaluate this critically – it’s commendable that it makes me get this existential, but mercifully, I’m never going to listen to it again.
Favourite Tracks: Over, M3tamorphosis, JumpOutTheHouse
Least Favourite Track: Teen X