For decades now, it has been quite popular for hip-hop artists to refer to themselves as "rockstars." If you're a Baby Boomer, this categorization is considered blasphemous as many believe you must be making rock music in order to meet the criteria. This is only true if you take the word literally. In a figurative sense, "rockstar" is a term that can be used to describe anyone rebellious. It can be used to describe those who live lavish lifestyles. It's also a great way to describe anyone with a larger than life persona who can turn heads by walking into a room. The vast majority of hip-hop artists fit these descriptions to a T, which makes them the perfect fit for the "rockstar" title.
In recent years, artists have gone a step further with the rockstar lifestyle, having started wearing punk and metal shirts representing some of the most legendary bands of all time. Travis Scott is perhaps one of the best examples of this, as his early years were spent wearing a plethora of thrash metal tees from bands like Testament, Exodus, and many others. Lil Uzi Vert was also known for sporting these aesthetics, all while proclaiming his love for punk provocateur GG Allin. While Uzi and Scott were proudly repping these bands, they both admittedly didn't listen to the music. During their respective interviews with Nardwuar, both artists noted that they were more interested in the visual aesthetic of punk and thrash than they were in the actual music. If you listen to Uzi and Scott, this philosophy is confirmed as they focus heavily on melodies, which is something punk and metal aren't all that concerned with. Instead, those genres focus on unrelenting aggression, speed, and repetition that can across as abrasive to music listeners who are otherwise not accustomed to those styles.
On an underground level, there have certainly been hip-hop artists who have attempted to merge punk and metal with hip-hop, although it hasn't exactly become a mainstream phenomenon. There have been some songs from mainstream artists that have tried to toe the line. An example of this is Lil Uzi Vert's "Early 20 Rager" from his Luv Is Rage 2 album. This track has brooding vocals over what sounds like a hellish beat, all while Uzi comes through with a demonic performance. In many ways, the track is a doom metal epic that would make Ozzy Osbourne proud. Since that track, Uzi has yet to try something similar. 2018, however, brought us what would eventually lay the foundation for Playboi Carti's Whole Lotta Red.
The song in question is "RIP" off of Carti's breakout album Die Lit, an undeniable punk and thrash metal throwback that offers up one of the hardest beats Carti has ever rapped over. Throughout the track, Carti offers up staggered and disjointed flows all while the 808's sound like thunderous power chords that would come from the guitar of Metallica's James Hetfield. The music video for "RIP" featured Carti in a moshpit shoving people around as everyone headbangs to the music. Leather and studs fill the black and white scenes as if the artist had teleported to Los Angeles back in the late 70s or early 80s.
This song had many wondering if Carti could pull off a punk or metal album and with Whole Lotta Red, Carti largely answers that question. Now, there is no live instrumentation to be found here. When you think punk, you think of lots of power chords, brutally fast drums, and some screamed vocals. While those don't exist on Whole Lotta Red, it's clear that this album is a hip-hop interpretation of the genre. From the 808s that sound like power chords, to the blisteringly fast synth lines that sound like a lead from Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, Carti has delivered something truly special and unique with this project.
Leading up to the release of the album, Carti showed off the cover art which was a reference to the underground punk magazine called Slash. The magazine itself is pretty obscure and only someone with deep knowledge of punk would even attempt to do an album cover like this. Right away, alarm bells should have been ringing that this project was about to be different. Not to mention, Carti has a Bad Religion tattoo on his chest which signifies just how deep into punk he really is. Before even embarking into the music, it was clear that Carti had the punk aesthetic down to science -- although it still remained to be seen if he could replicate it with the actual songs. As it turns out, he did.
The album immediately kicks off with the track "Rockstar Made," an immediate attention grabber. From the melodic, glitched-out synths to the thumping 808s and repetitive lyrics, Carti does his best to set up expectations. The track has unrelenting energy that remains abrasive while also oddly catchy. You can't help but imagine yourself in a moshpit while listening to it and if this were played at a punk or metal festival, it wouldn't be that out of place. Adding to the punk and metal aesthetics here is a track called "Slay3r" which just so happens to have a reference to the thrash metal band of the same name. This is one of the more subdued songs on the tracklist although when Carti says "I'm a rockstar, I could've joined Slayer," his statement almost rings true. In fact, at times, Carti mimics Slayer singer Tom Araya on tracks like "Stop Breathing," at one point growing "I've been thinkin' 'bout homicide" in a way that mirrors Araya's delivery on the song "Angel Of Death."
These musical aesthetics are placed throughout the entire album, especially on tracks like "New Tank," "Die4Guy," Punk Monk," and even the heavily meme'd "JumpOutTheHouse." With "JumpOutTheHouse," Carti is repetitive as ever while constantly shouting the name of the song for the entire 1:33 runtime. The beat is incredibly in your face and like many of the songs before it, it acts as a moshpit anthem that will become an immediate hit once we are allowed back at festivals. It's also undeniably short, which is another frequent characteristic of the project. While hip-hop has been trending towards shorter songs for a while, artists are still able to consistently hit the two-minute mark. With Whole Lotta Red, Carti opts for numerous sub-2-minute tracks that are an obvious homage to the early days of punk, when artists could make their point in a limited amount of time. For instance, Bad Religion's debut album How Could Hell Be Any Worse? features seven tracks in the 1-minute range. Coincidentally, Whole Lotta Red features the exact same amount. Of course, this is purely a coincidence -- although it's hard to deny that Carti had Bad Religion in mind when making this album.
When Whole Lotta Red isn't giving you hard-hitting bangers, it is offering up some experimental tracks. The perfect example of this is the track "Vamp Anthem" which contains perhaps one of the most unique sample flips ever put to record. The beginning of the song features that classic piano line one would hear in a vampire movie although it eventually turns into hard-hitting trap production, all while Carti embraces the vampire aesthetics he has been showcasing all over his Instagram page. It's one of the most surprising songs of the year and it serves as the centerpiece of an album that isn't afraid to take risks.
At times, the 24-song tracklist can be a patience tester. The Kanye West-assisted "Go2DaMoon" is a low point here as the former presidential candidate fails to deliver an interesting flow or verse. Considering Kanye takes up 75 percent of the song, it makes the track hard to get through. Other songs like "Teen X" with Future and "Meh" are obvious filler, although there are plenty of tracks that keep you engaged and wanting more. "M3tamorphosis" with Kid Cudi is a demonstration of this as both artists come through with catchy performances all while the progressive production helps to keep things flowing. Another great moment on the tracklist is "Over," which sees Carti rapping over hypnotic production that is reminiscent of Die Lit's intro track "Long Time."
Upon release, Whole Lotta Red was heavily criticized by music listeners and it is easy to see why. The punk and metal vibe certainly isn't for everyone and it's something that came as a risk for Carti. Despite this, the artist has always been eager to evolve his sound and with Whole Lotta Red, that's exactly what he does. While many will deem this analysis as "giving Carti too much credit," it's important to note that his punk and metal references are too blatant to ignore. From the tattoos to the album art to the music itself, it's quite obvious that punk is a passion of Carti's and it only makes sense that those stylings would become the foundation for his new album.
By taking this risk, Carti has opened up the floodgates for other mainstream artists to potentially take this leap and with a full decade still ahead of us, perhaps Whole Lotta Red will spark a new trend for years to come.