#7. Arriving at the tail end of 2020 — Christmas Day, to be exact — to the bewilderment of fans and skeptics alike, Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red was finally delivered to the world after months of hyper-speculation and a slew of false starts (including an appropriately named mid-tier single “@MEH” sorta coming and going). There wasn’t much in the way of a traditional promotional run leading up to release — if anything, more interest was garnered through leaks — and the closest thing this had to any major press coverage was DJ Akademiks calling Carti “Santa” a week prior because of the “gift” he was about to bestow on the upcoming holiday. The already illusive Atlanta performer went full incognito mode for two years, communicating only through sticky caps tweets that looked like cryptic symbols (giving new meaning to the line “They can’t understand me, I’m talkin’ hieroglyphics”) and occasionally providing a hot feature or two. For any other rapper, that would be career suicide; for Carti, this was a test of loyalty for his cult-like following, one he had developed after Die Lit, but even the most ardent of his supporters were starting to get restless. It was a waiting period that produced a mystifying, abstruse reward: one that wasn’t simply Die Lit 2 — made explicitly clear with those hazy, disorienting first few seconds of “Rockstar Made,” with that fiendish leading piano melody and those blown-out, looping 808s — but an evolution of that record’s sonic sensibilities, with the “rockstar”-oriented aesthetic taken to its natural conclusion. More specifically, it was a progression from mumble rap into punk rock; or, trap music’s succinct, hard-hitting sonic character correctly placed within punk’s musical lineage.
So Carti wasn’t trying to emulate Kurt Cobain anymore, he was now a vampiric reincarnation of Sid Vicious. He no longer muttered his lyrics, but on Whole Lotta Red bellows them until he runs out of energy; he barks the chorus of “Stop Breathing” until he literally stops breathing and phonetically spits out “D-R-A-C-O” over “On That Time”’s sputtering beat as if his life depended on it. Half of the time he’s a demonic necromancer, a gothic creature of the night (“No Sl33p” has him dreaming about murder); the other half, an oddball, an aloof goof (his Lil Uzi Vert-like intonations on “Slay3r”). There are occasions where Carti’s high-register “baby voice” emerges — he squeaks through “Teen X” with an equally shrill Future — but his trademark delivery has been tweaked, refined, and overall retooled for the occasion, a testament to the degree to which his artistry continues to advance. In fact, his progressive gambit here isn’t all that different to the likes of what executive producer Kanye West achieved with Yeezus in 2013: to plunge into an abrasive unknown and come out a brand new person. But even this overstates how much Whole Lotta Red adheres to any sort of tradition or, hell, even much of anything else in contemporary hip-hop. Sure, there have been a lot of artists who have wanted to emulate Whole Lotta Red’s particular swagger and sound after its release — Trippie Redd released a pretty good knockoff album a little later — but Carti’s rage music is instinctually his own beast. Even at a year out, it remains an unprecedented, explosive statement from one of the more perplexing figures to emerge from the SoundCloud scene; to this day, we’re still picking up pieces of the shrapnel.