The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Playboi Carti made the album of the year. Playboi Carti made the album of the year. Playboi Carti made the

Playboi Carti performs onstage last summer during Rolling Loud at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

When Playboi Carti issued his elastic and superlative second studio album, “Whole Lotta Red,” on Christmas Day last year, the songs had zero fa-la-la-la but still very much belonged to that glazed, outside-of-time sensation that hangs over the solstice holidays. It didn’t resemble seasonal music — it didn’t really feel real — but it was. Here was a helium-throated rapper from the Georgia clay who seemed entirely credible cosplaying Santa Claus, Gregor Samsa, Dracula, a rock star, a songbird, a monk, a punk, God and Rod Serling. “I’m in the Twilight Zone,” Carti raps from some unknowable coordinates in the holly-jolly ancient future. “They can’t understand me, I’m talking hieroglyphics.”

Nearly a year later, “Whole Lotta Red” still sounds better than anything released in 2021, but are we any closer to understanding it? The easiest thing to grasp about Carti’s rapping is that it’s relentlessly repetitive. The hardest thing to grasp is why that repetition feels so good. Maybe we should think of his refrains as mantras used to center restless minds and manifest clarity. Or maybe they’re like those pneumatic massage guns, pummeling to alleviate pain. Or maybe they’re distant cousins to all the lyric-deficient punk songs that seem to get stuck on a cluster of monosyllabic words in hopes of getting us unstuck from our tedious lives. Hey-ho-let’s-go.

He describes himself a “punk monk” deep in the “Whole Lotta Red” tracklist and the album artwork spoofs an old cover of Slash magazine, placing Carti in a tradition of hardcore rulebreakers who did their work on the edge. That kind of heroic, self-imposed marginality is encoded in our language of greatness, too. The avant-garde and the vanguard are synonymous terms originally used to describe the front lines of an advancing army — but art isn’t a war and Carti might be headed in the opposite direction anyway. His repetitions make his music feel like it’s moving inward, in recursive patterns that feel intricate and endless, like fractals.

You’ve seen them on posters in vape shops and math class, right? They’re those crystallized contours that replicate themselves on smaller and smaller scales, like in tree branches and snowflakes. Some theoretical physicists have hypothesized that human consciousness might exist on the quantum level by traveling fractal paths inside our neurons — which is something to consider when Carti raises the curtain on “Whole Lotta Red” with “Rockstar Made.” Rapping over a beat that sounds like broken glass in a panini press, he muses on eternity (and/or Luther Vandross?) without blinking: “Never too much. Never too much. Never too much. Never too much . . . .” He sounds like he’s stepping into quantum infinity.

By the time he reaches “M3tamorphosis,” he’s positing radical transformation as a state of ecstasy, which feels as exciting and demented as anything Kafka ever cooked up. Try to keep count of his asymmetrical exclamations. “Oh my God!” Carti chirps three times up top. “Metamorphosis!” he wheezes seven times in the middle. “I feel like God,” he trills in threes, evoking the holy trinity. Then a mortal named Kid Cudi wanders by with an evenhanded guest verse, reminding us that this music is still of this world.

The verbal metaphysics of “King Vamp” work on planetary scales. “When the sun goes dowwwn, yeah, it’s time to creep,” Carti declares in the vampiric hook, letting the melody sink in his mouth during that “dowwwn” as if he’s tracing the path of a fireball slumping into the horizon. Similarly, on “JumpOutTheHouse,” he delivers the titular refrain by accentuating the sibilance in the word “house” so that it sounds like the word is cleaving the air as it gets pulled down to earth. The “jumpoutthe” is a brave leap, the “house” is an abrupt fall, and Carti reenacts this outward plunge a total of 30 times, unflinching, unfazed, hey-ho-let’s-keep-going.

And by using tone, timbre and hyper-articulation to freight every syllable with multiple meanings, he keeps bringing us back to that quantum thing. Many physicists have described the quantum state — how electrons, for instance, take different positions in a way that prevents them from having material properties until they’re measured — as something similar to a coin-flip. When the coin is in the air, it’s neither heads nor tails. It could also be both. Maybe Playboi Carti is a quantum state. Maybe we all are. Maybe this music is the true sound of a reality that we’re still trying to understand.

Read more by Chris Richards:

Best music of 2021: Playboi Carti, Grouper, Turnstile, Yasmin Williams and more

Young Dolph’s heaviest rhymes made this lethal world feel lighter

Yeat redefines what it means for a rapper to rock the bells