MARVIN Coverstar Playboi Carti on His Inspiration, His Lyrics and His Desire to Connect with His Audience

Words by Yoh Phillips
Photography by Kenneth Cappello
Styling by Shane Gonzales

“Do you want to interview Playboi Carti?” was the question that brought us together. Monday, January 25th, is when it was asked, precisely one month after the release of his Billboard-topping sophomore album, Whole Lotta Red. My initial reaction was disbelief. Any other contemporary rapper wouldn’t have been a surprise, but Playboi Carti isn’t your ordinary artist. His name is synonymous with secrecy. A sense of mystery surrounds him, which is rare to find in an age of hypervisibility. Famous musicians who choose to curate a quieter online and offline presence are naturally enigmatic—unicorns in a herd of horses.

Think André 3000. Frank Ocean. Childish Gambino. Jay Electronica. All elusive men in music who keep a gap separating their private world and their public lives. Privacy feels more and more foreign as social media developers continue to find new ways for us to share stories, photos, art, and music. Yet, instead of bringing the world closer to him, the Atlanta-born genre-bender maintains a distance between artist and audience.

“I’m missing a half of me,” said the rock star with soft, somber disgust, answering the inquiry, ‘how does it feel to not have the live stage right now?’ as if a dear friend has departed. We’re sitting side by side, shoulder to shoulder, in an all-black dressing room the size of a spacious closet. Later he’ll use the room to change in and out of clothes he brought for the magazine cover shoot. His manager, a music industry maven named Erin Larsen, stands behind us, by the closed door.

“I ain’t gonna lie to you bruh,” turning to look in my eyes, “I’m ready to have Erin book me a small venue and do four to five shows a day. Get like 10,000 people, line ’em up, and let ‘em in 2,000 at a time. Back to back. Real UNH. Real hanging from the wall rock star shit.”

“I want niggas to feel that unh again,” his quiet voice becoming more impassioned, sounding like an athlete on the sidelines in the final seconds of a fourth quarter, telling the coach to let him in the game. “I can’t…” he starts, “I can’t…” he repeats… “I can’t be mad at folks for not being able to be in cars and hear my album like they used to. They have to be in the house, listening in headphones, and that’s cool, but when I get on that stage, then they’ll see my presentation how I want them to see it.”

His electronic vape pen begins to lightly tap on the table before us. “Like I said,” referring to an earlier declaration about performing, “when I get on that stage, whenever that happens, niggas ain’t gonna be able to get on after me. I’m gonna show y’all what Whole Lotta Red means.”

Curiosity gets the best of me. I ask, what does Whole Lotta Red mean?  Whole Lotta Red means…” the question being considered, “uhhh…” and then comes the answer, “Whole Lotta Red means fuck ‘em! Just straight unh.” Twisting in the chair with each word. Not anxious but energized. “I’m just punk monk, bro. Punk. Monk. We can always go back to the gahdamn boom, boom, boom, but niggas had to evolve.”

“And when I made Whole Lotta Red,” the words flowing out of him with the sincerity of a pastor at the pulpit, “the only thing I saw was the stage. That’s my formula. I’m not scared to give anybody that. It’s what I do. I ain’t making no music for no club. I ain’t making no music for no fucking radio. I’m making music for the world, and I need to be everywhere performing this shit. You hear me?” a pause, and then, as if to sign the mission statement with a signature, he says his name, “Playboi Carti.”

On December 31st, the last day of 2020, news broke via social media that Daniel Dumile, better known as British-American rapper MF DOOM, had passed away on Halloween. Dumile’s alter-ego was the breathing embodiment of living outside the center, running opposite the crowd. A three-dimensional supervillain conceived of flesh, beer, and rhymes. So, it came as a surprise, especially six days before the revelation, to hear Playboi Carti rap on Whole Lotta Red, “I just hit a lick with a mask, MF Doom.”

