I’m not sure whether I should blame 2020, college, or something else, but when I looked back and realized Playboi Carti’s debut album, Playboi Carti (2017) released three and a half short years ago, I almost didn’t believe it. In his first two records, releasing just one year apart, he crafted one of the most popular songs of the past half-decade (“Magnolia”), and a genius, genre-defining project with Die Lit (2018). Within about twelve months, he carved an illustrious career that encompassed both huge commercial success and critical acclaim — something incredibly difficult in the often-blacklisted area of “mumble rap.” So naturally, not just his fanbase, but the entire music industry was looking forward to what would happen next. And considering this production cycle took twice as long as his last, we should all expect something great, right?
Playboi Carti’s Die Lit, which I touched on in my reordering of theneedledrop’s top 50
No matter your mental answer to my rhetorical question, the sad truth is Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red (2020) is bloated, inconsistent, unfocused, and even at its best, a decent b-side to Die Lit. In an effort to become even more creative, it does more than it’s capable of doing. Carti seems unaware of his previous projects’ strengths, which often-relied on genius production aiding his otherwise-unimpressive vocals, drowning them in immersive layers that turned them into something more reminiscent of an instrument than a voice. This go-around, tracks like “Go2DaMoon” and “JumpOutTheHouse” feel empty and lacking energy — something unheard of from his feel-good party anthems.
Upon first listen, one may have called Die Lit “one-dimensional” due to its sonic simplicity and lack of realism, but much like punk and shoegaze classics, that was exactly what allowed it to thrive. Instead, the themes explored here are so numerous that despite its twenty-four song tracklist, three might touch on similar themes, or even sound sonically cohesive. “No Sl33p,” “Die4Guy,” and “F33l Lik3 Dyin” throw away the blind positivity of much of his music for transparent themes about trauma, murder, and resulting depression — which on their own, are wonderful ideas that deserve expansion. “Vamp Anthem” and “King Vamp” attempt to establish a vampire theme, much like the album cover itself, that has no real base in anything else. The rest bounce between meaningless fun, arguable nihilism, and even world-building (with “Control” acknowledging the hype around the album, and how that made him feel). While I can appreciate almost every one of these goals, many of them inherently clash, and when they follow each other back-to-back, it’s impossible to come away with anything helpful.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the project is the lack of Pi’erre Bourne’s production’s touch, which as mentioned earlier, carried Die Lit almost single-handedly. His influence does find itself on the record, but in minimal quantities, working on “Place” and “Place” alone. It’s unclear why the choice to hire others was made, but one theory I have is Carti’s belief that he could replicate it. Many of the songs on here sound like Pi’erre Bourne bonus tracks or experimental throwaways, stacking layers upon layers of synths or vocal samples, but not doing it to the effectiveness of his best.
Playboi Carti’s new look for his new album
In all of its disappointment, Whole Lotta Red does have its highlights, and conceptually shows promise if Carti pays the attention necessary to expand upon any of them in the future. “When I go to sleep, I dream ’bout murder,” no matter how repetitive or drenched in bass, maintains its impact and successfully inserts genuine emotion into the equation. Similarly, “Control” speaks to the reality of fame and romance, and how they can both take all of your self-empowerment away. And in those two circumstances, the result can be either positive or negative. The new, 80s-esque, synth-based approach proves that the hypnotic effects of his prior releases can be achieved through different avenues. “Sky” and “Over” both hit the ears with a silky smooth topping of an old Prince hit, that accompanies the harsher beats surprisingly well. Almost every moment on this record is close to something shiny, new, and great. It just fails the leap in most of those cases.
It’s natural to want to expand upon your solid musical structure once you’ve built one, but in the case of Carti’s Whole Lotta Red, it reinvented the wheel until it no longer functioned as one. It’s not surprising, but it misses Bourne’s production, which often brings a genius, seamless flow to a project. It can’t provide anything of substance, due to its thematic indecisiveness. And even small things like song order ruin its effectiveness (“Control” should undoubtedly be the album’s opener, it makes no sense to discuss the album’s hype halfway through). Carti attempts an upward mountain climb to both instrumental and thematic greatness, and while he always touches the next step up, he never solidly plants his foot, and eventually plummets even further down. With a few production touch-ups, ordering decisions, and track cuts, it could easily hit a 7.5, or even an 8. Instead, it barely achieves a 5…
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Final Score: 5/10
Favorite Track(s): “Beno!,” “M3tamorphosis,” “No Sl33p,” “Control,” “Place,” “Over,” “F33l Lik3 Dyin”
Least Favorite Track(s): “Rockstar Made,” “Go2DaMoon,” “JumpOutTheHouse,” “Meh,” “Vamp Anthem,” “New N3on,” “Punk Monk,” “Not PLaying”