Chart Beat

Five Burning Questions: Playboi Carti's 'Whole Lotta Red' Debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart

Playboi Carti
Prince Williams/Wireimage

Playboi Carti attends "Whole Lotta Red" Listening Party at Traffik on Dec. 24, 2020 in Atlanta.

With a variety of guest appearances, one-off singles and unsanctioned leaks, experimental Atlanta rapper Playboi Carti steadily built buzz for his full-length follow-up to acclaimed 2018 sophomore LP Die Lit. The hype was realized late in the 2020 calendar year with the Christmas release of Whole Lotta Red -- now Carti's first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

The set debuted atop Billboard's albums listing this week, making it the chart's first new No. 1 of 2021, with 100,000 equivalent album units moved. It's an easily understood and arguably overdue victory lap for an artist whose success has often been a little too all over the place to be easily measured in hits or eras.

What will Whole Lotta Red mean for Carti's stardom and career from here? And what rapper could be next to get their moment in the Billboard sun? Our staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. Playboi Carti has become one of the biggest names in hip-hop without ever necessarily having the chart success to really reflect it. How much do you think Whole Lotta Red's six-figure No. 1 debut validates his stardom?

Josh Glicksman: A whole lotta! To be fair, his past chart success is by no means nonexistent -- his 2018 effort Die Lit debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and he’s amassed eight Hot 100 credits prior to this week -- but it’s hard to argue against the notion that Red elevates him to the next level. Especially in a post-merch and ticket bundle universe, six figures is nothing to thumb your nose at. Sure, Carti wasn’t exactly competing with many other major releases, but successfully finding such strong listenership amid the resurfacing holiday hits is no small feat, either.

Carl Lamarre: To me, Carti's six-figure output trumps his No. 1 feat. Nowadays, being able to score over 100,000 validates how strong your fanbase is. For someone who tantalized Whole Lotta Red for two years plus while being out of the mix should be credited to his fans' undying loyalty. The biggest question post-WLR is if fans will still be this loyal for Carti's next go-round since this wasn't his best work.

Jason Lipshutz: With Die Lit debuting at No. 3 in 2018 and Whole Lotta Red dropping during one of the quietest release weeks of the calendar year, Playboi Carti scoring his first No. 1 album was far from a surprise. Yet his increasingly experimental approach to hip-hop, combined with growing commercial numbers, suggests a singular presence in the genre that’s connecting with fans regardless of ubiquitous singles. The No. 1 debut doesn’t validate his stardom as much as it validates the artistic path he’s chosen for himself.

Heran Mamo: The six-figure debut isn’t what caught my attention with Carti’s No. 1 debut this week: It's the fact that he dethroned Taylor Swift. (Although she had already spent two weeks at the top with her latest surprise release, Evermore.) For him to beat out a pop superstar with a six-figure score -- even while his project was getting a whole lotta hate on its Christmas Day release -- means that Carti’s definitely earning his stripes.

Andrew Unterberger: It's an impressive number, no doubt. Having 24 tracks helps, certainly, but if the interest wasn't already there it wouldn't matter much -- especially with a set this sonically challenging, which no doubt a good deal of casual fans didn't even get through half of. It shows just how much a market Carti has grown for his  unconventionally structured brand of spacey, melodic and hypnotic hip-hop.

2. Is Whole Lotta Red a good demonstration of what Carti does well? Do you think it will gain him new audiences, or is it mostly for his longtime fans? 

Josh Glicksman: Any time artists are able to compile a six-figure effort and a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200, they’re bound to grab the attention of some new listeners. That said, Red still feels primarily geared toward longtime fans. The highs of the album don’t feel as high without hearing him building on his strengths from his self-titled debut or Die Lit, while trying a few new tricks out as well. And while he taps some of the highest profile names in the industry (Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Future) for features, Red is largely Carti standing alone in the spotlight -- that’s when he shines the brightest here, too.