“That line was hard!” he responds to the mention of it. “Imma be real with you, he starts, “after I said that line and the song was done, I went in the room with my niggas, and we singing the song, and none of my niggas knew who MF Doom was, none of them.” Flashing a pearly white smile, you can feel a warmth to the excitement in his voice. The young man who still loves to put his boys onto music jumped out. “I had to show these niggas who MF Doom was, then I had to show them who MF Doom inspired.”

When I asked how he himself discovered Doom, “I listen to everything,” he responds. “I’m a big music head. If you see my earlier interviews, the first person I shouted out was Curren$y. That’s my boy, I love him. I love Wiz too. I was on them early. And when I moved to New York, fucking with A$AP Mob. A$AP Rocky would play old rap shit like Tommy Wright III and MF Doom. Remember, I was a big Tyler, the Creator, and A$AP Rocky fan. Tyler always quoted Doom. You can hear it in the raps. I can’t name every MF Doom song, but, motherfucking, that “Red & Gold,” referring to the classic cut off MF Doom’s timeless 1999 debut album, Operation: Doomsday “when I first heard that one, I was sold. I can rap on that beat if I wanted to. It’s timeless. He’s just hard.” Referring back to the lyric, “When I said it,” Carti reflects, “I was more hype than anything, cause, I’m like, he’s alive to hear this shit boy.” A slight grin crosses his face. “I couldn’t wait for Doom to pop out his shell and shoutout Playboi Carti. I ain’t even do it for him to shout me out,” he confessed, “I just did it to show older people who hear me, yeah, I fuck with Doom, feel me. I love Doom.”

Even though he’s an artist who isn’t overtly visible, this doesn’t change the fact that Playboi Carti is immensely popular with one of the most devoted online followings of any artist in any genre. “I have little kids that are threatening me on a fucking daily basis that this is what the list needs to be,” Erin sighs referring to the demand for a Whole Lotta Red deluxe.

In the two years leading up to Whole Lotta Red, his social media visibility dropped significantly as his pop culture profile continued to reach new commercial heights. He is the infectious baby voice featured on Tyler, the Creator’s “Earfquake,” a 2019 multi-platinum single that peaked No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart. Then there’s his quiet yet captivating appearance on Solange’s “Almeda,” considered by fans and critics alike to be the standout track from her 2019 album When I Get Home. An unauthorized leak of a collab with villainous Atlanta rapper Young Nudy, “Pissy Pamper/Kid Cudi,” without any official promotion, soared to the top of Spotify’s US viral chart after Carti performed his guest verse at the 2019 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Each of these appearances fell within the same wheelhouse that made Carti’s 2018 debut album, Die Lit, a musical trampoline. A rock star moon bounce. An enthralling party bus of delirious anthems that solidified his uncanny ability to select hypnotic production perfect for catchy, repetitious refrains and hyperenergetic ad libs. He’s able to turn phrases, words, sounds, any kind of noise, into a memorable presence that will rattle in your head long after the songs end. The veritable culture magazine, Complex called him, “The most musically polarizing rapper on the planet right now.”

Mystique may make a rapper cool, but rebellion creates the rock star. The 2020 release of Whole Lotta Red, Playboi Carti’s long-awaited sophomore album, is the work of a disruptor. It’s not a party bus, but a galloping locomotive, off the rails—darker, more distorted in vocal engineering and sonic mixing. The music is moshpit dirty. The songs sound baptized in blood, sweat, resentment, and rage. The first nine tracks, reveal a louder, noisier, brasher, far more aggressive Carti. These are records where, instead of sitting within the beats, he stands on top of them. Instead of a baby voice, he’s pushing words out with a higher voltage. It’s more unambiguous, more concise, and concentrated.

When asked about the more aggressive punk sound, the answer was simple: “Every song on there is for the stage.” And what stages are those? “When I first started going to Europe, man, I wanted those shows to represent what my shows are supposed to look like. When I dropped Die Lit my first shows were out there. The moshes and the pits, all that rock star shit. Europe, they were going crazy. I feel like America picked that you can turn up more at a show. Giving people my all and seeing how people react to it. That’s the drug right there. That’s the rush.”

