Words by:
Photography: Nick Walker
Styling: Playboi Carti
Styling assistant: Clif Shayne

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Playboi Carti got dressed specifically for this interview. It’s over the phone, but he says he’s wearing an all black Rick Owens outfit accented with a Givenchy chain. And he’s not out and about or fresh from a session – he’s just in the house sounding like he’s been there all day, laid-back and unbothered.

This is his thing. The details matter. When he goes to the studio, he selects an outfit specifically for the occasion, even if only the people present will be the ones to see it. When he’s doing press, his clothes reflect accordingly, even if no photos will be taken. It’s about physically creating the energy he’s trying to manifest. “You got to feel good to make everything else good. If you don’t feel good doing it, it doesn’t make sense,” the 24-year-old rapper says. “It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, the moment I step out the house, it’s up. I just try to stay on point.”

Skull Vest: Raf Simons AW1998
Trousers and shoes: Rick Owens

It’s been this way for as far back as he can remember. A recent interview quotes him as saying he won best dressed at his high school, just north of Atlanta where he was raised. Apparently, he did not. “Because in order to win best dressed in high school, you have to be at school, and I wasn’t there,” he says laughing. He’s sure to clarify he was on point the days he did show up, but mostly he was in the studio, trying to get a record deal.

As the legend goes, he worked short-lived jobs bagging groceries and at H&M, all the while pouring himself into his music. He went by $ir Cartier at that time, making songs that owed much to the skater-kid raps of Odd Future or to the stoned out rhymes of Curren$y. Later, he changed his name and left his Atlanta hometown to move to the Bronx where a chance meeting with members of A$AP Mob would forever alter his trajectory. By the time his 2017 eponymous debut arrived – a hypnotic, sometimes chaotic, collection that reimagined notions of song structure – the evolution from Jordan Carter to Playboi Carti was in full effect. He says he always believed this would be his life, that music was “the best thing [he] had going” and so he had no other choice but to be tenacious.

Mesh trucker jacket: Jean Paul Gaultier
Trousers: Rick Owens

“You got to feel good to make everything else good. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, the moment I step out the house, it’s up. I just try to stay on point”

His latest album, Whole Lotta Red, contains some of his most intrepid music to date. It’s dark and brash, readymade for moshpits. It also best represents the current version of the rapper, who often refers to himself as a vampire (look to cuts like Vamp Anthem and King Vamp for explicit proof) and has staked his career on his disinterest in rules and the things mere mortals trouble themselves with. Though Playboi Carti and its 2018 follow-up, Die Lit, hardly suggested a conservative approach – the way he allowed his ad-libs and voice to become instruments in their own right still feels renegade – he sees Whole Lotta Red as a more honest expression that was about leaning into his most punk inclinations.

“Just getting older and just getting wiser, my image – the way I just want to be remembered on this earth is: I was different. I thought about my legacy, and it’s like when you have these type of artists in the world and you watch all these transitions they do, you gotta learn to appreciate that because it’s not a lot of dudes that step out the box,” he says. “Really being comfortable in doing this shit and going against the grain, even if it’s not accepted at first. It’s great because it’s something that I started, and I just want to be remembered for the things I started.”

Skull Vest: Raf Simons AW1998
Trousers and shoes: Rick Owens

From his deconstructionist approach to music to the precision of his image (his locs are newly icy white after having been red in the months leading up to his album), it takes a certain level of audacity to pull off what Playboi Carti does. He intrinsically understands that presentation is just as important as output (“people be having great music but their image ain’t good or people have bad music and their image is great,” he observes at one point) and he’s long made sure to fine-tune both without giving in to cliché convention. But when it’s time to testify to the importance of having control over those things, he seems to briefly play coy. “I just like grooming myself,” he teases. “It’s not even that deep.”

What he means, as he goes on to clarify, is that it’s second nature to him. That putting together a look that could turn heads on a sidewalk as easily as it could a runway is such an ordinary occurrence that it’s almost mundane. When he claims “it’s not that deep,” it’s just another way of flexing. “It’s like, ‘OK, this is how I’m coming and there are no days off.’ Like I’m a clean nigga, and when I pop out it’s a statement every time,” he says. “That’s a side job of mine. I’m a musician. I make music first and with the rest, that’s just natural.”

