“For real, I don’t even know how he famous.”
Your friends know you; they're often a reflection of your best (and worst) qualities. That’s one of Playboi Carti’s good friends—Lil Uzi Vert, in fact—summing up the dilemma of being Playboi Carti in 2017, during a VFILES question-and-answer event.
Born Jordan Carter 21 years ago in South Atlanta, Carti is handsome and personable, great at making and maintaining eye contact, and comfortable posing seriously or goofily for the camera. He uses the phrase “it’s lit” often, as a comprehensive explanation. He has a slanted oval of a birthmark on his face, and a habit of dramatically throwing his dreads back from his forehead with a whip of his neck, like someone emerging from underwater. He’s a rapper with the jawline of a model who has managed to linger on the scene with little more than SoundCloud loosies (2015's “Broke Boi” is the best known), breathable mumble rap tracks that anticipated the rise of his peers Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert. Until last night, that he had yet to release a full-length project had become a running joke in the industry. The “Jay Electronica of mumble rap,” as Carti once put it. (It's out now.)
I asked a number of friends, colleagues, and rappers to describe how they feel about Carti and, without exception, everyone is casually positive. The conversations, cooked down, almost always arrive at: “He’s cool.” Which is then chased by a nagging question: “What’s he doing, though?”
What was the story behind a project that had been so long in the making, and how had he managed to stay popular without it? What is his appeal?
This is one possible answer.
There’s a video, posted on YouTube last August, in which Playboi Carti is on one in a Toronto hotel room. There are maybe seven people in the room, and Carti is the center of attention, talking in a long stream-of-consciousness speech.
Grainy and coarsely edited, the video feels like a birthday-party home movie, and the subject matter of his speechifying—his motivation and his come up—suits the look. Carti turned a high-school mentorship with beloved Atlanta rapper Fat Man Key and indie label Awful Records (home to the quirky, lo-fi work of Father and Abra, among others) into a SoundCloud following. From there, he moved to New York, cozied up to ASAP Mob, and eventually made a deal with Interscope. Now he’s living in Los Angeles, preparing to drop his long-awaited, self-titled debut mixtape. He’s a credible striver.
“I went from bagging groceries to working at this place called H&M,” he says in the video, getting into a second camera person’s face, sounding serious. “But look, in Atlanta, when it first popped off, I was the hottest nigga at [H&M], ‘cause I was still in school,” he continues. There’s a cut, then someone can be heard saying, “I picked up some Xanax before I came here.” Carti’s face is unreadable behind white bug-eye sunglasses.
The raw footage is captivating because it feels genuine, even though it’s really a performance. He addresses a videographer much of the time, speaking in not-quite-sober soundbites that serve as quick uplift, like sips of 5-Hour Energy. He declares, “I’m a normal nigga, but I’m that nigga you see on YouTube and you be like, ‘Damn that nigga Carti remind me of just like myself.’”
True to his word, there’s no mistaking the yellow-washed hotel room for luxury. It looks like something with a big parking lot off a jughandle of highway. Carti says that he loves his departed grandmother. He opens his coat to show off to the room something at his waist that Rocky gave him.
On YouTube, the video is titled “Playboi Carti Preaching” and more than any song, the 5-minute clip explains Carti’s appeal. “I was in Toronto, shooting a VHS shit for myself,” he says of the tape, nearly a year and a half later, seated in the living room of his manager’s apartment in Harlem. The salmon Carti ordered from the fish spot next door sits warm in the kitchen, wrapped up. He doesn’t touch it, and instead eats a bodega croissant lathered with honey. “I had this girl recording but someone took her shit and just dropped it.” It never should have been uploaded, but there it is.
Carti’s style of rapping is spare and repetitive, more concerned with flow and catchy phrases. Two of his most high-profile features came in October 2016, on ASAP Mob’s debut album, and the songs—“London Town” and “Telephone Calls”—are representative of his solo material. He likes to emphasize the end of his short bars, often with a single word, like yeah. What he has in place of bona fide hits are patience and taste and charisma and gumption and a strong sense of fidelity. And he selected the right circle of friends.
His past life is an amusement now, barely a factor. “When I look back at being young in Atlanta, before this music shit, I just laugh,” he says. “My ma couldn't tell me shit. Nobody could tell me shit.”
He began skipping class in high school to work on music. “I wasn’t going to college, I wasn’t going to the army, I wasn’t doing none of that shit. But shit costs, and I always had to get money,” he says. “I was never on my ass.” Working with Fat Man Key and Awful producer Ethereal, he made his first forays in rap. There was a path now, one that didn’t involve the street business Carti tells me his older brother is involved in. (Carti and his brother remain close, and talk on the phone with regularity.) For his parents, his desire to make music was “a blessing.” They were “happy, excited, relieved. All that. I used to do dumb shit all the time, so it was a big relief.”
Though he admits he would’ve made the best of whatever situation he found himself in, he wanted to get out of his city. “I rep my city,” he says, “[But] as soon as I got the chance to get the fuck out of Atlanta, I got the fuck out of Atlanta.” That H&M job he speaks about with something like nostalgic awe in the YouTube clip? He worked there four days before cutting town and moving to the Bronx, where he had family. In New York, he fell in with ASAP Bari, and then finally got his chance to connect with Rocky at SXSW, in 2015.
When Carti saw Rocky, he glimpsed a different future. “I met Rocky at this houseparty and it was crazy,” he recalled. “He told me he fucked with me, bro, and after he said that I was like, I gotta get out here and get my swag up. It was lit. There were a bunch of bitches everywhere. It was life. The life I wanted was in the house, right there.”
