In many ways, Playboi Carti’s latest album, Whole Lotta Red, is unlike anything else happening in mainstream hip-hop right now.
Despite its affinity for sticky melodies and even stickier hooks, it has no obligations towards any of the viral trends that artists have latched on to. It barely has anything that approaches crossover status, instead opting for abrasive beats that buzz and gleam like a chrome radiator. Even Carti’s baby-voiced delivery, which found massive success on songs like Tyler The Creator’s “EARFQUAKE” and the still-unreleased Young Nudy collaboration “Kid Cudi,” is barely heard here, replaced with a barking delivery that elevates the manic energy of a lot of these songs.
Basically, the album operates almost entirely without precedent, pushing Carti into even more experimental directions than 2018’s Die Lit did for something that often serves as a look into the surprising range of his artistry. Whole Lotta Red may not be the sort of genre-defining watermark that Die Lit was for trap music, but it’s a truly impressive work nonetheless, and it’s fascinating to hear these songs as reflections of Carti’s truly inscrutable artistic process.
What results is a song like “New Tank,” this absolutely unreal flurry of proto-choruses strung together over wheezing buzzsaw synths. Every line feels breathless, and the song is out in 90 seconds flat. Elsewhere, on the brilliantly named “Punk Monk,” Carti’s delivery is somehow even more hoarse, flipping between this Young-Thug-esque croon and this blipped moan as he airs out fake friends in the industry.
Amidst these more esoteric decisions arrive a few songs that deal a little further away from the avant-garde, like the surprisingly catchy “Slay3r” and “Place,” which reunites Carti with producer Pi’erre Bourne for a lysergic synth woosh that takes Carti on a bleary sonic trip. On “Teen X,” Carti and Future ride a Maaly Raw beat that chimes and bleeps with undeniable euphoria, with gleefully chirped ad-libs that sound like birdsong.
“Teen X” is maybe the most unapologetically beautiful song here; rightfully, just two songs later is “Vamp Anthem,” a track so gloriously, hysterically campy that it might just be one of the best things Carti’s ever laid to tape. Built around a sample of the sting from Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” the song feels like a perfect distillation of every cheesy horror film ever made, a wholly entertaining sequence of threats that never takes itself too seriously.
“Vamp Anthem,” in all its delightfully silly glory, is the most quintessential distillation of an album that finds power in throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. No matter how wide-ranging it may be, Whole Lotta Red is united by this driving ethos of experimental madness, thriving when it goes all in and sinks its teeth into the chaos.