Whole Lotta Red by Playboi Carti Review

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Whole Lotta Red by Playboi Carti Review
Whole Lotta Red by Playboi Carti

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Whole Lotta Red by Playboi Carti Review

In addition to being wildly innovative, the third record from the Atlanta rapper is strikingly consistent. In terms of mainstream rap, it’s hard, melodic, experimental, and unlike anything else out there today.

There is a pressure cooker-like function to Whole Lotta Red. The album seems to careen wildly toward an unknown destination because Playboi Carti packs an endless supply of bright and serrated beats end to end. Those beats are accompanied by the 24-year-old’s most outré, expressive vocals yet, a string of barks, ad-libbed shards, and crooned melodies that compound the mania. By comparison, Whole Lotta Red’s predecessor, 2018’s already intense Die Lit, sounds nearly staid by comparison–and Carti’s slightly cloudy, self-titled debut from 2017 seems positively serene.

The cultish fan base of Carti would have you believe that the periods between his records are long droughts that can only be weathered through frenzied investigation. Many unreleased Carti songs can be found on hours-long playlists, some ripped from Instagram stories, some leaked by hangers-on or purchased by enterprising hackers. When an artist already has an audience’s attention, snippets and half-finished leaks are more effective than singles: Our brains compensate for sound compression by imagining the fullest possible mix, so hearing the most compelling parts of a song–the bridge that everyone in the studio agrees is the best part, the opening four bars that justify the track’s existence—suggests a more exciting finished product than the one likely to exist.

Whole Lotta Red captures that thrill of hearing an inspired work-in-progress and transforms it into a fully realized style. “New Tank” has a half-dozen chorus ideas that are dispensed in a single long take, which could stiffen Carti or drain the life out of the demos. Gregorian chants disintegrate into verses; “D-R-A-C-O” is spelled out repeatedly like Carti is competing in the world’s most heavily armed spelling bee; the middle of the absolutely spine-chilling “Stop Breathing” uses an ad-lib sound in the middle. Even when songs follow more traditional arrangements, they do so in unexpected ways. “Beno! “ begins with an aside about Carti buying his sister a Jeep, a sweet and specific image in sync with the beat. It’s only halfway through the song that it becomes clear that aside—one of the least-produced vocal stretches on the album—will be repurposed and repeated as a chorus. At its best, Whole Lotta Red sounds like Carti’s voice memos have been laid over the most punishing production he could find.

The “baby voice” has been a hallmark of Carti’s style, a softer touch in a higher register. It isn’t completely absent from Whole Lotta Red, but the album’s most arresting moments come when Carti is rasping, clearly on the verge of losing his breath. (WLR smartly opens with one of its most propulsive songs, where Carti’s voice sounds as if it’s already been strained by an hour-long performance.) Most impressive is the way Carti has merged his delivery with his pared-down writing style, like when he gets stuck on the line “When I go to sleep, I dream about murder,” delivered over and over in a threatening stage whisper.

In spite of the album’s extensive list of producers and co-producers – there are 24 beats, but only two come from longtime collaborator Pi’erre Bourne – WLR maintains a strikingly consistent palette of mostly electronic sounds. From the white-hot punkish tracks near the beginning to the evolution of early 2010s molly rap that pops up toward the end, those sounds are deployed in dizzyingly diverse ways. (KP Beatz and Jonah Abraham’s “No Sl33p,” which comes immediately after Juberlee and Roark Bailey’s “Slay3r,” might as well have been built around a hummed reminiscence of “Slay3r.” There is sinister Atlanta rap scaffolding—Richie Souf’s “JumpOutTheHouse” sounds like something an agitated Gucci Mane might have jumped on in 2008—as well as a sense of humor, and a looseness that sometimes allows the zaniest ideas to win. It’s almost as if you can picture Carti wearing a black cape and a plastic Halloween fang as they chop up Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on “Vamp Anthem.”

During its extended opening run, Whole Lotta Red is characterized by hyperkinetic pacing. As the album transitions from its buzzsaw front half to its more exultant back half, “New N3on,” “Control,” and “Punk Monk” introduce minor problems with bloat and pace. The three songs are all better executed elsewhere on the tracklist, though “Monk” is redeemed in part by its industry intrigue. In addition, the three guest appearances (a phoned-in Future verse on “Teen X,” stock Kid Cudi on the texturally interesting but overlong “M3tamorphosis,” and executive producer Kanye West’s verse on “Go2DaMoon”) should have all been left on a hard drive. Most of these are nitpicks, but they add up-less for being outright failures on their own terms and more for derailment of Carti’s otherwise carefully crafted momentum.

The fact that a 24-song, hour-long album delivered on its promise after so much speculation is one thing. The fact that it does so while maintaining an aura of mystery around its creator is even more impressive. In some ways, Carti’s public persona reveals his obsession with high fashion: the rapper as couture, something you can’t buy at a department store. Although traces of his work are ever-present, the man himself is somewhat of a ghost. Contrary to that, Whole Lotta Red’s songs are urgent, immediate. Even though they rarely deal in autobiography, they still cut close to the bone.

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