Playboi Carti is rarely at a loss for words. Publicly, the young rapper projects a sense of perpetual ease. But this wasn't that. “That was one of my happiest moments…” he began, before trailing off. He flipped his braids back and ran a hand through them pensively, revealing the birthmark on his left cheek, which has become a trademark. “I was broke as f---! I didn’t have anything growing up. I was wearing whatever I had. And then…”
He was having a hard time recounting the occasion when A$AP Rocky, his mentor and frequent collaborator, brought him to New York Fashion Week this February. That's where Rocky introduced him to Raf Simons at his debut Calvin Klein show. “I met Raf! Not even like some streetwear designer, but Raf!” Carti shook his head.
It was a crowning moment that capped off everything good that’s befallen Carti over the last few years, from signing with A$AP Worldwide (with co-signs from Drake and Kanye) to emerging as Atlanta’s next big thing to, one day last week, sitting on the 24th floor of One World Trade Center, the New York skyline laid below him.
Still only 21, Playboi Carti, born Jordan Carter, has never released a full-length project. He started rapping in earnest only about three years ago as a high schooler, and has already been featured on a handful of tracks by Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert, and his A$AP Mob family. But unlike his contemporaries Uzi and Lil Yachty, who constantly churn out mixtapes and loosie singles, Carti’s musical output has been remarkably scant. Still, he boasts over half a million followers on Instagram and a fan base so rabid and obsessive that Carti’s comments section has turned into a battleground of sorts, with fans alternatively pleading for new music (“DROP A F---ING TAPE I LOVE YOU”), and berating him for never releasing ("I been waiting like 8 years for this tape. What if I die and never get to hear it?”).
“My fans try to troll me,” Carti said warily, even though he likes to playfully troll them right back. For example, he made the cover of his highly-anticipated debut project supposedly titled Cash Carti, a collage of angry fan comments. Then, last week, he threw gas on the fire with a mysterious countdown clock on his website, ticking down to Friday, April 14. Would it finally be #CartiSeason? Or was this simply another Carti ruse? Is it even an album?
Despite his limited releases, Carti’s sound feels well-established. It's playful, hard-hitting, and very melodic—an amalgamation of Atlanta’s distinctive bass-heavy, oddball experimentation with Carti’s own addictive hooks. Originally signed to Awful Records, Carti started getting buzz in 2015, when two Soundcloud singles, “Fetti” and “Broke Boi,” caught fire. “Broke Boi,” which is arguably his biggest single to date with over 20 million plays on Soundcloud, dropped back in October 2015 but nonetheless remains in heavy rotation. The track pairs Carti’s slurry, easy drawl with a twinkling, alien instrumental. And though it’s only a hair over three minutes long, it buries itself in your ear from Carti’s first refrain.
The two singles released so far from the new project, both featuring Carti’s close friend Lil Uzi Vert, are equally confounding: They sound like Super Mario Bros. mixed with aughts punk rock. They're exactly why the internet wants more, more, more.
In person, as in his music, Carti projects a charisma that doesn't need to work very hard. Between the photographer's set-ups, he grinned sheepishly, shimmying his shoulders to the assorted Atlanta trap on in the background (Young Thug, Gucci Mane, SahBabii’s viral hit “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick”). When the camera turned on him, Carti snapped back into a model’s poised stance—calm, stoic, at ease with his body. He is obsessed with clothes, and he meticulously assessed the Hypebeast buffet—Saint Laurent, Supreme, Undercover—laid out in front of him by representatives of Grailed, the fashion resale site which was styling Carti on his trip to New York. You could sense his giddiness. For all his swag, Carti is still new to this, only a few years removed from wearing whatever he could get his hands on in high school in Atlanta. This was his reality now, and it was taking a moment to sink in.
It wasn't his first shoot, though. He modeled in Drake’s OVO Summer 2016 editorial, and was the only rapper who walked in Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5 launch this past winter. “It was different, my first time walking in a show,” Carti explained. He also heaped praise on Kim Kardashian: “She’s a real woman. She was showing me how to wear the clothes.”
Carti is aware that fashion will be integral to growing his brand. “I’m usually only hanging out with photographers, producers, and some Hypebeast-ass kids,” he said. “Shout to those kids, the ones out here wearing Supreme and sh-t, coming to my shows. I love you!”
Beyond the hyped-up music and fashion appearances, Carti, like anyone his age, is still understanding his place in the world. “People that know me know that I’m still tryna find myself,” he said. “I’m becoming a man.” He leaned forward, as if to say, I really mean that.
Whether or not he admits it, the growing pressure is daunting. For a rare moment, it felt like Carti was almost apologizing. “I’m tryna stay out of sh-t, keep people around me happy, and just maintain. Be the best artist I can be. I hope people can understand that.”
This was pure Carti—oscillating between introspective and boisterous, solitary and wisecracking. One moment, he was running to the computer to freak out over his new single, “wokeuplikethis*” which is trending on Soundcloud; the next, he was calmly discussing his childhood in Atlanta. As we finished up, I asked him to explain the sound of the new project. “Carti,” he said matter-of-factly. He flashed a smile. “Straight Carti.”
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