I like to separate modern rap into two categories — pre-"March Madness" by Future and post-"March Madness," when Future went from a sometime-y powerhouse who stumbled into hits to an automaton that's a one-man Rae Sremmurd, with a batting average out of the booth that's hovering near perfection. 2015's when the game changed — Bobby Shmurda's legal troubles yanked him from the world's stage and Post Malone became a thing by cosplaying as Allen Iverson in the video for "White Iverson," go figure. "March Madness" signaled Future finally unlocking the hit-making formula that often eludes rappers; most fall into it, become oblivious to their continued success, and deter away, only to never embrace it again.
Playboi Carti emerged around this time with fashionisto Ian Connor giving his endorsement which, in the world of clout, is worth his weight in gold. Carti's name had been thrown around by Father, an Atlanta rapper who led the charge for the Odd Future-esque movement Awful Records, in relation to his camp, but the world wasn't privy to the former's sounds yet. "Broke Boi" hit Complex Music on April 2 with the accompanying title "Get Hip to 'Broke Boi' by Playboi Carti before it blows up." Like Future, Carti had discovered a hit-making formula, but was a lot earlier in the game. Future embraced melodies, while Carti knew the ins and outs of good production (courtesy of Mexikodro) that powered his lack of lyricism.
"March Madness" ultimately swept away Carti and many of the year's other rising prospects due to the song's encompassing nature involving police brutality and sheer pathos. There's also the lo-fi video featuring Carti, Dee Santiago, and Maxo Kream doing a couple of things that could possibly harm their careers in this stage that ultimately prevented it from being picked up by the hungry blogosphere as well. After everything was said and done, Future's hot streak is what's remembered from 2015 — Carti's rise, an afterthought. He made headlines in 2016 when he became aligned with A$AP Rocky and his Mob of fashion-forward creatives. Alas, we thought, this was the start of something beautiful. Mainstream media had finally embraced the rising star. He was on the fast track to the big league now.
Of all social media platforms, SoundCloud gets the most flack. Vine enabled anyone with a phone camera to record six-second videos and be an amateur comedian; Twitter affords anyone the opportunity to crack jokes and be an equally dabbling journalist that can twiddle their thumbs. Yet SoundCloud is the butt of aspiring artist jokes. Perusing the content on the platform will astound even the most skeptical of listeners. You'll find everything from creative remixes to the hottest content in the game to aspiring virtuosos.
It's here that Carti laid his empire under mainstream's nose, dating back to the releases of "chill freestyle," "smash," "lost," and a host of other low-profile hits that carved his aesthetic over time. Ian Connor extracted his essence from his interactions with him after discovering his work and, with his influence in the new generation, disseminated it through his endorsement of Carti on social media. Complex's endorsement of Carti, to everyone unfamiliar with the ways of the newer generation, seemed to come out of nowhere. But to the younger guys, Carti's placement was well deserved.
Nearly three years later, Carti is, perhaps, one of the best rappers in the game. Of course, that's subjective — if you're over 25, you think he's the worst thing since Lil B— but his impact on the genre can be felt far and wide. But it's not that that we choose to focus on, it's how he twists and turns the new wave of rap.
The 70s. 80s. 90s. 2000s. Rap morphed and reformed over the course of four decades with decidedly different sounds, yet a general agreement of what's considered "the good stuff." That's the lyrically-heavy, society-explaining, baggy jeans and Kangol hat-style of rap that sparked in the 1980s and continues, through declining avenues, in the main day. Four decades of the good music have been consolidated into a list of works and rappers that fans who only listen to these have become referred to as hip-hop purists. And, for a genre obsessed with change and evolution, purists are even worse than what they think Lil B is.
