Playboi Carti against His Own Game

Still from Playboi Carti, “EVILJ0RDAN,” 2024, 2 min.

In a one-man battle with Reddit, the hype cycle, and AI deepfakes for control over his output, the rapper is pushing his artistic identity to the breaking point.

“GROUP SUICIDE IN 10” a Reddit user announces in a new thread on the last Monday of January. This post is soon flooded with GIFs embellishing the Jonestown theme and several instances of the word “seeeah” (alternatively, “seeYuh”). I scroll onward, scanning for hyperlinks. Since they’re banned on this subreddit, leaks hide in places where moderators can’t immediately find them, but, if I’m lucky, one will appear soon that will take me away from this backwater of discourse and toward the thing itself. MUSIC. The new sound. You can usually tell a link is legit if it’s replied to with several offers to give the uploader head. This is the customary way of saying thank you on r/playboicarti.

I have no idea how I got here. It began without conscious effort – I don’t even have a Reddit account. Still, I’ve stopped by the site at least weekly for the past three or four years, to trawl for leaks and reacquaint myself with a subculture in a perpetual state of acute psychic distress. Either there’s no new music and people act like they’re dying, or there is new music and people can hardly express how happy they feel. Like any addiction, there is never a moment of equilibrium, although lately things here have felt particularly hectic. For the first time in three years, songs are being issued by the artist himself.

Playboi Carti has put out five new tracks in the past three months, each sounding increasingly different from the rest of his catalogue. He’s dropped them in the form of low-production music videos, alternating between his YouTube page and what fans call his burner Instagram, and they seem to promise something new for the artist – dark, extreme, and complicit with the previously involuntary forces that have shaped his career. You wouldn’t know about this if you only get your music through streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify, whose data is also the basis for metrics like the Billboard Hot 100. By those standards, nothing has yet “come out.” It’s quite possible that none of these songs ever will.

For a while now, Carti has had constant trouble with leaks. His trove of unsanctioned releases – which his fans pool their money to buy from shady interlocutors, then meticulously catalogue, remix, remaster, and share – dwarfs the size of his official output. For reasons related to sample and feature clearance, or simply out of frustration that much of his best work has been swiped from under him, Carti refuses to properly put out many of these songs, giving them a cult status, to be shared and listened to exclusively beyond the purview of his labels’ content moderation. This has radicalized his already ardent fan base to essentially turn on their idol, undermining official rollouts of new music out of a malicious impatience with his artistic process. In turn, Carti has developed a preoccupation with darkness and cruelty in his music, adopting a vampire persona that seems to mirror the bloodthirsty parasitism of the community he caters to.

Now, in choosing to tease his latest songs through internet backrooms, he appears to be doubling down on his commitment to his most diehard fans, eschewing the casual listener or potential newcomer in favor of those most complicit in illicit sharing. His cryptic provocations of this codependent, antagonistic group have lured his community even deeper down the rabbit hole, to the speculative edge of a style that he’s always straining to outmaneuver or upend. In attempting to regain control of his output, Carti is pushing his artistic identity to the breaking point.

His illegibility as an artist has always been core to his appeal, and it’s no coincidence that those who love him most tend to be extremely online, where the written word reigns supreme. Carti’s music plays with ambiguities of language. In 2017, when he first came on the scene, hip-hop fans were hotly debating the merits of what was pejoratively termed “mumble rap,” which Carti seemed to legitimate and elevate by making verses sound nearly incomprehensible without actually mumbling. It was more like a slurred squeal, issuing from the back of his throat. More than any line, verse, or even subject, Carti is famous for ambiguous onomatopoeias like “Slatt!” or “Bih!,” which he spits with propulsive enthusiasm. He began featuring on hit songs just to do ad libs like these, which fans found not just energizing, but soothing, even cathartic. Whenever I feel oppressed by language (always intended so nefariously to persuade me of something), I like to put Carti on and remember that words are imperfect vessels for meaning, and that energy can pass from one person to another without having to take on such restrictive, perfunctory forms.

