Playboi Carti’s New Album Will Scramble Your Brain

Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Playboi Carti’s New Album Will Scramble Your Brain

Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

“I done changed my swag,” Playboi Carti howls. Then, as if to prove his point, he yelps the word “Metamorphosis” seven times. The song is called “M3tamorphosis,” but that moment isn’t the chorus. It’s in the middle of a verse. Doesn’t matter. Carti just keeps chanting the word, turning it into a mantra, riding it into meaninglessness. I don’t think Carti wrote those lyrics down. I don’t think he planned to shout the name of Franz Kafka’s most famous short story a bunch of times. I think he just did what felt right in the moment. It’s an instinctive blurt, an improvised stylistic tic. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

“M3tamorphosis” is the lead single from Whole Lotta Red, Carti’s long-awaited new album. It’s one of the album’s only songs that feels like a complete thought, and it’s also one of the only tracks that features a guest-rapper. Kid Cudi drops in with a slightly awkward mid-song verse, but his real contribution is his hum — a deep and satisfying echoing rumble that pairs beautifully with Carti’s frantic, high-pitched yip. Cudi and Carti both sound completely out of their faces on “M3tamorphosis,” and the effect works for them. The song hypnotizes.

Carti doesn’t really rap on “M3tamorphosis,” which is not a surprise. Carti almost never raps. Instead, he declaims. Elsewhere on Whole Lotta Red, Carti attempts to pin down his own constantly-changing style: “I don’t rap, I write poems.” He’s not wrong. There is poetry in chanting the word “metamorphosis” seven times mid-verse. “They can’t understand me. I’m talking hieroglyphics.” “I feel like Morpheus. I feel like Morpheus. I got my whole gang on some other shit.” “I feel like God.” That’s poetry. Seen in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, just as Whole Lotta Red, was finally arriving in the world, the “M3tamorphosis” video felt like a transmission from another planet.

In virtually any other circumstance, “M3tamorphosis” would be a bafflingly strange choice for the lead single from a major rap album. But Carti has built the feeling of disorientation into his style and his persona. Carti isn’t a traditional rapper or, for that matter, a traditional pop star. He isn’t a traditional anything. Instead, he’s a freewheeling presence, an ambient chaotic energy. Carti songs are more ad-libs than raps, and he makes that work for him. Whole Lotta Red comes after years of work, after dozens of random tracks and song-snippets that leaked on the internet. Carti’s fans have built entire albums out of the discards that they weren’t supposed to hear. Whole Lotta Red channels that feeling — the sense of being constantly wrongfooted, of feeling forces pushing you around. Confusion is key to its appeal.

Whole Lotta Red is not an album full of potential hits. After a week, the track that’s racked up the most streams is “Slay3r,” a jagged and off-balance track that sounds like Atlanta trap gone hyperpop. On “Slay3r,” Carti shrieks and yammers and giggles, swallowing his own words and slip-sliding all over the hiccuping, echoing beat. “Slay3r” doesn’t sound like a hit, but it might be one anyway. Carti might have whole new ideas about what kinds of things might be hits in 2021, and he might be right.

“Slay3r” gets its title from a slightly dubious claim that Carti makes on the song: “I’m a rock star; I could’ve joined Slayer.” Playboi Carti could not have joined Slayer, but it’s fun to think about him doing it anyway. (I could’ve never predicted that Slayer would be the new rap generation’s favorite act from Def Jam’s class of ’86, but I love it.) On Whole Lotta Red, Carti insists again and again that he’s a rock star, and he has a definition of the term that most of us might not recognize. “We some rock stars,” he tells us. “We the new Black Flag.” The old Black Flag might be surprised to learn that they were rock stars. The old Black Flag couldn’t afford to get their fan fixed half the time. Again: Doesn’t matter. It’s not about the facts; it’s about the feeling.

Carti’s immersed himself in punk aesthetics for a long time. He’s got a Bad Religion tattoo — the crossed-out cross and the band logo, both taking up significant torso real estate. The cover art from Die Lit, Carti’s last album, is a high-contrast photo of a flipping stage-dive that would work just fine as a backpatch. The Whole Lotta Red cover art, designed by the producer Art Dealer, is a riff on the image of the Damned’s Dave Vanian from the cover of the first issue of Slash, the late-’70s LA punk fanzine. I don’t think Playboi Carti is sitting around and listening to Black Flag or Bad Religion or the Damned. Whole Lotta Red has nothing like “Stop Fuckin’ Wit Me,” the 2004 track that was just Lil Jon screaming over Slayer riffs for six minutes. It’s more that Carti has absorbed that aesthetic, catching shards of it through streetwear culture and Jackass. He’s identified a wildness, an abandon, and he’s come up with his own version of it.

Playboi Carti isn’t the only rapper currently fashioning himself as a punk rocker. Machine Gun Kelly just made a full album of mid-’00s Warped Tour pop-punk, with Travis Barker producing. But that’s the most pedestrian kind of punk move — a retreat to the comfort of familiarity. Carti is going in different directions. “Rock star shit, but I’m not Machine Gun,” Carti squeals on “Meh.” And then: “I feel like I’m the only rock star, the only one.” Fuck it. He’s right.