Track three, “Stop Breathing” is one of his most aggressive songs on Whole Lotta Red. He sounds like he’ll step on a giant. A voice that projects a towering presence. It’s a fearless grit. “’Stop Breathing’ is a different side of Carti y’all don’t know about. Y’all don’t even have to see that. Cause I don’t want y’all to see that. I want y’all to look at me like Michael Jackson,” a statement that shows how the rock star and the pop star ideals are always in conflict. “But that song right there,” he continues, “that shit mean everything to me. I did that shit one take. That’s from the heart,” beating on his chest as he completes the statement. “I made that for my brother, my brother who died. That’s the take on that. My brother died and that’s for him. His name was [Bigg] Sosa.”

“I was listening to Goblin while I was making Whole Lotta Red,” he reveals when I bring up that today is the 10th anniversary of Tyler, the Creator’s breakout single, “Yonkers.” “I was listening to a lot of crazy shit. Evil shit.” Why? “I just thought they were psyched out. I just wanted to psyche out with them. That’s me. Everybody go right, I go left.”

“Carti isn’t a traditional rapper or, for that matter, a traditional pop star. He isn’t a traditional anything. Instead, he’s a freewheeling presence, an ambient chaotic energy,” music critic Tom Breihan wrote in his review of the album, summing up how conventional labels and archaic concepts aren’t able to define someone who avoids them. “When I made it,” (referring to the Kid Cudi-featured song “M3tamorphosis,”) “I was talking about changing my swag. Just growing. Going from a cocoon to a butterfly. My fans always say they like black-hair Carti, or blonde-hair Carti. I’m always evolving. Metamorphosis is how I feel. I hope everybody sees it like that. I gotta be on that.” Prince, Michael Jackson, and David Bowie are who he cites as the innovators who push him to keep evolving and avoiding playing it safe. Men who didn’t let anyone stop them from doing what they felt was right.

A quote from CeeLo Green, a fellow Atlanta-born rap star who never shied away from experimenting comes to mind as Carti speaks. It was said during a recent radio interview, but the message speaks to the kind of artist who isn’t scared of their imagination and the fans who encourage them to experiment and break barriers. “You can’t just say you’re exceptional, you gotta show it,” CeeLo explained, “you got to do something bold, something brave, something daring, something dangerous, and pull it off. I feel like the fans that I’ve gotten, the people who have the largest, and most genuine affinity for me are the people who aren’t sitting in their chairs waiting on me to play it safe, but the people sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for me to survive another stunt.”

As an artist who is far from done yet, he’s a long way from sharing songs on Soundcloud and YouTube under the alias Sir Cartier, his first rap name, when he was just another high school teenager behind a computer with enough self-confidence to believe someone might care, press play, and like what they heard. Before any rap moniker, he was just Jordan Carter. “In our world,” he muses, “it’s a common, good name to have. Especially for a black kid.” His father, Reggie Carter, Sr., has told him, jokingly, that he’s named after Chicago Bulls shooting guard Michael Jordan, who became a 4x NBA Finals Champion and MVP in the 1995-96 season, three months before his son was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 13th.

Famously, on the same date, Tupac Shakur died from internal bleeding after being shot in Las Vegas six days prior. Tupac was 25, the age Carti will be turning this year. His boyish face, untouched by hair, time, pimples, tattoos, or scars, doesn’t look a day older than 21. Even the oval-shaped birthmark on his left cheek appears to be more of a beauty mark than a blemish. Not a single hair on his redhead is out of place. Erin says he’s incapable of taking a bad photo. I believe her.

“I want y’all to see me at my best at all times,” he says when discussing appearance. “I never want people to see me when I’m down. Don’t want to talk to anybody if I don’t have a haircut. I gotta look good.” The all-black androgynous attire that adds to his punk rock image has been a topic of conversation online. “I was the first kid at my school with bleached skinny jeans and niggas was laughing at me,” thinking back to when he first found his sense of self. “A month later everybody had them.”

