Suspense can make or break an album. There is truly no getting past the fact that the way one builds up anticipation for a particular project plays an integral role in how that same project ends up being received as once it finally sees a release. This idea has made such albums as Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo as incredibly momentous and gratifying as they were come their respective releases, but it has also made for quite the few underwhelming releases like Lil Wayne’s ever-divisive Tha Carter IV. Simply put, acts that repeatedly act on the idea of suspense are essentially betting on themselves for both critical and commercial acclaim.
This scenario is one that Playboi Carti absolutely had to find himself in if his long – and it bears repeating – long-awaited album Whole Lotta Red were to ever come out. The speculation had grown to seemingly immeasurable levels by themselves; the hype was not just through the roof, but through the stratosphere. And yet, after 3-plus years of this unprecedented teasing game that Carti himself had played with his audience, it finally happened in 2020.
But as with any project that has this amount of astronomical weight placed upon them, the same question remains from the outset: was it worth it? In regards to Carti’s endeavor here, the answer is a sternly simultaneous yes and no.
Whole Lotta Red is an incredible moment by itself for a mass amount of reasons — many of which have nothing to do with the sonic aspects that the album presents. Carti’s willingness to buck all preconceived notions as to what this album might look like – from the cover art, to the lack of leaked songs that had been teased towards their inclusion, right down to the album’s release date in itself – was impressive, outstanding even. But these things do not promise a great album on their own, and certainly not one that could ever live up to the hype that has been created for years and years as it has here.
Thankfully, Carti did indeed deliver quite the adequate project with this album, but one that sees its downsides unfortunately exponentiated by that aforementioned sense of hype and promise alike. Spanning a hefty 24 tracks over an even heftier hour and 4-minute runtime, Whole Lotta Red is a non-stop thrill ride that could have certainly benefited from its exciting portions being far more brief and concise.
This Achille’s heel is, well, exactly that — the only underlying issue that truly plagues this otherwise unbelievably raucous and gratifying experience. The ways in which this album embodies that tried and true punk ethos – from its brooding aesthetics right down to how each song is effectively uninvolved and poignant in their respective brevities – should have been encapsulated by a punk-esque project length as well. If Carti was truly attempting to reflect this approach, cutting this album down to half or even a quarter of its resulting length would have done this trick in full.
But even though this issue does play an unfortunately large role in the grander experience of this album, cutting its facets down to the songs alone reveals the fact that this is Carti at his absolute most creative peak yet. His delivery throughout this project is something that the mainstream hip-hop world would likely never accept as fondly with another artist as they do with Carti here — that speaks volumes to how effectively he was able to normalize this high-pitched, brazen, and even incoherent presence on the mic.
Each angle that Carti takes underneath this delivery from a lyrical sense ideally corresponds with his approach from that previously-mentioned angle; these lyrics are maniacal, homicidal, and unabashedly crazed — creating one of the most entertaining listens in hip-hop via every single track here from arguably hip-hop’s most entertaining figure by himself. Tracks like “JumpOutTheHouse,” “No Sl33p,” and “New N3on” have some of the most quotable and memorable lines heard this year on any single project regardless of genre.
Carti’s performance would certainly not be as emphatic as it ended up being without the absolutely remarkable production work throughout each track on this album. Not a single instrumental here leaves without touching on that aforementioned punk approach that Carti wanted to take throughout this album’s runtime, and that is due to a variety of factors.
The first one, and likely the most obvious, is the way these instrumentals sound from the jump. Tracks like “Rockstar Made,” “New Tank,” and “On That Time” are some of the best examples of how down and dirty this album gets from a production standpoint, as they absolutely pound the listener with an immense wall of distortion and other biting instrumental elements. Yet these tracks and many others still keep that moving and appealing sensibility about them, just as any punk track tries to do by themselves.
The far more underlying way this album’s instrumentals achieve that punk ethos is by directly including and/or borrowing from sounds that have shaped the underground hip-hop scene to this point in time — one that Carti has served as an icon of and inspiration to for a great deal of time. The blatant inclusions of such past standouts from the underground like F1lthy by himself, and Neilaworld’s cast of talents in Lukrative, Ssort, and Lucian are the most vivid examples of how this approach is taking from what makes this sound as effective as it is, the spirit of the underground. Even a track like “Meh” seems to borrow from the approach popularized by Novagang’s own purveying production force in Prblm with its plucked riff and animated stylistics as well.
All of these facets work to create an album that lives up to its immense hype from a number of angles, but is clouded by just how overwhelming this mass amount of tracks end up coming together as. For an artist that fails to release as frequently as many of his closest contemporaries – which really is nothing but a good thing at this point – Carti gave the world an album that could honestly last an indefinite amount of time. With that being said, its overall quality certainly has room to grow beyond its already impressive stature as it currently stands, but for now it is simply an album that did all it needed to in order to achieve its goals. Perhaps it did this too much at times, but the fact that it did it nonetheless is really what any music fan needed by itself.