I’m not obtuse enough to pretend like Playboi Carti dropped his debut mixtape (album? uh… playlist?) in a vacuum. Yes, one of the most exciting young rappers has finally released his long-gestating full-length, but he did so on the same day that the unquestionable best rapper alive released 14 potent tracks of introspective, technically flawless rapping. But in a way, it’s not that bad of a thing that Playboi Carti finally gave the world his self-titled debut during the same rotation of Earth that Kendrick Lamar gifted us DAMN. The reason being, there may be no rapper against whom a Carti juxtaposition would highlight what he brings to the table more than Kendrick Lamar.
Consider: Kendrick’s shit-talking head-slap of a single “HUMBLE.” exposes the farce of edited beauty; Playboi Carti, on the other hand, spends the whole of his discography extolling the virtues of surface-level attraction, the rightful heir to mentor A$AP Rocky’s swag-rap empire. Playboi Carti, in turn, does not break new ground nor command the attention of the album it will understandably be dwarfed by in coverage, but as an exercise in the millennial id delivered in Cam’ronian laziness, it’s sure a hell of a lot of fun.
Unlike fellow album stallers Jay Electronica and Despot, Carti gave an understandable reason for the delay during his FADER-hosted conversation with Lil Yachty, explaining that he was looking for producer cohesion—“young Carti’s sound”. In listening to his Soundcloud loosies (which, the term “loosies” being attributed to a Soundcloud-first artist is a topic for a whole different article), you could understand why he expected this on his debut full-length. Starting from his oldest track, “YUNGXANHOE”, there is a theme of airy, spacious beats above which he talk-raps simplistic rhyme schemes, utilizing the production to evoke a druggy swagger.
So, then, it’s not surprising that the first song on Playboi Carti is a Harry Fraud production. “Location” employs a drawn-out synth that could be mistaken for the cinematic ideal of a setting sun, breaking only for a quick jazzy break just over the halfway point. This takes his first three years of output and distils it into a compact sound, but it’s in the following track in which Carti drones over a contemporary production trope. “Magnolia”, taking cues from “Mask Off”, loops a flute throughout, the first but not last on this tape to do so. Even the more downtrodden offerings, “wokeuplikethis*” and “dothatshit!”, are blissfully paranoid, like feeling a suspicion that something important is going to happen to you and then, what do you know, you walk past a restaurant, and they’ve got that tangy cheesecake back on the menu (it’s the little things).
Over the production, however, you’re not getting particularly much. But it’s okay—whereas every release from Kendrick Lamar is required intensive listening, Carti’s music has, to recall a previously used Kanye West quotation, instead the quality of aspiration minimalism. It’s not challenging in the way that a complex mathematical problem might be, trying to see how scattered numbers fit together, but it continually asks the ever-important millennial question, “Am I flexing for all the world to see enough?” To give a visual example, see Carti’s live take on his breakout hit “Broke Boi” for 88rising. He’s charming and effortless, rocking a neon Zara bomber jacket, commanding his space well like a seasoned performer. It’s in these aspects that Carti is a star; he knows he’s a star and the fact that he uses rapping to prove it is almost beside the point.
This emergence is somewhat similar to the aforementioned Rocky, with whom Carti shares space on “New Choppa”. The song is the shortest track offered, but it encapsulates their similarities—prodigious fashion taste—as well as their differences—Rocky is a double-threat, possessing an uncanny ability to flow to complement his high culture, whereas Carti sinks into his production and sounds damn cool doing it. It’s an album highlight like all the collaborations, but for a different reason: on the non-Rocky collabs, Carti’s guests move into his stylistic realm, whereas it’s clear that when he’s with Rocky, he looks to emulate the A-lister.
Yeah, it’s virtually tautological that Kendrick Lamar released the best rap album of the year, but in a way, it’s a shame that singular fans will block out all other offerings in the temporal vicinity. I asked earlier this year if Big Sean’s music was cool, and applying that question to Playboi Carti would be a waste of time. Of course, his music is cool. It’s the sonic equivalent of the stereotypical laissez-faire worker who breezes through presentations on sheer personality alone. Is that presentation good? That’s debatable. But you’d listen to it again and again if you had the choice.