Favorite Track: “Vamp Anthem” Least Favorite Track: "JumpOutTheHouse"
In 2017, Jordan Carter released his debut self-titled project, Playboi Carti. To this day, the fifteen song opus remains one of the most eclectic, unexplainable, and influential hip hop cult classics to grace the modern musical era. On track #4, “wokeuplikethis*” Carti raps, “Woke up to n**gas soundin’ like me” over an electronic-infused beat that could have only been produced by his frequent collaborator and close friend Pierre Bourne. To fresh ears, the line didn’t stick out much, feeling like nothing more than textbook trap braggadocio. Yet, as the assertion has aged, we have seen Carti prove this once-ridiculous claim over and over again. The follow up to his 2017 self-titled, Die Lit, is widely looked upon as not only a very notable moment in trap music’s progression, but somewhat of a modern classic. The LP’s strength came from its energy, with Carti providing a sonic embodiment for the self-destructive party lifestyle that is so widely embraced by today’s youth. It feels as if everything that Playboi Carti has ever made has gone on to change the industry. Whether you enjoy his sound or not, his music’s impact and widespread influence has become undeniable; so much so that Carti’s original assertion in “wokeuplikethis*” seems to hold more and more weight with every passing year.
It is clear that Playboi Carti’s entire career has led up to his new album. As of now, the project is a rough listen, but on first impact, so were his prior two LPs. Carti isn’t in the business of making “easy” music. He fully intends to make art that pushes modern boundaries. If that wasn’t obvious before, it certainly is now. Such boundary-pushing experimentalism is what Playboi Carti’s second studio album, Whole Lotta Red, chases. Within it, he embraces electronica, industrial music, punk, nu metal, and nearly everything in between. What makes the mission such an interesting ride is how Carti manages to wrap this ridiculously unique mix of influences in a frame that still mostly feels like hip hop.
Whole Lotta Red is unlike anything that modern hip hop has ever heard. Its lo-fi aesthetic, overblown mixes, industrial synthesizers, and bizarre vocals are a clear call to classic punk-rock, while its lyrics read like trap at its most violent. Many of the beats on this LP feel equal part electronic dance music, and Yeezus-esque experimentalism. The latter quality can be solely attributed to Kanye West’s hand in this album’s production, serving as its executive producer. While there are moments here that feel straight out of West’s 2013 experimental hip hop opus, there are also aspects of WLR’s production that sound nothing like Kanye West has ever done, particularly the fashion in which this album is mixed. The rough and grimy vocal mixing all over Whole Lotta Red is a direct call to early punk music and garage rock, something that Ye has experimented only briefly with on 2018’s KIDS SEE GHOSTS. The closing track on that album “Cudi Montage”, comes to mind here. It's streaky guitars and deep-cut Kurt Cobain sample produces a sound much like certain moments on Whole Lotta Red. While the overly-rough vocal mixing on this project is quite obviously a conscious aesthetic choice, it is extremely difficult to sit through for over an hour of material. The grating quality of the vocal mixes do not complement the rest of the album’s production like they intend to. Eventually they lose their impact as a component of WLR’s dark and dreary theme and become annoying to no avail, providing no further fuel to the album's punk and disturbing aesthetic.
Sonically, almost every track on Whole Lotta Red is harsh, on account of both the rough and grouchy vocal lines and the album’s industrial instrumental palette. These elements combine to create production that is often musically impressive, starkly inventive, incredibly creative, and sometimes just downright bizarre. “Vamp Anthem” literally samples J.S. Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", which is also known as the Count Dracula song. It’s a comical moment on impact, but the beat’s organs and overblown 808’s truly produce one of the most potent bangers on the record. The track “Over” feels like a continuation of Die Lit’s opener, “Long Time - intro”. The track’s blaring synthesizer leads eventually evolve into pure chaos. In an incredible turn of events, the track “F33l Lik3 Dyin” utilizes a sample of Bon Iver’s “iMi”. The vocal bliss of Justin Vernon and James Blake is as beautiful as ever, yet it feels like Carti does the track absolutely no justice, adding nothing of substance from a lyrical standpoint. This lack of lyrical substance is a prime example of one of Whole Lotta Red’s biggest issues. Carti fails to say anything lyrically interesting on this entire project. The closest he comes is on “Punk Monk”, where he briefly mentions some co-signs he intended to give and how he was never allowed such an opportunity due to the involvement of different record labels. There are some very brief mentions of Carti’s late brother on this project, but he never truly elaborates on this topic in any interesting or creative way. Whole Lotta Red’s best attempt at penning any sort of narrative is when he combines these discussions of his brother's death, with proclamations of pure violence. One of a few examples can be heard on the track “Stop Breathing”, where Carti yells “Ever since my brother died, I’ve been thinkin’ bout’ homicide.” If Carti were to have followed this trend as a true theme, it might have propelled Whole Lotta Red to a place where it could function on account of something other than its experimental production. When Carti treads in this lyrical direction, it makes the album’s dark and dreary aesthetic make more sense, wrapping it together as more of a cohesive theme. Whole Lotta Red could have been a truly interesting exploration of violence and drug abuse, but it lacks the focus. Instead, it mentions these topics as nothing more than quick-witted braggadocio, filling in the blanks where Carti fails to pen another bland line about sex.
Whole Lotta Red will most likely become one of the most polarizing albums to come out of this decade, calling this project truly one of a kind is not an overstatement. As difficult as this hour of material is to pin down and explain, it can become easier when you think about it in the same lane as some of its popular hip-hop contemporaries. For example, take Lil Baby’s My Turn. That record is so un-offensive, un-ambitious, and bland that it bores within the first five minutes. Whole Lotta Red instead intends to offend, it wants to be seen as abnormal, thus making its attitude so reminiscent of early punk music that it becomes hard to even label as hip-hop. Its sonics might sound atrocious, but at least that’s the goal.
Much in the vein of an album like Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak, this LP will most likely never sound better than it does now. Many people love the aforementioned album on account of its influence instead of its sound. Whole Lotta Red could have the same dynamic in store for the future. Understanding how such would happen is foggy and confusing, but to say that WLR will lay the foreground for things to come in hip hop is a very safe assumption. If its sound were to become something of influence and notoriety, it would need to be expanded on, combined with other sounds and genres to create a product more accessible and appealing. As of now, it hasn’t done that. It could very well become the batch of ideas that influences the next hip hop classic, but for now it just feels underdeveloped. Whole Lotta Red, is annoying, admirable, irritating, grating, and confusing, in a way that no other album has ever been.