Carl LamarreDie Lit was a far superior album to WLR. Carti's rockstar evolution is admirable on paper but unpleasant on the ears. I think his penchant for collaborations remains his calling card, considering he notched punchy verses from Kid Cudi and Kanye. Despite the gaudy features and improved lyricism, his songwriting -- which was a highlight on Die Lit -- dimmed on WLR. What was initially supposed to be a Christmas miracle for his longtime supporters was a futile attempt to please them (and future festival-goers) based on the production.

Jason Lipshutz: The album is assuredly Carti at his most idiosyncratic, folding and collapsing songs around ad-libs with fewer guest stars than ever -- but because of its release timing, it’s grown into more than just fan service. If Whole Lotta Red had been released during a more jam-packed moment for popular hip-hop, the album’s performance may have been a bit more quiet and been relegated to “strictly for the diehards.” Instead, the Christmas unwrapping undoubtedly earned some curiosity plays as by far the most notable non-holiday music of the month, and became the most off-kilter, downright weird No. 1 album in recent memory.

Heran Mamo: His signature baby voice cooing and crying out over playful synth-driven beats from longtime producer Pi’erre Bourne certainly represents Carti well on Whole Lotta Red, but his sinister venture into vampiric punk rap shows he’s not as predictable as you might think he is. The hype surrounding Whole Lotta Red appealed more to longtime fans who discovered and thoroughly enjoyed listening to every one of his leaked tracks over the last two years when he was working on finally delivering his latest studio effort. Now that the 24-track LP is out and none of the notoriously unreleased loosies were found, it’s the rapper's way of letting the culprits know that the devil works hard, but Count Carti works harder in the studio.

Andrew UnterbergerWhole Lotta Red definitely isn't designed for the crossover -- even with the big-name guests here, nothing feels like a play for radio or even streaming playlist placement. It's Carti on his own trip as usual, and while your mileage may vary about how far you want to travel with him, it's pretty clear that the rapper isn't going to beg for your company. For that reason I doubt Red will expand his base much -- but the set is drawing some of his strongest reviews to date from mainstream publications, if not necessarily from Rap Twitter, so maybe some new folks will be curious enough to take their first ride with him.

3. Many fans on Twitter seemed to feel like 24 tracks of Whole Lotta Red is maybe in fact a bit too much Red -- how much, if at all, does the album's length bother you?

Josh Glicksman: The lengthy tracklist feels a bit misleading, and that’s coming from a huge supporter of the short album. Take away the Cudi-assisted M3tamorphosis” and the remaining 23 songs average barely over two and a half minutes each. There’s little doubt that Carti could’ve clipped a few cuts from the finished product, but trust me, there have been far more egregious offensives of the seemingly never-ending rap album. Five years ago, we would’ve been applauding a rap album that hovered around a runtime of an hour.

Carl Lamarre: 24 tracks is a lot to digest, especially when you know Carti didn't bring his A-game. With music, quality surpasses quantity. When Carti is on, he's on -- but when he's struggling for an hour, it's a rocky road to travel as a listener. If you nixed maybe half of the album, he would have had a better reception amongst his fans.

Jason Lipshutz: I mean... yes, 24 tracks and 63 minutes is a whole lotta Carti. That said, Whole Lotta Red possesses a sort of intoxicating relentlessness akin to what Lil Uzi Vert crafted with Eternal Atake, an extended stay in another universe with a subject fascinating enough to power through track list lulls. There’s also only one song longer than four minutes, so the minor missteps don’t drag on -- a Tool album, this is not.

Heran Mamo: I’m not super bothered considering most of the songs last give or take two minutes, and the album’s runtime is right around one hour. The center-stage production does donuts on each track, which I think can get very repetitive at times -- but that’s what makes the earworms so catchy.

Andrew Unterberger: It's for sure too long, but to Carti's credit, Whole Lotta Red never totally insists on listener participation -- it's a set that seems fairly content to let you zone out a song or two here or there, until a particular beat quirk or prickly lyric catches your ear and snaps you back to attention. And that might come with different songs each listen -- every time I've spun it so far, new songs have grabbed my ear, which bodes well for its enduring replayability.

