Less is More: How Playboi Carti's 'Die Lit' Shifted the Hip-Hop Landscape
To fully appreciate the appeal of Playboi Carti's music, the age-old desert island question is appropriate: if you were stranded on a desert island and could listen to only one album, which would you take? As 2018 comes to a close the choice for me is easy, I'd pick my favorite album of the year and a project that only gets better with time, Carti's Die Lit. The unexpected follow-up to 2017's self-titled Playboi Carti, Die Lit is Carti's most impressive and expansive feat yet, a pleasant surprise from a rapper who first gained notoriety from being so elusive, most namely in the form of Soundcloud singles with red covers and snippets that hungry fans consumed like crack. In a 2017 conversation between Carti and fellow Atlanta oddball Lil Yachty, Carti attributed the delay for the Playboi Carti tape as a result of "producer problems."
"I wanted to stick to one sound, but that one sound wanted to give the sound to everybody," Carti said. "I had to hold off until I found that person that was gonna sit there and be on Carti's sound, and just young Carti's sound only."
That person turned out to be producer Pi'erre Bourne, who was also thrusted into the spotlight on the back of the Billboard-charting "Magnolia," a testament to his vibrant beats that suited Carti along with other rap youngsters such as Famous Dex and Lil Uzi Vert. Playboi Carti indicated a new direction for Carti's music: gone were the days of Chief Keef-inspired bangers like "Fetti" and in their place were more zany tracks like "Half & Half," with Carti manipulating his voice in new and more interesting ways. That growth makes Die Lit a fitting follow-up, the next evolution from an artist that embodies a minimalist aesthetic proven to produce earworm hooks and infectious melodies.
There are not many rappers that have a voice as unique as Carti. What he loses in literal rhymes he makes up for in inflection and repetition, thus creating the patently original Carti Sound™. Take for example the second song on Die Lit, "R.I.P.," a rowdy and rebellious highlight that encapsulates the punk aesthetic Carti sought to express. Other more lyrical artists have done remixes of the song, namely Tyler, the Creator and Denzel Curry, and while they may bring more literal words than Carti, neither captures the feeling of pure chaos the way the original does. The music video is a clear and concise visual representation of that ethos, and does a good job of illustrating what my brain looks like when listening to the song. It's a punk-rap song, and he takes aim at the anti-mumble rap establishment with lyrics like "Fuck that mumblin' shit, fuck that mublin' shit / Bought a crib for my mama off that mumblin' shit." In a vacuum, yes, Carti's lyrics lack the density of a Kendrick or an Earl, but I'm just going off what I respond to the most, and with the way that Carti has refined his music down to the most poignant concepts he wants to express (rage, drugs, moshpits, fucking) he's able to produce a feeling that many rappers struggle to match.
Perhaps the best thing about Carti's music is its replay value. The fact that many of his songs tend to be straightforward and upfront about their concept — typically consisting of repetition and ad-libs —allows Carti to create a vibe rather than a literal meaning. "Lean 4 Real" is a mesmerizing track, with producer IndigoChildRick's eccentric beat and Carti's repetition of the lines "I'm on 'em beans for real / I'm on the lean for real" making for a hypnotic loop that may never get old. (Seriously, I listen to this song almost every day, it doesn't get old.) "Love Hurts" follows a similar formula, with a heavy and unrelenting bass line serving as the entirety of the beat while Carti ad-libs and exchanges short verses with 2018's hip-hop champion Travis Scott. At first, the lack of structure in the song may be off-putting, but the bassy and ad-lib-filled background make for a lowkey atmosphere in which two rockstars feel right at home.
On the whole, Die Lit has aged like a fine wine, and as time passes I find myself coming back to one track in particular more and more: "Flatbed Freestyle." Carti's barely decipherable lyrics add to its appeal, because instead what sticks is the inflection at which he raps them, a slurred and higher pitch that seem to indicate the next evolution in Carti's sound. This baby voice culminates with the outro in which Carti bellows out a "yeah yeah yeah" followed by the repetition and slight variation of the lines "too much lean, too much ice / one more pint, one more pint." Simply writing this verse out does the song little justice, but the feeling that's generated from the song is undeniable and up to the interpretation of the listener. In that sense, "Flatbed" is a testament to just how experimental of a hip-hop album Die Lit is. Music has always been about feeling, and the way in which Carti is unabashed in expressing that sentiment makes him already one of rap's biggest influencers.
While Carti is well on his way to becoming one of hip-hop's biggest and most expressive artists, it is worth noting those who paved the way for his rise to happen. The drill influence from artists like Chief Keef and Fredo Santana is undeniable in his early work, and as Carti ventures deeper into the baby voice sound I can't help but think of another rapper that has always prioritized his voice over lyrics: Young Thug. Few artists are as influential to today's Atlanta-dominant rap scene than Thugger, and while a comparison of the two isn't as obvious as say Thug to a Lil Baby or Gunna, the ways in which the two prioritize mood over everything is clear. "Fell in Luv" includes moments in which Carti slurs his voice to make for a stream of consciousness flow that Thug has done on numerous occasions (see: "Feel It," "RiRi," or "Worth It"). Moreover, a few of the snippets from Carti's forthcoming anticipated project Whole Lotta Red seem to invoke at least some amount of Thugger influence, as Carti continues to experiment with new ways to use his voice. At this point, the sky is the limit for Carti, he's emerged at an opportune time in rap, one in which the notions of what makes for a good rap song are being challenged more than ever before. It's a climate in which expressionism is being prioritized over technicality, feeling over lyrics, and few artists have as unique and entrancing a vibe as Playboi Carti.