When you’re an old man, sometimes it takes time to learn how to hear music — music that teenagers can understand immediately and instinctively. Case in point: Playboi Carti. Last year, the young Atlanta rapper released his hugely popular self-titled album, and I had no idea what to even think of it. It sounded like chaos. Carti wasn’t rapping, at least not in the way that I understand the term. He wasn’t doing the muttery, narcotized singing that so many non-rapping rappers do these days, either. Instead, he was spluttering, gibbering, hiccuping. His raps sounded like other rappers’ ad-libs. He sounded like a hypeman, but he was hyping up himself, not any other rappers. I could pick out maybe every third word. It baffled me. And it took months for an anthem like “Magnolia” to reveal itself as the genuine adrenaline-surge that I should’ve recognized right away.
You can’t listen to Carti the way you’d listen to any rapper from any other generation. That’s what I didn’t get at first. Carti is the first rapper I’ve ever heard embracing the term mumble-rap, the derisive tag that rap old-heads like me have been applying to Carti’s generation of rappers for a while now. On “R.I.P.,” a song from his just-released new surprise album Die Lit, Cardi croaks, “Bought that crib for my mama off that mumbling shit.” And then: “Made a mil off that mumbling shit.” His priorities are in order. Are ours?
Carti’s secret weapon isn’t even a secret. It’s Pi’erre Bourne, the producer who handled most of both the self-titled album and Die Lit. Bourne’s style sounds like absolute chaos — like an Atlanta-rap version of what, say, Oneohtrix Point Never was doing a few years ago. It’s queasy and chaotic and genuinely disorienting. Big, globby synth melodies scrape at your brain pan, played just off-key, a few octaves higher than necessary. They repeat and repeat, with a maddening urgency that eventually turns into something borderline psychedelic. Drums and ad-libs and bass-splats erupt out of nowhere, yammering and disorganized, preventing you from ever falling into anything like a head-nod trance. Bourne used to interrupt his own tracks with a truly jarring drop; the song would stop, and you’d hear a door opening and someone yelling, “Yo Pi’erre, you wanna come in here?” He’s not doing that anymore, but he’s still an agent of discordance. Even on his most low-key tracks, he’s made it his business to keep us off-kilter.
Not every rapper can handle tracks like the ones Bourne supplies. Bourne produced the new Travis Scott/Lil Uzi Vert/Kanye West collab “Watch,” and all three of those rappers, West in particular, sound flat and uninspired on his beat. At various points on Die Lit, more-established rappers show up, sounding utterly lost. (I’m thinking in particular of Nicki Minaj, rhyming “FaceTime” with “hate crimes” and “FaceTime” and “FaceTime” on “Poke It Out.”) In terms of pure, traditional rap skills, Carti is no match for a Kanye West or a Nicki Minaj. But Carti knows what to do on a Pi’erre Bourne track, and West and Minaj just don’t.
Carti doesn’t care about pure, traditional rap skills. They aren’t even part of the equation for him. Instead, he’s pure energy. His voice, so much higher-pitched than you’d expect from someone of his height, it’s a sort of Bugs Bunny yammer-chirp, a slurry yelp. It’s almost a sound effect. Carti is saying things. Sometimes, those things seem almost disarmingly human and empathetic: “Don’t care if that pussy got some mileage, mileage.” Sometimes, they’re head-spinningly disgusting. (For the rest of my life, I am forced to live with the imagery of Carti chanting, “Suck on my dick like a tick,” and now you are, too.) But the words themselves are secondary. What Carti really offers is the sense that he’s lost in the moment, that he’s giving himself over to whatever energy comes his way at whatever instant. It’s what makes him and Bourne such ideal partners. Together, they are unmoored from our earthly reality, spazzing off into the cosmos.
That sounds like an unlikely formula for rap stardom, but right now, it’s working for Carti. Die Lit is a strange, exciting, physical record, right down to the ’90s hardcore aesthetics of the cover art. It bursts with ideas and with personality, and it sets itself immediately apart. Compare that to Activated, the official debut from Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley, and the contrast is stark and immediate. When Grizzley first emerged a little more than a year ago, I practically fell in love with him — an old-school street-rapper, talking about prison and redemption with technical precision and wild-eyed urgency, resurrecting the old value systems without feeling like a self-conscious throwback. Grizzley’s obvious inspiration was Meek Mill, whose “Dreams & Nightmares” provided the blueprint for Grizzley’s breakout track “First Day Out.” Heard in isolation, Grizzley is so beyond Carti as a rapper that it doesn’t even seem fair to compare them. But Carti knows who he is, and he knows how to make his music sound exciting. And based on Activated, Grizzley just has no idea.
It’s never a good sign when you see Chris Brown’s name attached to more than one song on a rapper’s debut album. I don’t want to speculate on how that happened. Maybe Tee Grizzley linked up with Brown twice on Activated because some A&R guy convinced him, or he convinced himself, that this would be a quick route to commercial success. Maybe he genuinely loves the tone of Brown’s voice. Maybe they’re friends! But hearing a slick and smarmy and these-days ineffective hook-machine like Brown all over Activated is a clear sign that someone is short on ideas, that we’re looking at a rapper who’s attempting to follow established routes to fame rather than finding his own. And that’s what’s going on with Activated. Tee Grizzley evidently isn’t just inspired by the breathtaking, wild-eyed urgency of Meek Mill’s best tracks. He’s also inspired by the watered-down, market-tested mediocrity of Meek’s studio albums. And he’s not even doing that as well as Meek always has.
In the moments on Activated where Grizzley gets a chance to just rap, he can still be bracing and exciting, the way he was on his debut mixtape My Moment or on Bloodas, his collaborative album with Chicago’s Lil Durk. Most of the time, though, he’s rapping over limp, uninspired synth-beats and staying stuck on autopilot. He doesn’t sound resigned to being a major-label rap B-lister; he sounds like that’s his goal. There are a couple of songs where he sings through Auto-Tune, which is not a part of his skill-set. It’s a sad, flattened-out proper-album debut from an artist who, just a few months ago, seemed to have so much going on. And so Die Lit and Activated prove, once again, something we should’ve learned a long time ago. It’s not how much skill you have as a rapper that matters. It’s what you do with it.
1. Jonwayne – “Late Last Fall”
Dusty, authoritative boom-bap about thinking your own work is crap and wondering why anyone would ever love you. So: music-writer catnip. Every last fucking one of us feels like this 90% of the time. Even the assholes. (We’re people, too.)
2. ZillaKami & SosMula – “SK8 Head”
This shit makes me want to rob my own house. These kids managed to get the Grand Theft Auto five-star wanted level in the space of one three-minute video.
3. Lil Baby – “Yes Indeed” (Feat. Drake)
There are so many songs like this — Drake jumping on a track with an up-and-coming street-rap star, two waves riding each other — but so rarely do they give off the sense that the two guys on the song are honestly trying to outrap each other. And yet that’s what’s happening here.
4. Skepta – “Pure Water”
It’s a bit of a drag to see Skepta thriving while everyone else from the grime universe fades from American vulnerability. (Stormzy doesn’t count. Stormzy is basically a conscious rapper. “Man’s Not Hot” may or may not count, I’m not sure.) For a while there, it looked like grime was really going to bubble up on a larger level, and I don’t think that’s happening now. But then, who’s got a cooler voice than Skepta?
5. Westside Gunn – “Lotto” (feat. B.E.N.N.Y. The Butcher)
I am an easy mark for slurry, violent, staggering, threatening ’90s-style boom-bap. I am also a mark for video footage of Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho locking up in Japan. This has both of those things. I am an easy mark for it.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) May 15, 2018