4. "Slay3r" is the highest-charting of the set's five debuts on the Hot 100 this week, coming in at No. 72. Is that the most likely breakout hit from the album, or is there another track that most grabs you? 

Josh Glicksman: I think “Slay3r” ultimately prevails as the breakout hit from the album, but don’t forget about “New N3on,” either. With the latter, Carti glides effortlessly over a lighthearted beat, as he ushers in some more melody on the back half of the project. And though I don’t see it having as much chart success, make sure to stick around for the Bon Iver-sampling album closer “F33l Lik3 Dyin.” It’s an entirely different vibe from the rest of the album -- both sonically and lyrically -- and the soulful effort is well worth the wait.

Carl Lamarre: I like "M3tamorphosis" and "No Sl33p" a lot. As a duo, Cudi and Carti shined on the former, while on the latter, the "Magnolia" star probably etched out his best, mosh-pit-ready anthem. Once we're back outside full-time, "No Sl33p" will be a concert favorite.

Jason Lipshutz: Give me “M3tamorphosis,” the one extended song on Whole Lotta Red, and the one in which Kid Cudi’s deep gravity perfectly balances Carti’s helium-voiced antics. At over five minutes, the song might require a radio edit, but the right one could turn it into a hit

Heran Mamo“Vamp Anthem,” because it’s an excellent example of how to flip a classical standard like Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” to fit an album’s motif. Hearing "Vamp Anthem" made the most sense to me out of every song on the album, because Carti basically morphed into a macabre rap version of Nosferatu for the Whole Lotta Red aesthetic.

Andrew Unterberger: "No Sl33p" is the one to me -- the set's shortest and most blood-curdling track. Lord help us all if TikTok gets a hold of it.

5. Now that Carti's scored a No. 1 LP, who's another fan-favorite cult rapper who you think is overdue for a big moment of mainstream chart recognition like this? 

Josh Glicksman: Benny the Butcher. The fact that a top 10 entry on Top Rap Albums (or a top 25 entry on the Billboard 200) has thus far eluded him simply feels wrong. Burden of Proof was flat out one of the best hip-hop efforts of 2020. And though he has a ways to go before piling up chart accolades, Syracuse rapper Stove God Cooks deserves some more recognition, too -- his debut album Reasonable Drought is excellent.

Carl Lamarre: Run The Jewels. Since their inception, Killer Mike and El-P have found ways to bolster their visibility as a towering lyrical and musical force. With RTJ4 being their first top 10 debut last year on the Billboard 200, I think RTJ is ready to graduate past the independent circuit and take a swing at mainstream notoriety.

Jason Lipshutz: Sada Baby! One of the most consistent rappers on the planet scored his first top 40 hit last year when his “Whole Lotta Choppas” remix with Nicki Minaj hit No. 35 on the Hot 100. I’m expecting an even bigger 2021 for the Detroit star.

Heran Mamo: Like Carti, Lil Durk has also been on the up and up, with special consideration to both rappers’ Hot 100 top 10 collabs with Drake in the past year: The Durk-assisted (and two-time Grammy-nominated) “Laugh Now Cry Later” reached No. 2 on the Hot 100, while “Pain 1993,” featuring Carti, peaked at No. 7 on the tally. And in the same week Carti scores a No. 1 LP, Durk’s surprise album The Voice vaults 46-3 in its first full week of tracking. I think that choice for an album title speaks to what Durk wants to be for his Chicago community and those who’ve been struggling -- especially with incarceration, like he has in the past. His time to top the 200 is coming.

Andrew Unterberger: Very sad that it would have to come posthumously, but the late Chicago rapper King Von already seemed poised for a huge breakthrough with his stunning 2020 debut LP Welcome to O'Block and the viral single "Took Her to the O," before he was shot to death in November. If a new album follows his passing in 2021, it seems pretty likely to land with a commercial impact similar to that of Pop Smoke's Shoot For the Stars, Aim For the Moon last summer.