The meeting was so impactful, Carti decided to stay in Texas. He settled for a stretch in Houston that’s documented on one of his best songs, “Fetti.” Carti says he makes turn-up music and flex music, but “Fetti,” with a beat that sounds like Boards of Canada at their creepiest, is about waiting your turn. “I can’t go in, I ain’t ready,” goes the chorus. The wait’s over now; his self-titled mixtape is out, after a year spent recording, performing, watching a lot of movies, feeling bored by life in L.A.—he says he wants to return to Atlanta—and, most importantly, searching for the right sound.
“It’s still the young Carti sound,” he clarifies, “just a more advanced Carti sound. I feel like I have something to prove. I'm just not this cool fashion kid that be around ASAP Rocky.”
Not that that reputation bothers him. “I like that shit,” he explains. “Because if they not talking about you, then you ain't lit. I'm flexing. Those same people who saying that is really my biggest fans. You just gotta love 'em, right? Fuck it.”
The New York Times described Carti as “almost an incidental rapper, more at ease with the performance of the role than with the actual act of rapping.” While his talent is in many ways unproven and his future uncertain, the role he sounds most comfortable in is that of the fan and little brother. He’s more convincing when he talks about looking up to ASAP Rocky than when he says he plans to be the best. He’s most real when he says, in the hotel room video, that he’s a normal guy who worked at H&M. Most of us fan for something, and Carti is a fan of the circle that’s showing him how to move.
“That nigga is too cool,” he says of Rocky. “Sometimes I still can't believe it.”
But fandom is tricky, and can sometimes place people in compromising positions. Which is how Ian Connor, the fashion influencer and friend of ASAP and Kanye, comes up. In the hotel room, near the end of the video, after a jump cut, Carti says, “Only nigga that can kill me right now is Ian Connor. You know why he kill me? ‘Cause that’s my brother.”
The moment stings now, after multiple women came forward in 2016 to accuse the fashion influencer of rape. Connor worked closely with Carti, in a manager-type capacity earlier in Carti’s career; they appeared in interviews together, and in a three-way interview conducted in early 2016 with Carti, Bari, and Connor, Connor talks about Carti’s music in the first-person plural. At one point Connor reminds Carti that Carti did in fact have sex while on tour in Japan (“You cracked two; you fucked a bitch at your show”), and that Roy Woods is supposed to be on his upcoming tape. “We take time with this project, though,” Connor adds. "Carti’s music gonna live through us—we his lyrics.”
The allegations against Connor haven’t forced his friends in the rap world to cut ties with him. (Rocky called him his little brother in an interview in January of this year. “Fuck what the world gotta say,” he added.) It’s partly a result of the bonds between these men; when they call each other brother, they mean it. Family ties, and ties of fandom that often aspire to blood—these relationships are flexible, and often times fundamental to a person’s worldview, in such a way that they can accommodate some truly scary shit.
When I bring up Connor, the mood in the room changes, like when you’re a kid hanging out at a friend’s house, and you both notice that the parents downstairs have suddenly gone quiet in an effort to listen in.
Does he still work with Ian? “I don’t talk to him. I just keep to myself. He ASAP. It’s ASAP, you know what I’m saying? But I just keep to myself and try to build and learn all that shit by myself.”
But weren’t they close? “Yeah. It’s just niggas grow up, you know what I’m saying? Carti fans know what’s up. Niggas gotta grow up. Everything that we did is classic. Stay a classic. Just keep it like that. You feel me?”
It didn’t have anything to do with the rape allegations? “I don’t know nothing about that.”
A member of his team asks that I move on. After a pause, Carti picks the thread back up, unprompted.
“All I know is Playboi Carti got the hoes,” he says, then laughs. “That’s it. I love women to death. I feel like I do this shit for women. Because if the girls like you, you don’t have to give a fuck about what guys think. Why would you give a fuck about what guys think if you got a hundred girls calling your phone every day?”
"Me and Uzi got enough songs to drop two mixtapes."
Carti’s rise continues apace. In March, he released “Lookin” and “Woke Up Like This,” two songs with his good friend and collaborator Lil Uzi Vert. He says their relationship works because “we don't be on no rap shit, ever. We be in the studio making four, five songs for his album and vice versa. We know our shit. We like our shit. We judge both our shit. We got enough songs to drop two mixtapes. We ain't got nobody else to listen to—me, other than Rocky. Those are my only critics.”
When his mixtape drops, there will be more critics that Carti can choose to ignore. After all this anticipation, the feedback will be loud and immediate. He’ll focus on tomorrow, though. “I’m thinking about what the fuck to do after this,” he says. “The new sauce. I gotta sit back and listen to a bunch of shit, or watch a bunch of shit. Movie clips. Watching shit on the plane. That nigga Rocky be doing that shit. He know a lot of London movies and old school movies that I missed or something. Like The Lost Boys. That’s really what I’m fucking with. Ain’t that so fire, bro?”
What did he like about the ‘80s vampire-cum-teen-drama about a renegade vampire gang and angst? He lights up.
“Everything. I paused the movie and played my music over top of it and it looked so crazy. I thought, Damn, I wanna look like this. That’s me, that’s Playboi Carti, a vampire on a dirt bike. Flying. Laughing and shit. The fangs, my grills. Long hair, dreads. Rock star shit. You know what I’m saying? It’s fire.” He pauses.
“I’m really into guitars right now.” As if the idea for the future had just come to him.