Album Review: Playboi Carti – Whole Lotta Red

[AWGE/Interscope; 2020]

How do artists create mystique? In many cases it’s easy to understand; a reluctance to speak to the press, only appearing behind masks (some more elaborate than others), or going a decade or longer without any new material. In the social media age, the bar for mystique is distressingly low. We’ve reached the point where something like Whole Lotta Red, the second studio album from Atlanta rapper Playboi Carti, is treated like Detox in terms of anticipation and pre-release hype. After a gruelling two-and-a-half years of subsisting only off his self-titled mixtape and his acclaimed debut album Die Lit, Carti fans have finally been blessed with what’s sure to be his magnum opus – on Christmas Day, no less. Surely this will require every publication to put an addendum on their ‘Best of 2020’ lists, right?

Whole Lotta Red is certainly the hip-hop album of the year. What could represent 2020 better than something so grating that feels like it’s never going to end? It’s a little over an hour long, but you could just play the first 10 seconds of its 24 tracks and get the same effect. Or, you could just do literally anything else. Those dishes certainly aren’t going to scrub themselves.

Early defenders of Whole Lotta Red have painted Carti as a subversive, likening it to Yeezus. Having just revisited that perfect album, give or take a “Send It Up”, I have nothing to say but no. And also, no. To follow that up, fuck no. Whole Lotta Red doesn’t deserve any kind of comparison to any piece of ambitious art, no matter how great or awful it might be. It might actually be the most uninspired album I’ve heard in the last 12 months. When I first heard the initial ire, I thought it might be an outsider art masterpiece or at least interesting in its misguidedness. Once I finally heard it, I remembered that some albums are just bad. 

Opener “Rockstar Made” starts things off aptly. Carti convulses as if to make up for a lack of ideas over a blow-out beat that sounds like FruityLoops blew a gasket. Stop listening there and you have a good sense of the album. The few tracks that aren’t painful to listen to are egregiously tedious. It’s like Carti heard about Mario Judah dropping his own project with the same name and hurriedly threw 24 outtakes together and called it Whole Lotta Red. Maybe he called up Kanye West himself for a last-minute verse on “Go2DaMoon” to add some extra intrigue? After all, what would this be without profound Yeezyisms like “You always askin’ for Buddha, you a Budapest” and “The case so brief, don’t bring your briefcase”? 

Actually, Kanye should be applauded for bringing any semblance of personality to this, and he’s certainly made better songs with worse lines. No one comes to a Playboi Carti album for profundity; they want a vibe, and he’s certainly brought that before, whether as a lead artist on his tracks or through charismatic guest turns on cuts by Solange or Tyler, the Creator. Whole Lotta Red has a vibe the same way a TGI Fridays has an atmosphere; it just rides a wave of different shades of lifeless trap, an endless TikTok dance in purgatory.  

Carti has previously been hailed as punk, and you could do the same here but you’d also have to acknowledge how much awful punk rock is out there. Besides the Slash-inspired artwork (the only thing worth preserving about this), it’s not clear what constitutes this as punk. Is it the muddy production and general sloppiness of the presentation? The existence of a song called “Punk Monk”? It’s not hard to find good punk-influenced hip-hop. Whole Lotta Red has a lot less in common with the likes of Denzel Curry and Rico Nasty – it’s much closer to 6ix9ine. It’s a flurry of noise that’s begging you to pay attention. It gets so irritating at times that when there is a track that is dully competent, like “New N3on”, you want to praise it.  

The other feasible defense is that this is ‘turn off your brain’ music. As someone who enjoyed, to varying degrees, both Lil Pump albums, I can sympathize, to a point. I’d love nothing more than for Whole Lotta Red to be a whole lotta fun. A nearly empty 2-liter of Cotton Candy Faygo (whoop whoop) in my fridge can prove I’m not immune to guilty pleasures, but Carti rarely sounds like he’s enjoying himself even a little bit on here – and when it does, there’s a disconnect between him and the listener. When he says “I feel like God” on “M3tamorphosis,” it’s easy to believe him. He stacks songs with refrains like “Jump out the house”, which seem like they’re solely meant to be screamed back at packed shows. So, why can’t we join him in that excitement?

There’s a thesis buried somewhere in here, of success leading to cycles of drug-induced inertia and hedonism. The problem is Whole Lotta Red hardly ever gives Carti a chance to be real. He puts on vapid personas like ‘rock star’ and ‘vampire’ like he’s at Halloween Express. Tracks are Seinfeldian in their nothingness. “Meh” lives up to its name with an inert performance that could only be labeled rapping because it features vocals over a beat. That’s not to say he doesn’t occasionally find a focus; “Stop Breathing” has Carti channeling his unhinged vocals into a seething rage about the murder of his friend, Bigg Sosa. It’s let down, though, by a beat that just grinds incessantly.

What is Carti bringing to the table that any number of copycats floating through SoundCloud couldn’t do just as well? Is “I walk in the mall, they go crazy” a lyric worth reciting once, let alone twice? Are “rappers as rockstars” metaphors not at least a decade past their sell date? You could take the 4-5 listenable tracks here and come out with a mediocre EP, but why bother? When Whole Lotta Red is on, I think of much better albums and tapes put out in the last year by young rappers, like Baby Smoove’s I’m Still Perfect and Quin NFN’s QUINCHO. I think about the attention and discussion lavished on this album while those and countless others wait in the wings to be noticed. Is this what hype in 2020 and beyond is going to amount to? Hey, maybe this album has something to say after all.