To know where the nonsense word “seeeah” comes from, how it sounds, and how the community has decided to standardize it in type makes it a kind of internet shibboleth – a way of identifying oneself with the scene.

But this lack of articulation may also lie at the heart of his fans’ unusual sense of agency over the artist. Simply being a fan of his requires some work as a translator – an interpretive position that grants one a sense of ownership over the result. Carti is just as cryptic outside the booth as he as in it; he rarely grants interviews, and his sporadically active Twitter usually consists of missives on the level of “Hey <3”. Fans have stopped trying to learn what the artist means from the artist himself. That so much of his prolific output has taken the form of leaks furthers a sense that there is not a unified, discernible person behind it all. Instead, Carti is more like a swarm, an oncoming storm that his fans try to discern from patterns in the weather or the augury of crows.

On Carti’s fanpages, it’s common to recite favorite lyrics, which can be surreal as standalone phrases. What might appear to an outsider as a bizarre non-sequitur is actually the prized result of collective interpretation – like “seeeah,” the noteworthy new ad lib from Carti’s first drop of this era, “Different Day.” The song is, by Carti standards, remarkably comprehensible, but fans obsessed instead over the seething sigh he makes several times between lines, which could be conceivably written any number of ways. To know where this nonsense word comes from, how it sounds, and how the community has decided to standardize it in type makes it a kind of internet shibboleth – a way of identifying oneself with the scene.

As Carti got bigger, his vocal tics got stranger, landing somewhere between a squeak and a bleat. Early examples of his “baby voice” appeared in features (Solange’s “Almeda”; Tyler, the Creator’s “EARFQUAKE”), and his die-hard fans became ravenous for more. In April 2019, a song featuring Carti called “Pissy Pamper,” which was supposed to appear on Yung Nudy’s album Sli’merre, was leaked after the producers discovered they couldn’t clear the rights for the hypnotic city-pop sample that comprises the beat. Assuming it was thus unusable, someone from their team leaked a high-quality file of the song online, which quickly spread over TikTok and made it to #1 on Spotify’s U.S. Viral 50 (as an illegal upload by a fifteen-year-old) before it was taken down. Carti fans, finding new ground broken in his straining vocals, preferred to cut Nudy’s contributions out of the song entirely and share just the feature, rebranded “Kid Cudi” after one of the only intelligible phrases Carti makes in his verse.

In the wake of “Pissy Pamper,” demand for Carti’s baby voice became overwhelming, driving his fans into a frenzy and leading some members of the rapper’s inner circle to turn on him. Carti was in the midst of finishing his second studio album, Whole Lotta Red (WLR), when tracks from the sessions began appearing online practically the moment they were mixed. His producer jetsonmade was caught on camera agreeing to leak a song called “Place” for $17,000 in crypto. Rather than officially release music that had already been leaked, Carti doubled down on making something that couldn’t be stolen out from under him. He fired most of his creative team, brought Kanye West on as executive producer, and developed a new version of the album that (after years of delay) sounded far different from what fans had expected. The high-pitched squeal is largely gone from this version of WLR. Instead, a newly harsh side of his vocals seemed to win out, like on “No Sl33p,” where he repeats “When I go to sleep I dream about murder” twelve times in ninety seconds. It’s one of the most enunciated lines he’s ever delivered, and it might lead to the impression that something is seriously wrong with the guy. In “Stop Breathing,” which has the hook “When I take my shirt off all the hoes stop breathing,” he sounds as though he’s the one out of breath. It was the dawn of his vampiric persona, another new “voice” with a decidedly more sinister tone.

In the spring of 2022, Carti announced in a rare interview for XXL magazine that he was working on a new album with the working title MUSIC, “because that’s where I’m at, you know what I’m saying? Music.” That Christmas, exactly two years after WLR dropped, he returned to Twitter with the message, “it’s time.” Almost simultaneously, eight previously unreleased songs flooded into the circulatory systems of the internet like a dose of opium. The leakers had clearly timed the dissemination for the moment he reappeared. The tracks were all complete and high-quality baby-voice material from the earlier WLR sessions. His subreddit tilted from depressive to manic.

