by Christina Lee
Before he would test hip-hop’s patience for repetition, turning ad-libs from an accent piece to the entire point of a song as one of the earliest benefactors of the SoundCloud rap phenomenon, Playboi Carti was a teenaged skateboarder in Atlanta, searching for the sort of poorly ventilated basements where, to the right music and with a cheap beer in hand, people would throw elbows. His stomping grounds used to be the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark, where “I’d see a kid with a mohawk and be like, ‘I want a fucking mohawk,’” Carti recalls. “I’m 12 or 13, wanting gauges and shit.” And then, even though Fourth Ward was just five miles from his South Atlanta neighborhood, such suburban angst compelled Carti to report back on what he saw.
“I really went out of my way to get what I was on,” Carti says. “Where I’m from, everybody’s just hip to this and that, so I was showing everyone different sides of the world. My homies are like, ‘What the hell are you doing on a skateboard?’ Hey man, this is the wave. I was the first person in my hood rocking skinny jeans.”
Carti is calling from an Atlanta tattoo shop, deciding which likeness of Lil Wayne to get inked on his forearm. He’s debated this tattoo for two weeks, and for now, this mid-January weeknight may be the only break he can catch. Last Christmas, Carti released “Whole Lotta Red,” a sophomore album two years in the making—an eternity for high schoolers who document every leaked snippet (and sometimes post them to Spotify, to millions of streams). “Whole Lotta Red” debuted at No. 1, topping the Billboard success of his 2017 self-titled mixtape and 2018’s “Die Lit” while dethroning Taylor Swift’s “evermore.” In January, Carti made his “Tonight Show” debut, performing “SLAY3R.” The next week, he appeared in Givenchy’s spring/summer 2021 campaign alongside Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, where he styled himself in embossed orange croc boots.
Pop culture has caught up to Playboi Carti, yet he still finds himself searching for the greatest common denominator between himself and everyone else. Take that “Tonight Show” performance: Although “SLAY3R,” of course, name checks the thrash metal band, Carti and the loiterers on stage are ’70s punks, smoking cigarettes while wearing sleeker silhouettes.
“Slayer is great, I love Slayer to death, but my actual favorite band is the Sex Pistols,” Carti says, as if confessing some deep, dark secret. “If I had to talk to somebody who doesn’t know anything about rock ‘n’ roll, I would name Slayer or Kiss because those bands are so big, you can’t miss them. That’s an easy route for people not really big into the rock ‘n’ roll world, the punk world. But with me, I really go deep.”
Carti isn’t so invested in the band’s politics, “God Save the Queen” and all that, as he is with its indelible image. “They had Vivienne Westwood, I got Matthew Williams,” he says, as in Givenchy’s creative director. Anarchy is, simply, “doing whatever the fuck you want and living life to the fullest.” Last summer, Carti even got frontman Sid Vicious’ face tattooed on his forearm. “That’s my alter ego,” he says. But while 21-year-old Vicious died of a heroin overdose in 1979, before he could see how everything he represented became romanticized and fashionable, Carti is seeing his influence play out in real time.
In the two years in between “Die Lit” and “Whole Lotta Red,” Carti’s abstracted vocals added an irreverent touch to Solange’s “When I Get Home” (“Alameda”), Drake’s “Dark Lane Demo Tapes” (“Pain 1993”). When Tyler, the Creator released the lyrics to “IGOR,” he joked that Carti’s “Earfquake” feature “could not be transcribed.” According to “Whole Lotta Red,” though, such omnipresence bears consequences. Fifteenth track “Punk Monk” details Carti’s ability to scout the next-next generation of oddball rap: Trippie Redd before the Carti comparisons, future YSL signee Lil Keed. In 2017, Pi’erre Bourne—the primary architect behind Carti’s self-titled and “Die Lit,” who’d go on to tour Australia and New Zealand with Drake—signed with Interscope.
So when Carti raps, “I thought I had Pi’erre, but the label tricked me,” he means that he wanted to sign Bourne to his own imprint, Opium. “But I slept on it, and I woke up, and he was signed to a major label,” he says. “I wasn’t really salty about it. I was just looking at it like, alright, cool. I just need to lock it in when I step into a room with some people from now on, because I feel like people just started looking at my taste and my opinion. ‘Alright, if Carti likes it, sign it—boom.’”
