Playboi Carti has done it again, and in much the same way as he did it previously. You could be forgiven for losing faith. Last year’s eponymous debut felt insurgent, the culmination of a frothing SoundCloud movement that had grown from insular community to mainstream breeding ground in a matter of months. Playboi Carti was the debut of not only the rapper himself, but the entire scene; the ensuing wave of imitators and innovators alike would calibrate both aspirations and tactics by the parallel paths of Carti and Lil Uzi Vert (Lil Yachty had emerged slightly earlier, but ended up on a bizarre and far more difficult-to-follow trajectory). Accordingly, it was fair to think of Carti’s debut as something like the rap equivalent of Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double; impossible to ignore in the moment, but markedly less impactful as the audience acclimated to the new normal.
Yet here we are. In many ways, Die Lit is simply an amplified version of Playboi Carti’s defining traits; the production, once again handled in large part by Pi’erre Bourne, has gone from two steps ahead to four; guest features are bigger names and more numerous; and by attrition alone Carti’s brand of melodic, slurred phonemics is less likely to draw a raised eyebrow from rap purists. In other words, it’s exactly the album that one might expect to follow in the wake of Carti’s now-proven commercial viability.
It’s a testament to the sound, then, that there remains room for Die Lit to surprise. Like its predecessor, it’s an album of party records; these are songs that will be played ad infinitum at functions until the hooks, the breaks, and, of course, the bass are burned into the brain of every attendee. Music (to say nothing of a career) like Carti’s is not expected to have much of a shelf life, and yet “Magnolia” and “Broke Boi” have only grown more powerful with familiarity; among the many appeals of his post-verbal style is the ability of songs to be reshaped endlessly into new memetic forms, foregoing literal interpretation for the much more fertile soil of absurdity.
Along with the other touchstones of rap’s meme era — “Bad and Boujee,” “Mask Off,” the “Hotline Bling” video — this is the perfect encapsulation of the sea change in rap’s audience, as the genre has usurped every other element of popular culture. Much to the (justifiable) dismay of those concerned with rap’s erasure as a serious artform, the emergent theme is un-serious music for un-serious times. More precisely, rap of any stripe is subject to being wrested from its original context and bent into a form of expression not for the artist, but for the consumer. Those who make a winking lean into memeability are positioned all the better to benefit from its enormous potential returns.
All of this is not necessarily at the forefront of Carti’s creative process, but it’s certainly on the mind of his employers at Interscope. For labels, the streaming era is a blessing and a curse; commercial success no longer requires consumers to exchange their hard-earned cash for a physical product, but for all but the largest artists a lightning-in-a-bottle smash single will yield far greater financial returns than the gradual cultivation of a dedicated fanbase. The more traditional approach, just as present on Die Lit, is to load an album up with cross-promotional features, bridging the gap between two fanbases for the benefit of both artists. We already knew about the alchemical mixture of Carti and Uzi, but both Bryson Tiller and Nicki Minaj do an admirable job of adapting their styles to the world of Die Lit, despite their purely strategic inclusion. While a little less successful, Skepta’s appearance on “Lean 4 Real” was a welcome experiment nonetheless, marking what feels like the fifth straight year in which grime’s American takeover has been imminent.
The ultimate triumph of Die Lit is that despite the baggage of the preceding paragraphs, it remains first and foremost a very fun album. The bullshit — intricately-planned spontaneity, albums built to favor streaming loopholes over listenability, whatever role “influencers” surely play in all this — is here to stay, and the highest praise available for an album produced by that system is to exist and delight in spite of it. Maybe Die Lit is a tad over-long or weighed down by commercial obligations, but good luck trying to fret about that while “R.I.P.” is on.
Music Review: Playboi Carti – Die Lit