In the much-derided world of mumble rap, Playboi Carti might just be both the hero it deserves and the one it needs right now. The subgenre has no shortage of colorful personalities (not to mention hairstyles), but few and far between are the figures delivering credible musicianship; the ones whose work will linger long after the last broken strands of a bleached-do have crumbled to dust. Carti, whether he identifies with his inclusion in this circle or not, is precisely this kind of figure, a calling confirmed not in his actions but in his works; namely, Die Lit, his debut album proper which he surprise-dropped last week.
Like most rappers making the jump from hype-mixtape to debut studio album, Carti sticks to his proverbial guns by forgoing any attempt at sonic evolution, opting instead to deliver more of exactly what launched him to stardom in the first place. This would seem derivative were it not for the fact that Carti is operating on a sonic playing field no one is even close to stepping on, in hip-hop or otherwise. One of the smartest decisions made on Die Lit is ensuring that it offers the same tones and textures of last year’s breakthrough self-titled mixtape, albeit in more polished, fine-tuned form.
Which isn’t surprising given that we have the same dynamic duo to thank for both efforts. Playboi Carti and Pi’Erre Bourne are a rapper/producer team for the ages; worthy of joining the ranks of a partnership like Missy Elliott and Timbaland in their ability to craft an entire universe of sound belonging solely to them. The New York Times once wrote that Carti is “more at ease with the performance of the role than with the actual act of rapping,” but that assessment entirely overlooks his skill-set: he may be a rapper, but he is not giving us raps – he is giving us a wholly-unique artistic view. Or, if you will, a vibe.
The sonic world of Carti and Bourne is rich and inviting; a hermetically-sealed pleasuredome built from tectonic plates of rumbling basslines and lofty clouds of 8-bit ice cream synth swirls. Carti himself flits in and out, sometimes offering platitudes on oral sex, MDMA, and the noxious life of a celebrity, other times simply letting his ad-libs melt into the ether of the beat to the point where one is no longer distinguishable from the other. This is evidenced right from the get-go on opening track “Long Time – Intro”, where a veritable chorus of Playbois begins to swell up to extol the triumphant mantra “Just to feel like this took a long time.” There are untold layers of his own voice at work here, continually surrounding the ear at every individual moment.
With Carti acting as the ethereal host of Die Lit, it allows the star-studded list of guest features he accrued to truly pop out of the woodwork. This proves to be a huge boon for the record; where nearly all of his peers corral huge casts of rap’s finest to bolster their tracks, it inevitably turns into a ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ scenario. Here, the features act in the way guest spots should – to add new flavors to the finished product without overpowering the main ingredients.
Several tracks that highlight this quality prove to be among the album’s most enjoyable. The plinking, feather-light “Poke It Out” somehow manages to be centered around a typically-showy Nicki Minaj verse without letting her uproot it entirely. Instead, her purrs and vocal trills get absorbed seamlessly into the atmosphere. Conversely, a song like “Lean 4 Real”, which has a beat that evokes a Donkey Kong-esque video game rainforest and Carti chanting about being too high on Molly, borders dangerously close to self-parody only to be saved by the sudden arrival of Skepta, who manages to keep things on level ground.
Like many other prestige rap releases this year, Die Lit (clocking in at 19 tracks) could stand to trim a little of its runtime. While this weakness has been a death knell for other rappers, the sheer strength of the tracks on display here keep it from being a serious issue. The richly-fabricated world of the album is full of so much subtlety, so many nuanced contours, that its length, if anything, feels by design. It is the project’s massive scope that allows us to zero in and notice the small moments of radiance like the stuttering Purity Ring-sample that buoys the Bryson Tiller-featuring “Fell in Luv” or the mellifluous ghost of a keyboard line that hovers around “No Time”.
At some point, there will surely come a time when we’ll expect Playboi Carti to demonstrate a measurable artistic evolution. But part of the thrill in listening to Die Lit is that Carti is still producing innovative, inventive hip-hop unmoored by expectations from his very first set of tools. Who knows what worlds will come next.