“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” — Anton Ego, “Ratatouille” (2007)
Many people quickly took to Twitter to denounce Playboi Carti’s third album, “Whole Lotta Red,” released on Christmas. Like Ego wrote in his food review, it’s easy to dismiss novel art. “Whole Lotta Red” shouldn’t be dismissed — the album is worthy of both praise and criticism.
The album, first announced in summer 2018, was habitually teased on social media within the last two and a half years. Songs from “Whole Lotta Red” were regularly leaked, much to Carti and his team’s chagrin.
One of these leaks, “Kid Cudi,” was illegally uploaded to Spotify by a fan and became the Billboard #1 charting song for several days. Such leaks fomented widespread anticipation around “Whole Lotta Red.” Rightfully so, fans were expecting a masterpiece. What Carti gave was a solid and forward thinking psychedelic trap album.
“Whole Lotta Red” opens with the fiery “Rockstar Made.” Right off the bat, it’s clear Carti is wildly experimenting with his voice. Rather than use his trademark high-pitched baby voice, Carti descends into much lower registers, ebbing and flowing between pitches, stretching his voice into scratchy and squeaky tones, repeating “I’m beating it up.” At first, these squeals are jarring and bizarre, but they quickly become catchy and lovable. About half the songs on this album can be sorted into this category of heavily punk-inspired and hard-hitting dark tracks, particularly “Jumpoutthehouse,” “No Sl33p” and “Stop Breathing,” which are fast-paced, repetitive and brief. Critics have drawn comparisons between trap and punk for both being minimalist, repetitive and aggressive, yet on “Whole Lotta Red,” Carti pushes the punk connection beyond simply aestheticism. Rather, he injects his music with the raw aggression and minimalism of traditional punk. On “Stop Breathing,” Carti is actually yelling and screaming about various forms of violence, belting out, “I just hit a lick with a mask, MF DOOM.”
These dark, punkier songs are harshly juxtaposed with more playful and fun tracks like “Beno!” and “Slay3r,” which all feel like the first swim of summer, diving face-first into an ecstatic and blissful pool of exuberance. “Slay3r” is bouncy and groovy — Carti effortlessly glides and hops on the beat. While the beats and vocals on these tracks fit within Carti’s traditional minimal trap vibe, he still refashions his vocal inflections and tones.
An air of spontaneity permeates the album, which was allegedly recorded within a few weeks before the release. While Carti’s style tends to sound freestyled, some songs sound like demos that should have been developed and mastered more.
On an album occupied mostly by recently recorded cuts, Carti appeals to older, hungry fans with a classic leak, “Neon N3on,” produced by Maaly Raw, known for his legendary work with Lil Uzi Vert. The beat is bright, shining and bursting with energy. The song, one of my favorites on the album, transports me to riding through a Tokyo street at night, full Akira-style.
The three features on the album — Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Future — don’t add any nuance. Kanye’s verse on “Go2daMoon” is awkward, and Carti’s brief verse toward the end of the track is sporadic, unpredictable and bizarre. Kid Cudi’s humming on “M3tamorphosis” reverberates throughout, but his verse doesn’t fit with Carti’s dark and vampiric theme for the song. “Teen X” also features Future, a track with a glittery, ethereal and blissful beat, making my brain feel like it’s melting out of my skull, and Carti’s high-pitched vocals evoke pure euphoria. Future’s verse on “Teen X” is acceptable, but it doesn’t add much more to the song.
It’s worth mentioning the tracks produced by Carti’s longtime friend and collaborator Pierre Borne: “Place” and “IloveuIhateu,” two of the smoothest and airiest tracks on the album. These songs are peak Carti for the older fans; his voice is liquid and tantalizing, rhythmically dripping all over the beat like icing on a cake.
“Die4Guy,” which falls in the last quarter of the album, epitomizes Carti’s central message: “We some rockstars, we the new Black Flag.” Like many great punk albums before it, “Whole Lotta Red” isn’t a flawless masterpiece. At a whopping 24 songs, the beats can sometimes feel redundant, but Carti still delivers a unique, exhilarating and wildly punked-out performance. “Whole Lotta Red” accomplishes a great deal over an hour — Carti boldly steps into bizarre and vampire-inspired punk musical landscapes, while also serving up satisfying psychedelic trap for old and new fans alike.