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Is Playboi Carti Ending the ‘Mysterious Artist’ Era?

In the closing weeks of 2023, the first four songs from Playboi Carti’s forthcoming album were delivered as promised and on time — no small feat for any artist right now, but even more impressive given Carti’s track record. The Atlanta rapper’s previous album, 2020’s Whole Lotta Red, was shrouded in years of speculation and delays that added to Carti’s mysterious lore among his rabidly online fanbase. His latest effort so far feels like a throwback to a different time in hip-hop, both in style and apparent promotional schedule. 

As Carti began teasing the new record, which is reportedly titled I Am Music, 2000s-era Atlanta DJ Swamp Izzo appeared in a snippet posted to Carti’s Instagram Stories with the caption “IM NOT PLAYING.” The still-unreleased track offered a preview of Carti’s new vocal register, a deeper and slightly more sinister flow that harkens to the style of Atlanta’s mixtape dominance in the aughts. That snippet also began a well-oiled machine of drops. Like an Internet Christmas carol, every week of December was accompanied by a new clip featuring Carti’s backup dancer, British artist Blackhaine, brashly announcing “New Playboi Carti, tonight!” 

First, Carti dropped the song and video for “Ur the Moon” on Instagram. The track, a devilishly slinky banger that has the allure of vintage Carti, caught many fans by surprise, as cryptic announcements and snippets are more common at this point. Few seemed to expect to actually hear new music. A week later came “2024,” which to date has amassed 22 million views on YouTube. The track features production from Ojivolta, Earlonthebeat, and Kanye West, who went on yet another antisemitic tirade during the bungled drop of his upcoming album Vultures on the same night Carti dropped his track. While Ye was allegedly scrambling to get a Nicki Minaj verse cleared, Playboi Carti’s new song was heating up the internet. 

The following week came another IG exclusive, “H00dByAir,” with an accompanying music video featuring Carti’s Opium label cohorts, Destroy Lonely and Ken Carson. Then, on New Year’s Day, Carti dropped “Backr00ms” featuring Travis Scott. The song’s Ice Spice shout-out made for one of this year’s first viral moments, and the music video has more than 8 million views on YouTube less than a week later.

Carti’s melodically inventive delivery, as well as his forward-thinking beat selection, have made him a hallmark for rap listeners who grew up online in the era of “type beat” YouTube producers and dedicated fan communities on platforms like Discord. His sporadic official releases, along with a much more torrential flow of unauthorized leaks and snippets, gelled with the direction things were moving on the internet. His fanbase remains dedicated even despite a number of controversies, like his 2022 arrest for allegedly choking his pregnant girlfriend. Carti hasn’t commented publicly on the arrest, and his attorney released a statement last February saying Carti was “falsely accused.” On “2024,” he appears to address the subject, rapping: “No I can’t be canceled ‘cause you feel some type of way.” 

Carti’s promotional schedule for his next project has been both traditional — releasing a steady flow of singles and videos ahead of the album — and extremely online, relying solely on the amplifying powers of social media. Two of the new songs are only available on the relatively obscure Instagram page for Carti’s label, and the other two on YouTube, far from the new-music-playlist dominance of traditional streaming platforms. And yet it’s clear that Carti has generated the most hype for a new rap album in some time. On TikTok, fans made videos at what appeared to be the very Atlanta gas station where Carti filmed the “2024” music video. The green Rick Owens jacket he wore in the “Ur the Moon” clip became a meme, too, as fans found lower-cost alternatives at Zara. 

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For every new skit reacting to his new releases, Carti would repost, creating a familiar feedback loop. Throughout December, Carti shouted out everyone from Pharell, Drake, and Ice Spice to creators @evandagreat and Twitch streamer @YOUNGDABO, who went viral for literally starting to cry upon first hearing “Ur the Moon.” Carti elicited tears from another fan, Instagram user @sir.zayy, after the star reposted one of his memes about the track. Throughout the rollout for I Am Music, Carti has proven himself remarkably savvy to the online discussion over his music, generating a kind of organic internet buzz that many artists seem only able to contrive. 

It may spell the beginning of a new age for cult superstars. In November, producer Metro Boomin took to Twitter to lament the rise of so-called “fake mysterious” artists, who opted for mystique rather than regular output. “the fake mysterious shit with artists is ruining the game!!” he wrote, noting that artists in this era were more focused on trying to be “too cool.” The posts made a small wave on the rap internet and happened just a week before Carti’s promotional pivot towards transparency. At one point Carti even took to Instagram with a screenshot of a DM between himself and fellow enigmatic musician Frank Ocean, challenging him to start dropping music. In 2024, perhaps even that isn’t farfetched. We’re already a month into Playboi Carti consistently releasing music on time — anything can happen.

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