“The way I just want to be remembered on this earth is: I was different. I just want to be remembered for the things I started”

It’s easy to see how Carti finds alignment with rappers like A$AP Rocky, Kanye West and Matthew Williams, the creative director of Givenchy, all of whom he counts as mentors and know what it is to exist at the intersection of multiple mediums. He credits Rocky with helping to shape his career early on after he moved to New York,  instilling in him a sense of limitlessness (“just showing the world you can do other shit,” he says). He felt intrinsically understood by West, who executive produced Whole Lotta Red, and reaffirmed the importance of sticking to a vision. And Williams, who he met as a teenager, has also become a kind of mirror that reflects Carti back to himself but also possibilities. “This thing where I felt like Ye is the older me, I look at Matt as the older me, and he looks at me as a younger him,” he says. “It’s a blessing to have someone like that in my corner. The opportunities that he has opened for me, there’s nothing I could repay him with.”

Painted trucker jacket: Comme des Garçons Homme AW2002

Fashion and music are the most obvious commonalities between him and his A-list circle, but it’s beyond that. It’s cultural – about shaping thought and approach, about making people hear or see differently. It’s about lifestyle as art or an extension of one’s creative space. It’s why Carti gets dressed up for this even when he won’t be seen, and it’s why trying to nail down his ambitions is less about a checklist and more about just being able to express himself however he chooses. “At a certain point, I would like to be doing other things. I’ll always be into music, but I just want to give out and show the world everything I’m capable of while I have that spotlight on me,” he says. “I just want to take advantage of everything and then when it’s time to lay down, it’s time to lay down.”

Music first – and specifically hip-hop – is a point he reiterates throughout the conversation. It’s more than just a vehicle, it’s his foundation. Though he “wants [his] hands in everything” and for “people to see [his] face everywhere,” he says none of this is possible without the genre that’s taken him around the world. And that’s due, in no small part, to those he enlists in the crafting his sound. Though the synergy between Carti and producer Pi’erre Bourne laid the foundation for the minimalist style characterised by songs like Magnolia and wokeuplikethis*, on Whole Lotta Red, he embraces maximalism with the help of a stable of producers that includes the Philadelphia native F1lthy and the visual artist and producer Art Dealer who helped bring his punk to life. “Production is important to me. With the producers I have on Whole Lotta Red, they’ve always been dope. It was just time someone gave them their flowers,” he says. “Every project I just like to show my audience something different… we looking for the next sound at all times.”

“At a certain point in time in my life, I would like to be doing other things. I’ll always be into music, but I just want to show the world everything I’m capable of while I have that spotlight on me”

Carti’s ear for beats and beatmakers has become an essential thread in the tapestry of today’s most popular rap. The melodies draw him in, but the creative chemistry is where the true essence lies, born of a mutual trust and appreciation between the rapper and his producers, which he says are like family to him. “Once they’re with me, I have them with me for days and we feel each other out,” he adds, “we’ll be together for a long time to make a project, and it’s like, just connect, you know? All my producers work together.”

When he talks about process, he often begins a thought, stops and then says it’s hard to explain. And he’s right. Even writing about the Carti magic requires trying to articulate in words what can only be felt. More visceral than cerebral, it would be akin to an illusionist breaking down a trick: he could and he might, but why bother when the audience is going to be enamoured either way? “We don’t really talk unless I’m about to drop some music or something,” he says, “I like a lot of my shit to be perfect.” Still, it’s clear he knows exactly what he’s doing, whether he wants to break it down or not because he doesn’t do much of anything without intent. Again, he knows it’s all in the details.

Skull Vest: Raf Simons AW1998
Trousers and shoes: Rick Owens

Playboi Carti has built a career off being at once ubiquitous and mysterious. He’s not especially active on social media, which means the curtain is rarely pulled back. When he gives an interview, it’s mined for tidbits that offer hints about his ideas or the particulars of his professional and personal life, like pieces of a puzzle that may never fully materialise.  Everyone knows his songs or his face or his name, and that’s why he’s a surefire draw, but what does it mean to know him? Certainly, he’d never tell the press. But he’s got his Rick Owens on and seems to be feeling decent enough, so maybe he’d share what he’s cooking up or what’s coming next; he has, after all, already begun to tease new music – a deluxe edition to Whole Lotta Red, perhaps, or maybe something else altogether. No dice, of course. The element of surprise, that ability to make his fans salivate at the mere suggestion he has more tucked away, has served him too well. As the call draws to an end, he offers but one hint for where he’ll go next: “Shit, out of this world.”

Whole Lotta Red is out now via AWGE/Interscope Records
Shop The Collections now, and order your copy of the Playboi Carti cover here