Like the universe itself, rap albums are expanding, only instead of a Big Bang, God appeared over the Bronx in A.D. 1973 and whispered, “Get money.”
Now we’re living in the Spotify era, where rappers get paid by the stream — which means more songs, more money, more problems. Drake, Future, Migos and others have capitalized on this shift without much imagination, filling bigger containers with more scoops, making their albums feel stuffed and samey.
But here’s the good news: Rap is an art form where the tyros refuse to follow in the missteps of their heroes, and to prove it, two of the year’s best rap albums — “Die Lit” by Playboi Carti and “Simi” by BlocBoy JB — each earn their length in thoughtful, artful and mysterious ways. These two know that making music isn’t about filling space. It’s about manipulating time.
BlocBoy JB emerges from a storied tradition of Memphis loudmouths — a lineage that includes 8 Ball and MJG, Three 6 Mafia and Young Dolph — and across his new album’s 18 tracks, he sounds as if he’s standing right next to them, happy to be there. So happy, his most exuberant rhymes always seem to fall on the wrong beat, and by heaving his curvy Tennessee drawl into such asymmetrical couplets, he sounds like he’s pounding round pegs into square holes. It’s fantastic. Check out “Nike Swoosh” when he mocks make-believe gangsters for talking tough on social media: “I call ’em Twitter the Tiger/You are not a hitter, you a typewriter.”
He might end up becoming rap’s most playful bully since Gucci Mane, but for now, BlocBoy has dreamed up a few dozen ways of killing you softly, threatening to “blow you like a flute,” or “spray ’em like Febreze,” leaving enemies “six feet in some sand now,” (which, for whatever reason, sounds more merciful than dirt). Obviously, he’s aware of his own mortality. “Hold up, let me catch my breath,” he gasps in the middle of a beautifully jumbled verse, begging our pardon when he knows he doesn’t have to. When a rapper sounds this present, this alert, this hungry for the next moment, who wouldn’t be happy to wait?
While BlocBoy JB devours time, Atlanta’s Playboi Carti melts it down. His album title alone, “Die Lit,” frames life as a precious countdown — and in addition to confirming that it’s better to burn out than fade away, he reminds us of music’s divine power to make time go slack.
As the curtain lifts on the album’s opening track, Carti ponders his ascent from upon high: “I ain’t feel like this in a long time,” and then, “Just to feel like this, it took a long time, yeah,” and then, “Just to look like this it took a long time, yeah,” and on and on, until these echoes make you feel like you’re the one floating through the dreamy purgatory of pre-fame. And somehow, that “long time” wraps up in 3½ minutes. This isn’t wordplay. It’s clock-play.
Never mind that Carti’s slushy indoor-voice makes all of his duet partners sound stiff, (and here, even the famously lax tongues of Young Thug and Chief Keef seem as if they’re reading traffic and weather on the eights). What makes this music feel so radical is Carti’s commitment to repetition. Each time he fixates on a phrase, or a word, or even a little onomatopoeic hiccup, he’s denying us the comfort of forward motion, the familiarity of crescendo, the rush of catharsis and the satisfaction of resolution. And so his vocalizations become like a kind of wallpaper that you can’t stop staring into. Instead of chewing the scenery, he becomes the scenery.
All of that repetition invites us to feel new kinds of pleasure, but it feels like an act of omission, too. Without question, Carti is an editor, all the way down to the ad-libs that he uses to decorate the blank spaces in his music. Many of these incessant background blurts sound like “pew, pew, pew” or “whoosh, whoosh” — whispered evocations of gunfire. But with the “bang” edited out, we only hear the bullet slicing the air, the micro-moment between life and death. Place yourself in that moment hundreds of times over the course of this album’s 57 minutes and you might reconsider the value of every moment you have left.