“It was always like that. I just feel like, man, with anything that I do, I’m just going to do it 100%. I rap but I also want to be a motherfucking face. I want to be a model while I’m still beautiful. I want to give the world all I can. I just love that shit. That’s where the vamp shit comes in. When you see a vampire, they always look good. Can’t die. All black. Most stylish in the room. And he’s undefeated.”

When asked how high school-Carti dressed, he replies, “Freshman year rocking [Nike] SBs. On my skateboard shit. I had more skate gear than the real skaters.” Did you skate? “I was cool,” he remarks, “once you stop it’s kinda hard to get back on it and I’m kind of tall too. But I couldn’t dress like that and not. I didn’t want to be a poseur so I had to pick up the board. I was rocking Stüssy. A little Supreme that I had. Whatever I had, I made it work.”

I bring up Kid Cudi at the mention of him and his friends fighting over Bape T-shirts. “His swag, that shit changed the world,” was the immediate reply. “Just the way he put it on. Everything he used to wear is what somebody wanted. Him working at the Bape store, like what, that’s a dream. The whole GOOD Music had the swag. And Flacko too.” Although it’s not the same, didn’t you work at H&M, I asked? “Yep, H&M at Atlantic Station.” The store isn’t far from where we’re sitting. Would probably take us 15 minutes to get there. There’s no way he could walk in there today, maybe Jordan Carter could, but not Playboi Carti.

One of his earliest collaborators, prolific Atlanta producer and rapper Ethereal, met him during his senior year at North Springs Charter High School in 2014. A mutual friend introduced them. “I always say I can see when people have star power,” Ethereal reminisced over the phone, “I told him, literally, after the first few times I met him, you are going to be a star.” I asked Ethereal how he knew. “I don’t know man,” he responded. “Just the way he carried himself. He came into the room with all his friends and he was the main character.”

Erin saw it as well, at a concert in 2015. She was a brand-new talent agent at CAA. Father, head of Atlanta art collective Awful Records, became her first client after the widespread success of his breakout single and house party classic, “Look at Wrist.” Since he was working with Ethereal, an Awful Records founding member, Carti entered the group’s orbit as a rising star. Of all the epochal records released during his time with Awful, the track that had the most substantial impact was “Broke Boi” produced by MexikoDro. He recorded it in Ethereal’s room, one take, and afterward looked at him and said, “It’s a hit, bro. It’s a hit, E.”

“Broke Boi” didn’t drop on Soundcloud– where it currently has 45.9 million plays—until April 2015, but Father was booked to perform in New York at S.O.B.’s in January. The then-teen rapper took a 20-hour bus ride from Atlanta to NY, popped out at the show, and gave them a taste of the soon-to-be-released banger. People lost their minds. Watching him, this unexpected, unknown guest receiving a reaction from a crowd made Erin ask, “Who is this fucking kid?”

They met backstage that night and kept in touch. They wouldn’t officially work together until years later, but the seed for their union was planted. “I wasn’t trying to be his manager,” she swears, “I was just a new agent who wanted to get this kid ‘cause I thought he was going to be a star. I couldn’t really explain it to anybody. He just had that it. I don’t know what it is, but he has it.”

Ethereal can also recall a show that reinforced Carti’s magnetism. “I remember one of the first nights we brought him out in Atlanta. It was at Terminal West, this was like the end of the first Awful tour, and that shit was just insane,” the memory still fresh in his mind. “The crowd response to him was just mind-blowing. He just knows how to control a crowd. That’s what I mean when I say star power. It expands from being in a room and knowing how to navigate conversations to also being able to get on stage and control a whole crowd of people. People think it’s easy, it’s not man.”

If I had to pinpoint when I saw “it,” that would be four years ago at Roots Picnic, an outdoor music festival in Philadelphia. Playboi Carti performed after hip-hop legend Pete Rock on the Oasis Stage at 4:15 PM. It was a balmy June afternoon, and the midday crowd didn’t have the festive battery in their back yet. They were relaxed. Unbothered. Then, like a bolt of lightning on a cloudless day, the peace was disrupted by a young man in a vintage Tupac graphic tee and skinny jeans bouncing across the stage with the same energized jubilance as the hypnotic songs he performed.

