Playboi Carti Is Rap’s Young and Restless Prince

Awful Records' youngest member has got next.

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Complex Original

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There are two Cartis.

The first Carti shakes hands, smiles, remembers what everyone has going on in their lives, tidies up the room. The second Carti stares blankly, takes what he wants, knocks shit over without noticing. Those who know Carti know both Cartis.

Common to each is a tall, boyish expression, skinny black rockstar jeans paired with tastefully ripped T-shirts, a distinct cheek birthmark, and hands that are constantly employed in twisting short, would-be dreads.

Last week, it was revealed that he had signed to A$AP Rocky. He has unreleased material with artists like Skepta and Frank Ocean. He’s moving in with Fredo Santana in Los Angeles.

Note: He doesn’t even have a mixtape out yet.

Back in January, at a warehouse in Brooklyn, Awful Records was performing. The show featured Father most prominently, but the members of Awful who had made it out to New York City all got to play miniature sets.

“They want to hear that ‘Broke Boi,’” announced Awful’s RichPoSlim, who was hosting the show. Carti, somewhere in his early 20s and Awful’s youngest member, took to the stage and swiftly turned the entire venue into mayhem—all with a song that had yet to be released.

Some songs just work. Though no audience member had even heard it before, its effect was magnetic. By the middle of the song, the majority of the crowd was singing along, effectively calling each other broke.

The roughly mixed, DJ-tagged song became an immediate hit when released April 2, 2015, on SoundCloud. It broke a million plays earlier this summer.

This all started about two years ago at Awful-affiliated rapper/producer Ethereal’s house in Atlanta. The house itself is a dingy bachelor pad complete with paper plates and disposable utensils, and, most importantly, a modest recording setup. Ethereal himself (a.k.a. Obie, E, or Eazy), dreadlocked and wheelchair-bound, is fiercely protective and affectionate to his close circle, but guarded and dismissive of anyone outside the perimeter. He’s not in the business of letting new people in at all, let alone to collaborate on music, unless he finds them to be extraordinary.

“We finna cop hella boof, bruh,” declared Jonny, one of a group of skate kids who Ethereal kept around. Jonny was hoping Ethereal might let his friend from school come over to the house and record. That friend turned out to be Carti, who at the time was going by the name “Sir Cartier.”

“Off rip, I was like ‘This nigga’s way different,’” recalls Ethereal. “His whole aura when he walked into the room was just like...Carti.” By the time he was the age of a high school upperclassman, Carti had already developed a confidence that established himself as the center of attention in any given room.

Ethereal’s initial reluctance dissolved, and he started playing beats for Carti to rap over. At the time, Ethereal was in the process of widening his sound as a producer, experimenting with what he calls his trap beats. “I’ma come clean—I don’t wanna disrespect you, these are tight, but I don’t wanna rap on nothing like this,” said Carti. “Every time I go to a studio, niggas try to play trap beats for me. I wanna rap on some different shit, like what you be rapping on.” Carti is decidedly unafraid of experimentation. One of his first releases, “YUNGXANHOE,” has him rapping over the Playstation 2 startup noise.

Impressed by Carti’s straightforwardness, Ethereal proceeded to make an entirely new beat in 10 minutes, during which Carti came up with vocals to match. That sense of urgency is characteristic of Carti’s process; once he’s actually in a position to record, he wastes no time. What resulted from that session was a song called “Lost”—their first together. It’s a skeletal, gravelly track: “I’m the realest I can show you how to do this/Smoking, drinking, penicillin, deadest nigga living.” That dead-inside flow became his signature.  

“E, this a hit!” exclaimed Carti, throwing his headphones down in excitement. He knew immediately that this would be his catapult. He had just recorded “Broke Boi.”

Months later, the two had made a handful of songs together, and E’s house had become the go-to spot for Carti to record anything, even on non-Ethereal beats. To this day, Carti is more comfortable recording with Ethereal than at any of the professional, engineer-equipped studios that have become available to him.

Back to January of this year, the self-fulfilling prophecy of “Broke Boi”—that is, the song’s ultimate effect of lifting Carti safely away from being broke himself—had not yet manifested. He was still borrowing money from fellow Awful Records members, who had at this point all accepted him as a group responsibility. He did what was necessary to scrap together a living.

