Playboi Carti starts, stops, and toys with pop on ‘Die Lit’

Playboi Carti

Playboi Carti Photo courtesy of the Come Up Show

Enigmatic and alluring, Playboy Carti has always operated best from the shadows.

Much of the 22-year-old Atlanta native’s most compelling work appears on random tracks and scattered feature verses, which often pop up only to be later (and seemingly without reason) erased from his SoundCloud. Carti’s first, striking full-length, In Abundance, isn't even a self-contained project—it’s a compendium lassoing together 39 loosies.

Artists of Carti’s generation regularly disregard traditions like a unifying album conceit or easily digestible song structure, but his dismissal is deeper, more suspicious of the creeping superficiality in the new age of hip-hop. Up-and-comers like Lil Uzi Vert may convey emotional complexity through moody, impressionistic production and lyrics invoking fraught circumstances, but none do so with the sheer spooky mystery that Carti summons.

But Carti couldn’t remain an enigma forever. He made an official self-titled debut mixtape available last year, and his single, “Magnolia,” was a hit, its bassline farting and pumping like a loosely installed subwoofer approaching in a hooptie all summer long, each verse a labyrinth of splitting lanes that Carti swerved in and out of, speeding up and hitting the brakes, switching from singing to rapping without warning. And then, last week, in pure Carti fashion, he unexpectedly released his follow up, Die Lit, and we all reacted like we were watching a horror movie where you’re primed for something to startle you but still jump out of your seat when the shock comes.

Playboi Carti was 15 tracks with three featured guests total; Die Lit has 19 songs and features from Travis Scott, Nicki Minaj, Skepta, Bryson Tiller, Chief Keef, Lil Uzi Vert, and Young motherfucking Thug. This record is Carti as young superstar, curating established cameos that both complement his style and pave his entry into the pop world.

Some elements of that style are momentarily sacrificed. In the past, in Carti’s well-built, already familiarly peculiar musical realm, a sound as vague as a groan or a moan or an “uh” could reveal emphatic meaning, like audio performance art, as though he’d jumped out of an alley then faded back into the darkness. He might summon a throwaway quip, then build it into a Sun Tzu axiom on the art of young black swagger. But these primal, wandering oohs and uhs are nowhere to be heard on Die Lit. Maybe he’s over them; maybe he doesn’t want them to become some branded gimmick and he’s reserving them for his moments of purest experimentation.

At some spots on Die Lit, Carti restrains his primordial rush in order to give Tiller or Skepta space to hang out, then speeds back up when the time is right. But other times he just lets it rip. The Young Thug-featuring “Choppa Won’t Miss” is impossible to follow—the two rappers sprint past one another with glee, like rabbits we’ve roused on a sunny hike in the woods. Listen a few times and you’ll hear recurrent bits, but they pop up so randomly that it’s beside the point to ask which part’s the chorus and which is the bridge. Better to just anticipate and miss and giggle at every rap invention, every Iversonian stop-and-start to Carti’s flow, and Thugger’s emergence from his slime swamp.

Maybe Ye and Jay and Chance are the masters of cinematic rap, the Steve McQueens and Barry Jenkinses. But Carti’s in the Jordan Peele class, equally necessary because he’s eccentric, like Thug and Uzi, all of whom have chosen schematic obliteration and belly-rumbling bodily engagement as their artistic mode. The line "Bring that money home/Daddy wait for it," from “Home (KOD),” sits pretty plain on the page, but the way Carti deploys it in front of this factory-line steam-whistle beat makes it lock-me-in-and-toss-the-keys arresting.

Carti's high-pitched yet gravelly whine is as soft and menacing as Mike Tyson’s lisp, perfect for delivering the loftiest ideas about how keeping lit inevitably ignites your proclivity for both compassion and aggression. You need a healthy dose of passion to actually have fun, to live and to die lit. Nihilistic as that may sound, Carti has a long career view. He’s actively preparing for decades of output, but he’s not playing it safe; he’s preparing to rip it at the highest level for the longest time. 

Enlisting Nicki Minaj helps. The song she appears on, “Poke It Out,” showcases another of those Carti phrases whose meaning I couldn’t guess before but I now have a very specific definition of after hearing Carti repeat the phrase like he's stuck in a trance or intoning a sorcerer’s incantation. Minaj, not coincidentally, chooses her stopover in shadowy Carti World as the time to loose her most nagging demons, spraying warning shots around Cardi B and shooting back at people who torch her for ending rhymes with the same word.

Carti has always been an intentional artist. Throughout his wandering, a greater narrative always comes into focus. Unorthodox beats shape utterly experimental songs, while his rap style transcends language. Each suspiciously swerving bassline and chopped-up verse structure fits together with astonishingly primal poignancy; each weird production detail or grunt or random repeated incantation for bars serves a purpose. And his purpose, at least momentarily, is to bend the pop world to his worldview, whatever that might be.