The grown and sophisticated didn’t get it, this wasn’t rap from the same boom-bap era as Pete Rock, but teenagers and adults in their early 20s couldn’t stand still. Dirt and sweat filled the air as “Magnolia,” his career-launching 3x platinum single, shook out the speakers into their torsos. “In New York I Milly Rock/hide it in my sock” he shouted as arms pumped, legs shook, cell phones raised, and mosh pits formed. Every reaction reinforced how the life of the party had arrived.

A lot has changed for Playboi Carti since 2017. Knowing how much has changed, I ask if there’s anything from his pre-rap star life that he misses. “Sometimes…,” he starts, his voice sounding dry. “Sometimes I be wanting to go somewhere and nobody notices me. That’s it.” Before I respond, he adds “I don’t… hell nah… I didn’t have… no,” comes the conclusion, “I’m happy about where I’m at.”

There’s a firmness to his stance. No going back to how things were. No going back to not having. Earlier in our conversation, we talked about prom, and how his dad rented him a BMW. “I didn’t come home for like two weeks,” he said with a laugh. “When I got home, he wasn’t mad at me, but he asked, what happened? Why you take off like that? You didn’t call me or nothing. I told him I didn’t want to bring the bimmer back. Ever since then, my pops said he knew I liked nice shit.”

And Playboi Carti’s favorite car? “Corvette. When I started rapping and money started coming in, the first car I got was a 2018 Corvette. That’s a street nigga Ferrari. Had to get it. That’s all I knew too. I didn’t know too much about different cars,” Carti admits, “I just knew what I saw in Atlanta. You see a lot of OGs riding around in their old Corvettes. It always looked playa.”

Going back to his life, I wonder aloud what he considers fun these days. He pauses for a brief second before replying, “The life. Life is fun. I’m getting older so I just get more responsibilities and shit. It’s fun and it’s always been fun but now it’s fuck fun. I’m trying to handle my business and get this money. Have fun later. But I’m happy.”

Still, I wanted to know what makes him feel like being unnoticed. “Sometimes,” he begins, “I be wanting to go to certain places. I might want to go to the gun range. I might want to go to the gas station. Might want to go post up on one of my homie’s blocks. I might wanna fucking go to an amusement park. Go on a date. Whatever. Feel me? I ain’t sat down in a restaurant in so long. Ain’t been to the movies in so long. Ain’t been to the amusement park in so long. Everything comes to me.”

Since Whole Lotta Red was released on Christmas, I asked Carti about his own formative Christmas memories. “The day I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real,” came the unexpected answer. “I made cookies for Santa, right? The next morning there are presents under the tree, but the cookies aren’t eaten. She forgot!” he says to the tune of his snapping fingers. “I was coming to that age anyway, but after that, she was telling me, nigga I buy everything. If you do bad, you ain’t getting shit.”

He elaborates how the realization changed everything for him. “I said, ‘if Santa Claus ain’t real, ain’t shit real’. You feel me. That’s how I feel today.” Carti takes a pull from the vape pen. The blue tip lights up as he inhales and the conversation take a reflective turn. “Karma, that’s it…gotta keep doing good shit. Everybody makes mistakes and does little shit. But you gotta keep going. That’s what I believe in, karma, that’s it.”

Staying on a more personal subject, I pose the question, what has shaped you as a man? “My family, some of my friends, my manager, some girls I dated, situations,” he rattles off. “When I started rapping,” he continues, “I was traveling the world at 17 and 18. I had to make my own mistakes and learn from my own mistakes. Shit that regular teenagers were going through I wasn’t going through. Lots of shit shaped me.” This mention of his manager reminded me how Erin said no one ever asks him, “What’s important to Playboi Carti?” I promised her I would, and I did.

“Right now,” he expounds without a second thought, “the most important thing is my son. I love him to death. That’s the most important thing to me, and my fans. I need my fans to help me support my son. That’s it. Gotta stay on top, now that I got him.”                                                               @playboicarti