A month later, he was being flown around the country.

Enter Ian Connor. The modern Renaissance Man, whose taste in everything is studied religiously by the kids, had decided to take Carti under his wing. A manager nominally, but much more than that. Within a few weeks of pronouncing Carti as “next,” he truly was. The Ian boost, along with the rollout of hitherto unreleased heat like “Fetti” and “Chill,” blasted Carti out of obscurity. The artist formerly known as Sir Cartier had been knighted.

According to Carti, the two have known each other for years. For a while, Carti says, Ian was unaware of Carti as a rapper—they were just friends who would see each other whenever Ian came to Atlanta.

Fast forward to Miami, this summer. Carti is opening for Father. Ian steps up to consult with the DJ, KeithCharles Spacebar, to decide on a setlist. As soon as he is visible, though, the crowd starts screaming his name.

He shakes his head. “You’re not here for me,” he tells the audience. Stepping back, taking a drag from his cigarette, he watches his artist perform from behind the scenes. Despite all this, Ian is not exactly Carti’s manager. He doesn’t keep Carti under control nor is he constantly doing busywork. Their relationship is fraternal.

In person, the two are inseparable. They constantly playfight, they approach girls together, they bring girls home together.

One time on tour, playfighting in a gas station past 4 a.m., the pair knocked over an entire rack of baked goods. Everything spilled conspicuously on the floor, right in front of the cashier. Without acknowledging it, they pay for snacks at the counter and walk out the door. Carti says he does not remember any of that.

Another time, our tour driver came into my hotel room and threw a key card at me. “There’s an orgy going on in the room next to us,” he says. “That’s the key if you want to join them.” He’s laughing but he’s not joking. I remember that Ian and Carti’s room is the one next door, and then I go back to sleep.

In that regard, Carti has truly earned the first half of his name. In fact, the first words I ever heard him say were “Ay, I fucked that bitch last night,” referring to a girl he had just met in New York. He likes to go into situations with a girl on each arm. Before allowing someone to do a video interview of him in Florida, he made sure to arrange two girls on either side of him, chosen by proximity. Before greeting fellow rappers backstage in Atlanta, he made sure to flank himself with girls he had just met. He almost got a random girl at the Orlando show to come all the way back to Tampa with us in the tour van, without the promise of a ride home.

Last week, I met Carti at a tucked away A$AP outpost in the Los Angeles valley. A$AP Nast chides me for not greeting him. A couple other seemingly Carti-aged affiliates occupy the couches, alternating between watching Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and a Kevin Hart standup. We play pool—terribly.

Carti’s wearing the Raf Simons version of the adidas Stan Smith sneaker. I ask him if the shoes are worth the extra few hundred dollars that they cost above their nearly identical, original Adidas cousins. “I was just talking about that,” he laughs. “It’s disrespectful.” He doesn’t have a real answer though, because a store had given the pair to him for free.

I ask him how he feels about going from being the little brother in Awful to being scrambled over by major labels: “I’m still the little brother though,” he says. “They just gotta be proud of me.” He speaks very highly of Awful, in admiration of each of their multiple talents. As Awful’s leader, Father is not bothered by the Rocky deal. He thinks of Awful (which is just now going through the processes of legal incorporation) as more of an incubator—it exists for its members to grow and to grow itself.

Awful’s Archibald Slim recalls a moment on the West Coast leg of Awful’s summer tour when Carti hopped on stage and the crowd immediately combusted. At that moment, he turned to Archibald and said, “I’m a rockstar. Watch this.” Before even performing any of his songs, he stage dives. That’s how excited everyone is just to see him come out.

Despite the enthusiasm, he hasn’t changed much, if at all. He was cocky before the attention, before the money, like you should have known about him all along.

This past winter, Carti and I talked about the act of selling one’s soul to the devil. He told me about the conspiracy theory documentaries he had been watching. About how every successful artist has had to make some kind of grand sacrifice for their continued prominence. Kanye lost his mother. A$AP had just lost Yams at the time. I reminded him of this conversation recently, now that he, himself has blown up.

“Nah,” he smiles. “I don’t really believe in that shit anymore.”

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