Review: Playboi Carti, ‘Whole Lotta Red’

The long-awaited album is the Atlanta rapper’s best project to date, expanding his palette to shock listeners and finally separate him from his peers.

Though not a staple name in the commercial realm, Playboi Carti has amassed a gargantuan fanbase over the last three years. His minimal take on trap struck a mark with trap fans, assisted largely by the abstract beats of Pi’erre Bourne. Carti’s debut album Die Lit put his name into serious conversations of trap masterminds. An upwards slope was further in sight by the announcement of his follow-up album, Whole Lotta Red. It rapidly became one of those ever-delayed records that left fans impatient – impatient enough to mass-buy hundreds of unfinished Playboi Carti songs by leakers. The impatience cost fans, both literally and actually receiving a finished album. The rapper finally surrendered the present they were looking for on Christmas Day. The release is relieving, but carries a burden of expectation on its shoulders.

On Whole Lotta Red, Playboi Carti dares to be different. It is thoroughly experimental, while also providing what’s typically expected of Carti.

Whole Lotta Red introduces a genuine punk trap aesthetic to the forefront. This allows for an album full of surprises, delivering an experience that a cultivated gang of leaks could not. Pi’erre Bourne is largely absent from the credits, with Working on Dying producer F1lthy and Art Dealer handling production in place of him. A whole new world is created, characterised by jarring tones and abrasive bass to decimate your speakers. Opener “Rockstar Made” sets the precedent, squirming through glitchy synths and thumping bass stuck in caps lock. The song’s namesake is a warning to the listener; this is where the album is heading, so strap in for the ride.

In its best moments, Whole Lotta Red is utterly chaotic. But the chaos is exciting. “On That Time” is the album’s anarchist, with a beat that sounds like an anxious robot. Carti matches the beat’s energy, acing the trap spelling bee through the “D-R-A-C-O” chants. At a brief 1 minute and 42 seconds, it is a rush of adrenaline injected in your eardrums.

Carti matches the chaos with his vocal experimentation, displaying a sense of personality never heard before. The baby voice is substituted for loony inflexions, such as on “Stop Breathing” and “JumpOutTheHouse”. His voice is strained to the point it is hoarse, opening the gate to authentically channel a punk delivery. The electro-trap “M3tamorphasis” is equally absurd, seeing Carti huff with his chest as he repeats the track’s title. Never has Playboi Carti sounded so vibrant, so energetic, so invested in having a presence on the mic. Combined with the tangible production, these portions of the album make it the perfect soundtrack for moshpits. It is risky moves, but they pay off.

The heights of how bizarre Whole Lotta Red can get doesn’t stop there. “Vamp Anthem” samples classic vampire organs to create a new persona for the album, a motif carried over onto “King Vamp” (“When the sun goes down, yeah it’s time to creep”). The tracks are demanding to be memed, but succeed in being key differentials to the album experience. “Teen X” is ridiculously addictive as a jingle fitting for a trap ice cream truck, completely embodying the meaning of ‘baby Carti’. It is easy to think what the hell is going on; nothing about these songs are ordinary, but that is what makes them stand out.

The polarising fan reception is baffling, as the second half of Whole Lotta Red spends its time sounding like Die Lit B-sides. “Slay3r”, “Beno!”, “Place”, “Sky”, and plenty other songs could slot straight into a Die Lit deluxe and one would not bat an eye. The irony is leaks affecting fans expectations for the album, leading to an underwhelming attitude to songs that sound exactly like what Carti is known for. It also highlights an unfair demand by fans: Playboi Carti songs are leaked, fans do not want these songs on the album as they already have them, but want him to make more songs better than the leaks they have illegally obtained. This attitude speaks volumes to the mindless era of music consumption we’re in. What the fans want is in here, masked between the moments of Carti evolving his artistry.

It is pleasing to hear Playboi Carti be bold in trying something new, rather than boxing himself into stagnation. That being said, there is still a sense of Carti having one foot in, one foot out of the album’s ideas. Carti flirts with the punk trap idea, but holds back from completing the vision by maintaining the Die Lit template in the second half. That is not to say the second half does not have great moments; “Over” is the welcoming brother to the iconic “Long Time” intro, “Die4Guy” brings a memorable bounce, and closing track “F33l Like Dying” is a mellow end-scene, diverting from the album’s turbulence for a final sweet cruise.

At 24 tracks, Whole Lotta Red can overstay its welcome. But through the length is Playboi Carti’s best body of work to date. Carti and the production are animalistic, bold in its experimentation and exuberant vocal personalities. If Die Lit was the calm, Whole Lotta Red is most certainly the storm.

8.5 / 10

Best tracks: “Die4Guy”, “Control”, “Over”, “On That Time”, “M3tamorphosis”, “Teen X”, “F33l Like Dying”, “King Vamp”, “Rockstar Made”