Rap is a genre with a low point of entry and few rules. As Phonte once put it on Little Brother’s criminally overlooked but critically acclaimed major label debut, The Minstrel Show: “Dope beats, dope rhymes, what more do y’all want?” Of course, this was at a time crunk music dominated the airwaves and record labels clamored to find the next big ringtone hit. 13 years later, it feels like Little Brother’s brand of rebellion through adherence to tradition is not only quaint, it’s as played out as the ringtone rap they once railed against.
While one has strangely become the standard for the best-selling, most successful rap acts of all time, the other has been supplanted by the even more contrarian rule-breaking of Soundcloud rap, led by rabble-rousing rebels like Lil Uzi Vert, XXXtentacion, and the purveyor of perhaps the most virulent strain of anti-establishment, punk-hop, Playboi Carti.
The latter just released his latest audio Molotov cocktail, Die Lit, to a truly astonishing level of acclaim. It’s his “official” debut album — whatever that means in 2018 — for AWGE and Interscope Records and it’s a truly bewildering distillation of the anti-rap, Soundcloud rap ethos. As one listener put it, “Playboi Carti made an album of Adlibs & ya’ll flipping shit over it.” Its success — and very existence — tests the boundaries of Phonte’s 2005 thesis inquiry, begging the question of just how far rap can get deconstructed before it stops being “rap.”
Contrary to popular belief, I ain’t old. Check the records; I’ve found value in projects from any number of rappers other critics of my generation would have dismissed out of hand, simply from the presence of skinny jeans and face tats. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out Playboi Carti. This isn’t about old; it’s about a very basic set of rules that define a genre and the pressing need to stop trying to shoehorn musicians into its box, simply because they’re Black kids making music over heavy 808s.
For instance, Lil Uzi, Carti’s closest collaborator and simplest stylistic analogue for the purposes of this argument, may have broken down exactly how much rhyming is strictly necessary to fit a rap traditionalist’s criteria for “rhyming over beats,” but he is still doing just that, at least as recently as last year’s Luv Is Rage 2. The rhymes are simple, they’re spacey, they may not even necessarily follow through a cohesive set of ideas or thoughts, but that’s never exactly been a prerequisite for good rap. I defy anyone reading this to provide a bar-for-bar translation of the dense, esoteric slang-slinging of Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night or RZA’s Bobby Digital In Stereo without the aid of Genius or The Wu-Tang Manual.