Playboi Carti’s Radical Die Lit Expands the Parameters of Soundcloud Rap
A chunk of modern hip-hop, much of it made following the ascents of Chief Keef and Young Thug, is often described as post-verbal, or some synonymous term. Thinking along these lines has resulted in pejorative descriptive terminology, such as the near-ubiquitous “mumble rap.” It’s rare that such readings don’t feel, on some level, myopic. Often moored to outdated value sets, they undervalue, among other things, the pleasures of a fractured and improvised punchline and the joys of creatively deployed slang. In the case of the Atlanta-reared 21-year-old hypebeast icon Playboi Carti, it is tempting to talk about his style as an exercise in destructing language—more than just about any other current hip-hop luminary off Soundcloud or on. But perhaps it’s most accurate to say that Carti’s music represents a radical and consummate collaborative vision, shared between him, his star-studded circle of sympathetic collaborators, and his strangely unimpeachable team of chosen producers. Together, they explore how musical space in a rap song can be filled without the traditional signifiers of hip-hop proficiency being foregrounded. When a cogent quip or metaphor cuts through a Playboi Carti verse, it sounds as if it’s arisen naturally from repetition of a small collection of yelped phonemes that just sound good together, and is placed that way in the songs.
On Carti’s long-awaited self-titled mixtape from last year—delayed long enough to seem potentially apocryphal—the appeal of the music was as much based on what wasn’t there as what was. The amount of negative space in the songs was a provocation that, in many cases, became its ultimate appeal. In the Keef mold, verses in the traditional sense were simply lightly permuted, sometimes illegible variations on the hook. The distended low-bit beats maintained one dynamic; ad-libs functioned as both part of the beat and the central rapping. To some seasoned, conservatively-minded rap listeners, Playboi Carti sounded something like a series of extended mic warmups.
On Die Lit, Carti’s newest 19-track tome, he takes the methodology of his previous release to new elemental and experimental extremes. The album is an even more sonically daring scramble of all the street rap styles he’s internalized over his Internet-facilitated come-up over the past three years. He builds his songs around wispy vocal rinds whittled down from stock trap flows, with lyrics that are often yelped and pitch-shifted out of intelligibility. The songs do not build in density, lacking the redemptive arc one instinctively expects of a rap record or verse. Many of the songs on Die Lit simply rattle and clink on the treble end of things rather than punishing the subwoofer, contributing to a pervasive impression that we are waiting for a drop that never comes. But instead of sounding like a half-baked aberration or a tedious, overlong experiment, Die Lit broadcasts a refreshing and well-developed aesthetic–one that feels like Carti’s specific achievement. Its appeal feels distinctly corporeal, like it’s inducing some swag-rap equivalent of ASMR through exploring a limited and tightly EQd collection of sounds. Like 21 Savage’s 2016 breakthrough tape Savage Mode, Die Lit’s appeal is not unlike ambient or easy listening music. The gradual pleasure of hearing the counterpoint of the voice and backbeat develop and complicate on songs like “No Time” or “Right Now” might make a Soundcloud rap fan out of a Steve Reich head.
From its opening moments, it’s apparent that Die Lit marks a detour for Carti—deeper into the proverbial Weird. There are fewer clear singles than on his self-titled project, but the record is nonetheless as immediate as his first, with an even sharper stylistic signature. Its charm lies partially in Carti’s eminently chill composure. His pleasantly impersonal charisma shines whether he is digitally twisted into sounding like a human or an alien (“Flatbed Freestyle”). On the tracks, he comes in and out of focus, sometimes fading into the background to foreground a beat or resorting to pure, bleating onomatopoeia. On tracks like “Foreign,” “Pull Up,” and “Poke It Out” (where the eponymous line quickly becomes “polka dot” and then “po-ka-da”) Carti’s central exercise seems to be trying to cut the length of any given vocal sound in half until the limbo pole gets too low. When the strength of his vocal concepts wane a bit, the production picks up the slack. All of these songs are based around attention-grabbing, often uncharaterisable synth textures, from the breathy, Suspiria-soundtrack pads of “Lean 4 Real” to “No Time”’s celestial mallets. Together, they sustain the album’s narcotic power. His chief collaborator Pie’rre Bourne’s beats, especially, have a singular, haphazard-sounding beauty, operating in a dreamy harmonic space between dark and light.
Generally, the best thing a Carti collaborator can do is try to sound more like him—to throw out a need to flex their chops, defer to his grander vision, and feed off his hot-potato energy. Sometimes the guest appearances on Die Lit feel underbaked—features for the sake of features. The Travis Scott creeper “Love Hurts” is a relative snooze, and though Nicki Minaj’s “Poke It Out” verse on its own is appealing, its more traditional arc and Young Money-schooled lyrical barbs don’t exactly compliment Cardi’s impressionistic landscape. Indeed, the best guest spots on this album come from artists who more instinctively understand and have even influenced Carti’s vision. Lil Uzi Vert’s appearance on “Shoota” makes for the album’s clearest moment of pop appeal, with Uzi’s bell-like tenor roping Carti into a brighter, more pristine sonic universe. Later, the grin-inducing goof of a Young Thug collaboration “Choppa Won’t Miss” pulls Carti in the exact opposite direction, but it’s just as effective: a staccato barrage devolving into a series of “pew pew pew”s that are just air blown gently into the mic.
If there is any single figure who has made Playboi Carti’s current music possible, it is likely Chief Keef, the hermetic drill expat who is just one year Carti’s senior. Look no further than Carti’s playful, overstuffed chantalong “Old Money” for a bit of idol worship. Keef himself also appears on Die Lit on “Mileage,” supporting his acolyte while demonstrating his own singular progress as an artist. When juxtaposed with Carti, Keef’s verse makes him look like 2pac: “Your hoe on automatic, put her on manual,” he jokes. “She can’t handle me, handle me and Betty Boop.” Carti’s contributions outside of the sticky half-joke of a hook sound like involuntary muttering during sleep: “Ooh yeah, Kylie, Kylie / Ooh yea, Calabasas / Ooh yeah, Kendall, Kylie / Adidas deal / Ooh, shoutout Kanye.” The package, barely held together by a backfiring and gently demented drum loop, makes for one of the album’s most dynamic moments.
Despite the heavily ATL-derived signifiers, Playboi Carti feels rather like a man without a country—or rather a region—in rap music. He’s been mothered by two crews of blog-rap polyglots operating on different tiers: Father’s Awful Records cadre in his Atlanta hometown, and following an aspirant move to New York, the A$AP Mob. Like Rocky, Carti was always fashion-minded, literally and figuratively, eager to amalgamate trends and textures that seemed au courante: the traditional trap of his hometown, the starker drill music of Chicago, the based meanderings of Lil B, “cloud rap” of any stripe, and other genre-agnostic Soundcloud anomalies. “It’s a cultural movement, man, and once you get that buzz… it’s global, you know what I’m saying?” Carti told i-D last year. Ironically, Carti’s holistic approach has yielded something very specifically his, rather than an centerless collage of ideas; by now, his music feels like a breath of fresh air in an overcrowded field.