Expecting lyrical as well as emotional depth out of Carti, though, seems beside the point.
On his debut studio album, Die Lit, Playboi Carti’s formula remains relatively the same as found on last year’s self-titled mixtape: the rapper recites lines and hooks driven by impulse, no matter how underdeveloped, like these sparks of ideas would immediately disappear if he didn’t put them on record. He crowds his tracks with ad libs, which function both as compelling sound effects and permanent placeholders to occupy a material void. That embrace of the fleeting and the spontaneous stands as the defining characteristic of his music.
What becomes more apparent on this full-length is that it’s not Carti who must adapt his style to the culture at large, but the other way around. “Pull Up” makes that evident: the rapper constructs most of the track by making nothing but random, throwaway noises, and his trusted producer Pi’erre Bourne gets tasked with providing an appropriate environment to neatly house the cacophony. The guests on the album also must figure out how to complement such an unpredictable voice. Regardless of the outcome, their efforts only give more definition to the elusive Carti.
Like on Carti’s previous record, Bourne produces most of the album’s glossy, alien sounds. A welcome new entry is the blown-out bass roaring underneath “R.I.P,” a track that already feels disorienting with Carti’s multiple voices buzzing around. But he mostly sticks to iridescent synths that define his signature sound. His glistening melodies grace two of the album’s pop standouts, “Poke It Out” with Nicki Minaj and “Mileage” with Chief Keef. The latter track especially seems made with its guest in mind, with its tumbling yet sticky construction fitting for both Carti and Keef’s own pop-oriented projects.
Minaj’s appearance on “Poke It Out” is one of the many moments where a guest’s performance reveals unseen dimensions to Carti as a rapper. For instance, that performance on “Poke It Out” makes a strong case that recreating Carti’s style is tougher than it may seem: Nicki’s own take of his rush of hooks and key phrases sounds labored, lacking that fury of on-the-spot inspiration. It comes as no surprise that Lil Uzi Vert is once again best-suited as a collaborator. He not only has the energy to keep up with the main star in “Shoota,” but he also constructs verses in a similar fashion, more as a collection of hooks than a statement of intent.
While Carti has done plenty to prove himself as a rap-hook machine, his melodic choruses on a few tracks show some yet-untapped creative potential. He’s still reliant upon shallow clichés and works with only fragments of ideas. But he holds his own next to the soft-boy croons of Bryson Tiller in “Fell in Luv;” it’s just unfortunate he’s not yet lyrically capable of investigating deeper into his sensitive side. He fares better in “Mileage” when he brings along Chief Keef, the forefather of his style, but his guest also shows up Carti, demonstrating the kind of rapper Carti can become if he begins revealing more rugged emotion through his voice.
Expecting lyrical as well as emotional depth out of Carti, though, seems beside the point. His songs resemble a Vine loop: his verses are compacted into tweet-sized hooks, often condensed further into shocking ad libs, all perfectly chasing their own tails. Bourne’s hypnotic production also sounds more like a delicious soundbite looped indefinitely.
Die Lit attempts to slightly open up that insularity by introducing new textures and inviting new outside voices to interact with Carti’s world. That effort somewhat answers the reactions to last year’s mixtape, which questioned the limits of the rapper’s rather narrow artistic vision. While the borders of his music expand, Carti only truly invests in what works best for him now, and he continues to persist impressively while sticking to such a singular direction.