Ultimately, “Whole Lotta Red” does feature Bourne, along with a handful of other producers with similarly glitched-out joie de vivre: Art Dealer, KP Beatz, Jonah Abraham, Juberlee and Roark Bailey. But the album is ultimately a balancing act between the sound he made famous and this abrasive rockstar makeover (just listen to the intro “Rockstar Made”), the singular focus from his earlier music and the extended reach he boasts today. Carti had 16 tracks finalized for “Whole Lotta Red,” but then Kanye West called, offering to help workshop the project. They recorded 16 more tracks together, both at West’s Jackson Hole studio and at his homebase in Calabasas, making West (now featured on “Go2DaMoon”) the album’s executive producer.
“I felt like that little boy again, just smiling, being around him,” Carti says. “He’s a creative genius, and I feel the same way about myself. It’s like he understood everything I was on, and I understood everything he was on. He wasn’t no yes-man, but he just understood my vision and he rocked with it.”
That vision included Carti (mostly) ditching his “baby voice,” the squeaks and squeals that even Tyler, the Creator struggles to decipher, when it’s become his trademark. Yet Carti insists that his approach to music hasn’t fundamentally changed. That was true for the “baby voice”—a characterization Carti disagrees with, for what that is worth. “With the flows, the whole baby voice shit, I don’t even pay attention to that title,” Carti says. “I think that’s bullshit. I think people be forgetting I’m from Atlanta. I look at Atlanta as the home of hip-hop, and I feel like we popping shit, you know what I’m saying? I just kept that within me throughout my career.” And that even goes for the way he rasps now, his vocal cords sounding torn to shreds.
“I think it’s just me and F1lthy in the studio,” he says, name-checking the producer well-versed on Three 6 Mafia and Rise Against, whose production collective Working on Dying discovered teenaged SoundCloud phenom Matt Ox. “We in the studio and that shit is blasting loud as hell, so I’m coming in with the beat. I wasn’t like, ‘Alright, I’m about to sound like this so people know I’m punk rock.’ I’m just, I’m on a mission and you gotta hear me.”
“I use my voice as an instrument, for sure,” he adds. “Even with Pi’erre, I listen to that shit, and I go in that bitch and just do an ad-lib, I like it so much. Now it’s part of the beat. You have to be there for me to see it, or you’re going, ‘I don’t know if that’s Carti in the background, or if it’s part of the beat.’ That’s just how I work.”
Even as Carti made this distinction, he was gently correcting me, as if he still didn’t want to offend his following. Carti even figures that he should be grateful for the leaks that plagued “Whole Lotta Red”’s release, where more than half the tracks were leaked by August 2019. “At this point, to keep myself sane, I just go home and watch Lil Wayne documentaries and see how he went through all this shit,” Carti says. “I used to be one of those fans downloading his music on Limewire and shit, because I was a diehard. And he went platinum the first week off this shit.”
Still, he can’t help but be inspired by the lawlessness of pop culture’s shadowy figures. Plenty of hip-hop’s underground was linked to and quoted about MF DOOM’s sprawling influence and even how he tested everyone’s patience, with how he sent imposters to concerts and even a magazine interview in his stead. Meanwhile, Carti’s “Stop Breathing” (“I just hit the lick with the mask”) was the last high-profile shoutout to the rap antihero before his death was announced New Year’s Eve.
“I had to tell my boy, my best friend, my engineer. He’s the person recording the song, and he didn’t know who MF DOOM was,” Carti says. “I’m like, you don’t know MF DOOM? You don’t know who this dude is? I had to play songs for him, because he didn’t know who he inspired. The mask! I’m anonymous myself, but he’s king of that.
“I don’t have to sound like MF DOOM to be inspired by him,” he continues. “Nobody can keep a leash on him. Nobody can keep a leash on me. That’s definitely his impact. Even if I didn’t know that at first, I had to look up and think about this shit right here—it had already been done.”
There’s a good chance that people may not fully appreciate “Whole Lotta Red,” with all its open invitations to mosh and scream, until Carti is able to perform it live. And in the age of COVID-19, who knows when that will happen. For now at least, Carti didn’t end up getting the Lil Wayne tattoo, though his commitment to going against the grain—testing our limits for what’s acceptable in hip-hop, even among his fanbase—was already on his sleeve.
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