Whole Lotta Red is an hour-long skull-exploder, a 24-track opus that makes me feel like a dog hanging my head out of a Formula 1 racecar. Twenty-three different producers worked on Whole Lotta Red, but the album still hangs together as a noisy, squealing lurch — music made for cavernous warehouse spaces and bloody noses. (Once Carti gets to start doing these tracks live, shit is going to go off.) Some of the songs are less than two minutes long. Some don’t feature anything that could really be called rapping. There’s very little sense of structure or pacing; the album’s second song is almost entirely given over to an awkward verse from Kanye West, one of the album’s executive producers. West’s appearance veers dangerously close to destroying the record’s momentum before it even starts. But the whole of Whole Lotta Red still sends your head spinning, careening.

If Whole Lotta Red is about anything, it’s about pushing yourself toward oblivion, being so full of pills and powder and potions that you’re never entirely sure which plane of existence you’re on. “If I die, it’s gon’ be real sad,” Carti says at one point, but he doesn’t seem that invested in keeping that from happening. Instead, he screeches about guns and drugs and fast cars. The music, like Carti itself, feels so caught up in the moment that it can’t tell which was is up.

Again and again, Carti sounds like a mess. Even Carti’s flexes have a dark, absurd, hallucinatory bent to them: “All my opps dead, but I’ma continue to be humble.” On “Control,” Carti tells someone that he might marry her one day but that he’s way too out-of-control to be a functional partner right now: “I went to school with some robbers and some killers/ And half of them n***as dead or in jail, but fuck it, they my n***as/ Basically, what I’m saying is, I can’t change, but, but… For you, I would do things.” On “Sky,” amidst a drug haze, he switches abruptly from admiring his girl to fuming about who else in the room she might’ve fucked. Carti’s voice on the album is a hoarse, vulnerable crackle. He’s all over the place.

The same night that Whole Lotta Red came out, Iggy Azalea, the mother of Carti’s baby Onyx, went after Carti on Twitter, claiming that he wasn’t there for the kid’s birth or for Christmas: “This man was in philly playing PS5 mid pandemic the day my son was born even tho it was a scheduled c section. I had onyx alone completely cause he was my only visitor approved with Covid. We lived together at that time.” (They’ve evidently patched things up since.) Much of Whole Lotta Red seems to be directed at Iggy Azalea — explaining to her that he’s way too fucked up to be any good to anyone. It’s sad. Carti is 24 years old. I hope he figures shit out.

Playboi Carti and Iggy Azalea are real people with real problems. But I’m an idiot who thinks in terms of pure music trivia, so my immediate takeaway from Carti and Iggy’s whole Christmas Eve story was that Playboi Carti has an kid named Onyx. That means Carti’s the same name as the first group I ever heard rapping about moshing. I’m guessing Playboi Carti did not name his kid after early-’90s Queens rap brawlers Onyx. I don’t think he’s sitting around listening to “Throw Ya Gunz” any more than he’s listening to Black Flag. Bacdafucup is three years older than Carti himself. It’s honestly more likely that the baby is named after the rock-snake Pokémon. (Cool name, though.)

Still, there’s a strange resonance in that link to the past. Bacdafucup was a monument to immaturity, and I loved it when I was immature. Thirteen-year-old me wasn’t stressing about whether it was wise for Fredro Starr to set a whole choir on fire. Onyx made music that cranked up my adrenaline, and that’s what mattered to me. Forty-one-year-old me hopes Playboi Carti takes fatherhood seriously and finds some balance in his life. But Whole Lotta Red cranks up my adrenaline, too. It’s a barbed, spiked, quasi-industrial psychedelic head-trip of an album, and I love it.

For the past few years, most of Carti’s peers and inspirations have been making the kind of clean, melodic Atlanta trap that seems custom-built for Spotify playlists. Carti has no interest in that kind of frictionless slickness. Instead, with Whole Lotta Red, he rebelled against that status quo, making an album that sounds like jet engines and broken glass. Lil Uzi Vert, probably Carti’s closest peer, sounds middle-of-the-road compared to what Carti does on this album. Even compared to already-unhinged past Carti records like Die Lit, Whole Lotta Red is a headlong leap into oblivion, into the unknown. Carti changed his swag. Metamorphosis. Metamorphosis. Metamorphosis. Metamorphosis. Metamorphosis. Metamorphosis. Metamorphosis.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Guapdad 4000 – “Alpha (Remix)” (Feat. Bfb Da Packman)
“I was fucking up a check and gave birth to a debit card.” “Big booty bitch sat on my face and gave me pink eye.” Guapdad wearing Chappelle’s Show whiteface. Packman talking about wanting to fuck his publicist. It’s all just so beautiful. I might cry.

2. Pooh Shiesty – “Back In Blood” (Feat. Lil Durk)
Pulsing, minimal, bloodthirsty Memphis rap evilness has never gone away, but I feel like it’s about to have a huge year in 2021. Whenever it comes out, Pooh Shiesty’s tape is going to go crazy. It’s a little disquieting to hear Durk talking vivid, violent street shit so soon after King Von’s murder, but, I mean, he’s good at it.

3. G Herbo – “Statement”
Herb really means it.

4. YSN & Young Dolph – “Workin”
This song was already cool before the arrival of Young Dolph. But when Dolph shows up, his bursting with both blasé confidence and weary authority, it jumps three or four levels.

5. DaBoii – “Dumb”
DaBoii’s energy is a powerful thing. He doesn’t even really go nuts on this song, but I hear that voice over that bassline and I want to jump off a supermarket shelf and hit the Phenomenal Forearm on the guy blocking up the cereal aisle.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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