There's no coincidence that the "new wave" of rap only recently came into discussion — within the last three years, give or take. Everything from the more mellifluous production that's replaces standard 808s and drum kicks to the preference for melodic verses instead of traditional raps comprises the new wave. Lyrics aren't the fuel driving hip-hop — energy is. It's a reflection of the youth in America that are living faster and thinking bigger. Our political and social problems are the same, but we're constantly reminded of that through social media and other avenues. Music no longer has to burden itself with explaining these problems. The new age of rap focuses on the moments instead of the message; transforming it into a medium that lives and breathes instead of preaches.
Carti's self-titled debut is the project to hand to a hip-hop purist who can't quite wrap their heads around what new-age rap is or if they're searching for what exactly makes today's music different than, let's say, Busta Rhymes' lyrically-dense 90s hits or Tupac's cognitive-centric works. It's driven by ad libs and strategic breathes, not by wordplay. The production is very delicate, in stark contrast to Golden Age's grittiness, and the bass is obnoxiously loud — this is car music, not to be analyzed. But, at the end of the day, it is an album for a purpose. Debut projects are designed to fit a build, to introduce the mainstream to artists that they don't typically know yet or understand. Playboi Carti adheres to the introductory nature of debuts, just barely. There are enough elements of who he is interspersed through the tracks that we get to know who he is, but this ultimately causes the project to suffer.
Die Lit, the much-welcomed follow-up that fans salivated over, is Carti having fun, for fun's sake. He's off script here — if he even had one — and he's providing the new-age rap Sparknotes for interested viewers to cheat from. Of course, all 18 tracks aren't the bee's knees, but the message still translates wonderfully. That mumbling that Carti's debut zeroed in on? That's made him rich. Pi'erre Bourne, the producer that doesn't give a rat's ass about your hip-hop mainstays, continues to provide a sound unlike anything in recent rap history. The initial bearings that hampered down his zaniness in the first outing, which now seems much tamer in comparison, are removed, allowing Carti to turn up his eccentricity to unimaginable levels.
Between the grotesque beat tags, warbled production that's at times louder than the lyrics, and the expensive features from the who's-who in hip-hop to establish his credibility, Carti offers a peek into new-age rap's candy-filled center. These bombastic beats that surround him on cuts like "R.I.P." and "Love Hurts," the kind that he's been frequently employing over the years, have become to exemplify the zeitgeist of contemporary rap. Letting the beat ride and inconsequentially jumping in as he sits fit, Carti's penchant for just doing as he wants also is reflected in rap's new-age biosphere, where guys like Ugly God and XXXTentacion pretty much do whatever they want in ways that wouldn't have been possible if hip-hop purists managed to remain in power.
These conventions are but one aspect of the emerging rap scene that rewards the original and spits in the face of tradition. There's a reason why Joey Bada$$, one of the younger lyrical rappers in the game, gets grouped with Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Big K.R.I.T.: because of their subject matter. While that group of guys command conversation, the weird, one-of-a-kind group of new-age rappers that populate the XXL Freshman list and swarm the posts of the most popular blogs, are the people that hold the importance and influence in this day and age. If you don't see Die Lit as anything but a hodgepodge of expensive sounding beats and barely coherent flows, see it for its purpose as a study-guide of the new sound, the emerging focus of what's coming next.
That's ultimately what the generations unfamiliar with the new-age rap movement need to do in order for the genre to move forward. We're at a time where what's not understood is criticized and artists in different generations are in an ongoing conflict with each other. It circles back to "March Madness" and Future's rap takeover that engulfed the emerging movement and its stars. With everyone looking that way, Carti, along with those coming immediately after him, took a new sound and popularized it with a generation that was more in tune with what was next, instead of what was popular. Then, that generation came into power, so those that weren't familiar with it were swept aside. This created the chastising that's become so commonplace today. Anyone not around for the inception of the new movement probably doesn't understand it.
Accept Carti's gracious gift of Die Lit and use it to study what's central to rising rap circles, then pass it along. It's strong in its own right — understanding it comes from studying it in relation to all of the hottest music now. Once that's done, you'll be able to truly get an idea of the next generation's preferences.
More from Trey Alston: