Playboi Carti is a rapper the same way Godzilla is a lizard: Sure, I guess you are technically correct in calling him that, but it leaves a lot out. Not to suggest he’s something bigger or more unique than rap, because that isn’t real, but more that there are times I’m not even sure he’s making music.
Since his proper mixtape debut in 2017, Carti has been fine-tuning strange, off-kilter sounds and then dumping them to try and perfect something else. He’s taken his music from the light, human-cartoon bounce of Pierre Bourne-produced tracks to vampire iconography and Yeezus-influenced gothic rage music. It’s a musical journey on par with the last 40 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It can also make being a fan of his just as much of a journey and undertaking. Whole swaths of his music are completely unappealing to the average listener, and there are even swaths of his music unappealing to his fans—at least at first. Sometimes it takes a minute to adjust to his particular style and wavelength. But for myself, I keep coming back because it is just so damn interesting.
In the run-up to Carti’s forthcoming album, which may or may not end up being called I Am Music, he’s tried an interesting gambit. He has released, as of publication of this blog, five songs for now only available on YouTube. It hearkens back to a more traditional style of album rollout, but for Carti fans in particular, it recalls years of his songs being leaked prematurely online again and again, to the point that he had to completely reconfigure his previous album Whole Lotta Red.
The five new songs also come with five videos, most of them pretty low-stakes, mostly just Carti bopping around in the most extravagant and expensive clothes you’ve ever seen around a lot of cars, money, and friends. Nevertheless, the songs as a whole point to another evolution for Carti, playing with his voice to the point that at times he sounds like he’s got a frog in his throat. It’s experimental, ostentatious, and it all absolutely knocks, but is almost certainly going to be a little off-putting for a casual listener at first. I respect that he just keeps going for it though, and I’ve chosen to rank the five songs from best to least-best below.
Recommending Carti music can make me antsy, because I’m a man in his mid-30s and not a teenager playing video games on Twitch. Listening to him can sometimes feel like someone is playing a trick on you, particularly to members of my generation. But if you give yourself over to it, you might be surprised at its effect on you. To borrow a line from a movie with a similar effect, “Don’t try to understand, just feel it.”
Carti is a Young Thug acolyte in the sense that he understands that everything, from his rapping to his word choices to his voice, is merely an instrument along with the beat to create a particular symphony. “H00DBYAIR” captures this effect perfectly: With that pounding bass and hypnotic siren sounds arranged around it in the production by Cardo and Onokey, Carti manipulates his voice in an unexpected and potentially alienating way that complements the urgent and dark soundscape of the track. He also says stuff funny. The high-pitched “Buffie the Body” is my favorite; shoutout to her for still being referenced in rap songs like 15 years later.
The telephone-ring synths on “EVILJ0RDAN” are an absolutely mesmerizing groove. This is the closest to straightforward rapping from Carti and a reminder that he is good at just delivering bars when he feels like it. But that’s boring! And he’s a little scamp who just wants to have some mischief going on. Playing around with a deep inflected voice and doing things like saying “Syrup! Syrup! Syrup!” in an almost vaudevillian scat. He is so weird. I love it.
This is probably the most normie of the five new songs. An earworm of a beat made by earlonthebeat, ojivolta, and [sigh] Kanye West, this is the most obvious candidate for a single and therefore the least effective. Not to turn into a Radiohead fan or something, but the more pop Carti records tend to be the ones I roll my eyes at. That said, this is a really good song, especially with the way he raps on it. I’ve been saying “Put em on the news or sumn” over and over in my head since I first heard it. The same goes for “Andale, Andale, Andale!” It’s one of those songs that provide a roadmap for how a lesser artist can take Carti’s avant-garde style and make it more accessible for radio (looking at you Travis Scott, looking at you A$AP Rocky), while still maintaining Carti’s oddball creativity that effectively combines the grimy with the whimsical.
4. DIFFERENT DAY
“DIFFERENT DAY” might have my favorite production of all five of these songs. It’s slightly reminiscent of the kind of songs Carti made with Pierre Bourne, or the more wistful songs made by Lil Uzi Vert, but without feeling like a retread. The beat by KP Beatz, Ambezza, and OUTOFAIR is spacey, elegiac, and moody in all the best ways. It’s the one that I would enjoy just as much even without rapping. But as far as that rapping goes, I enjoy the raspy whisper flow that he affects throughout, it has a little of that baby voice that he started putting on between Die Lit and Whole Lotta Red. That delicate, almost-elementary style only underscores that this might be his hardest rapping on all of these tracks. It’s a show of just how dexterous an artist he is.
You could convince me on the right day that this is actually the best one of the five songs released so far. The way Carti says “Throwin that bih like a quarterback” is absolutely infectious. Half the things he says here are funny or cool enough to linger in your brain for an extended period of time. But this song has Travis Scott on it, and for that it must be punished. It’s not because I hate Scott as a rapper—I do, but that’s not the only reason. Very few rappers make sense on Carti songs. It’s a particular wavelength that few match, like having English words written out next to hieroglyphics. Whenever Travis Scott, or Drake, or Kanye shows up on one of his songs I feel like an astronaut having his helmet punctured by a space rock. They’re killing the vibe. For all that, it’s still a great song.
After hearing all of these records I am anticipating, in I Am Music, a potential decade-defining album. It may up end not having any of these tracks on it.