Finally releasing his new work a year later, Carti took a turn many thought he would never choose – toward enunciation. The dominant mode of Carti’s recent singles is a harsh whisper, like Al Green with a bad cold. As a result, it’s possible to understand him more easily, which many do not prefer. Fans generally agree he sounds better when he doesn’t make sense.

Only now, Carti is fucking with his sample set, in one of the earliest instances we have of an artist battling their AI avatar in real time – and for the loyalties of an increasingly agnostic fanbase.

But while his move toward coherence might seem like a first step toward conventionality, it’s also a cunning evasion. Carti’s extremely online fans have lost faith in the artist to release new music when he says he’s going to or to sound the way they want him to. When the leaks dry up, they turned to artificial intelligence to either expand a snippet into a full song or build a whole new track from scratch. Often, they share these as harmless fan-edits. Occasionally, though, they attempt to sell them back to the community as leaks, even artificially degrading them to add an air of authenticity. In the meticulously edited spreadsheets fans use to track and corroborate leaks, there are several notes like “turned out to be AI,” and “assumed at first to be AI, but confirmed legit.” How either can be confirmed is hard to say – without the verification of someone in Carti’s crew, it’s pretty much left to the smell test. Sometimes, the fiends get hooked on their own synthetic substitutes.

AI tracks are even rarer to find in Reddit discourse, as they are viewed with derision by most serious listeners. But all the ones I’ve heard sound remarkably convincing. It’s something about Carti’s slurred words – he provides a blurriness that AI can imitate better than clarity. If deep-learning algorithms get any more convincing in their replication of vocal styles, the boundary between artist and audience could evaporate entirely. Carti’s fans will no longer need him to get their fix.

Only now, Carti is fucking with his sample set, in one of the earliest instances we have of an artist battling their AI avatar in real time – and for the loyalties of an increasingly agnostic fanbase. In this light, his decision to begin enunciating seems a canny strategy, similar to picking a working album title that is about as un-SEO as possible. It’s just MUSIC. You can’t use it as a search term to look for new songs. It’s everything.

In machine-learning, the term “embedding” is used to describe the constraints and parameters of a real-world analogue. It’s a way for the algorithm to draw boundaries around what it perceives to be the defining characteristics of a thing, so that imitations can remain true despite endless variation. In trying to track and match Carti’s inventive oddness as a vocalist, the specter of his AI derivatives might pose a philosophical problem: What are the machine’s practical limits on a single subject’s embedding? Is it broader than that person’s identity, including their capacity to change over time? Can the machine anticipate new developments as seamlessly as it synthesized the previous data, coming out with a stable, convincing result? These are existential questions for every artist today. If Carti’s recent work is any indicator, the best tools in his fight are eclecticism, evasion, and surprise. Asserting one’s agency before the machine means making a deliberate effort to take risks beyond what feels artistically safe. The ability to transform oneself becomes the benchmark of aesthetic unity.

The calls for collective suicide on 29 January were not without reason. Every other Monday for the past month, a new track had been teased on Carti’s social media and promptly released online. Members of his production team had stated on the record that the album was coming in January. Now, it’s March, and Carti has missed his own deadline. The current morale on Reddit is abysmal. In the days that followed, tracks like “Hoodbyair But Better” and “VVV”– fan-edits designed to squeeze new life out of his rapidly aging singles or mash up incomplete leaks with work by other artists – began resurfacing in community playlists and threads. It’s evident that Carti’s artistic license is in jeopardy the moment he takes his foot off the gas. In the event that he fails them, fans have stockpiled their rations and seem prepared to survive for years without him, living off regurgitations of his familiar old sound. MUSIC might never be released on streaming. If it is, it’s an open question as to whether any of Carti’s seething, whispery singles will even be a part of it. His new sound could well be feint, a distraction to keep the rabid leakers and tweakers occupied while Carti puts his finishing touches on the bona fide product, the real MUSIC, whose styles and sounds remain unimaginable to us.