Album Review: Whole Lotta Red
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
For Playboi Carti fans, 2020 can probably be summed up in two words: down bad. In the past year and a half following Carti’s promise of a new album coming “soon,” fans listened to snippets of Carti repeating “Homicide” for thirty seconds, simped over Iggy Azalea, and asked such existential questions like “Do you think Carti touches himself?” while impatiently waiting for a man who acted more like a legendary Pokémon to drop another album. False hope and crazed theories trying to crack the code of Carti’s tweets defined a wait that felt much longer than it was, thanks to Carti’s cryptic messaging and Kanye-esque refusal to be clear. But finally, Carti’s Instagram post of “Album.TuRneD iN.” in November felt like a breath of fresh air, some relief especially after such an objectively terrible year. And when the album finally dropped on a rainy Christmas day, I dropped my xbox controller and screamed in joy and relief, prompting my confused mother to ask if I had died again.
Carti’s first album since 2018’s Die Lit seems to be from an alternate universe. Unlike the cleanly engineered, Pierre-Bourne-produced, french-fries-in-milkshake sugar high of his previous two albums, or even the TikTok friendly, baby-voice heavy leaks like “Kid Cudi,” Whole Lotta Red feels like alcoholism unleashed. From the very first second, when the abrasive buzzing of “Rockstar Made'' attacks your eardrums, it is abundantly clear that Carti seeks to push his fragmented, iconoclastic approach to its limits. The constant modulation in his voice, which often is stretched and exploited to a hoarse, throaty snarl, is paired with raw, electric beats that radiate evil energy. Carti’s emphasis on the Bs, Cs, Ps and Ts lend a new meaning to “this MF spittin.” Even Carti’s classic baby voice is stretched and strained to its max— adapting to Whole Lotta Red’s dark, apocalyptic world, which embraces Carti’s punk-rap aesthetic and delivers on his promises that the album would be “alternative” and “psyched out.”
The end result is an adrenaline rush of grinding metal and explosives, sub machine guns and drugs, only interrupted occasionally by the warbly synths of more boppy, bubbly tracks like Beno! and Slay3r that are more reminiscent of the vibes of the leaks that surfaced a year ago. The guttural howls of “Stop Breathing”, knife-edge chorus of “Rockstar Made”, and barks of “JumpOutTheHouse” complement the violent boasts of “New Tank” and “Meh,” all the while backed by futuristic yet hellish instrumentals that pound away at eardrums. The features only add to the effect—Kid Cudi's characteristic hums convey the vibrations of impending war, Future follows Carti’s lead in making thrilled noises on “Teen X,” and even Kanye, forcing his way onto the album, doesn’t sound out of place, contributing to what feels like an extended intro to “Stop Breathing.” The visceral aggression culminates in “Vamp Anthem,” which interpolates Bach’s legendary Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to threaten shooting up the opps on the street, and generates lap 3/3 in a close game of MarioKart levels of hype. At this point, Playboi Carti has already disproved the opinions of anyone who doesn’t believe he is as good as Beethoven.
Whole Lotta Red’s second half is somehow brighter and more bubbly, with more laid-back flows that seek to float over beats in true Playboi Carti fashion. The glitchy waves of “Place,” a leak that had me smiling with nostalgia after the initial confusion when the beat cut out, feel right at home with the light, playful synths of “Not PLaying,” and the Art Dealer-produced “Over” sounds like a something that would’ve been on Die Lit 2: horrorcore beats edition. “ILoveUIHateU,” with a warbly beat that sounds like candy, renders a sense of nostalgia that makes it seem as if it is the end of the Carti-over-Pierre-beats era, all the while sounding just as futuristic and forward-thinking as any of their other collaborations.
The final track, “F33l Lik3 Dyin,” then features a sample of Bon Iver’s “iMi” that hit me like Drake shocked DJ Akademiks on “Sicko Mode.” Carti’s baby voice crooning and the “Woah” adlibs sound downright spiritual, kind of like the “Bound 2” of Whole Lotta Red. The lyricism on this track acknowledges his mother’s sacrifices “She gave me the keys to her only car/I took that bitch and I went far” and his almost religious adherence to the rockstar lifestyle: “light my cigarette up like an incense.” Suddenly, looking back, the album’s experiment is also a dive into more personal territory for Carti in terms of lyricism; many of Whole Lotta Red’s lyrics allude to his internal rage or addictions, though he still mostly uses words as sounds that fill in his flows and vocal melodies. It’s a sharp reminder that the themes of his raps don’t just manifest in his gothic, vampire-like fashion sense: as his recent run-ins with the law for drug charges and Twitter exposure for being a deadbeat father demonstrate, there is a palpable lack of well-being in the rapper born Jordan Terrell Carter.
The turning point of Whole Lotta Red, at the feverish peak of its momentum, is the fourteenth track, “Control,” which strikes me as strangely wholesome in its melodic and lyrical content. The repeated refrain “girl I been losing control” and various pledges to a lover feel like a tribute to the chaos and misery of the past year, and Carti sounds almost apologetic to those around him, promising to be better. For fans though, the album itself is apology enough, as DJ Akademiks says in the intro: “He’s Santa. That’s the gift[...]Expect a blessing.”
And blessing it is: Whole Lotta Red, what Playboi Carti calls his “best work,” is a stellar addition to his discography, continuing to set the bar and define the frontiers of rap music. It’s outrageously disorienting, experimental and personal, but somehow all encapsulated by the Playboi Carti image—Carti the aesthetic, Carti the artist, Carti the human being. It’s not the leaks that everyone expected it to be or some kind of vastly innovative punk record, but it’s the Whole Lotta Red that we needed this Christmas.