Fans of Ken Carson tend to describe his appeal amorphously. Vibe and mysteriousness get brought up, before the idea of rapping comes into play. Like an Instagram account that positions itself as an ambiguous brand, dabbling in everything from playlisting to one-off streetwear drops, Carson is a master of cultivating intrigue through associations and signifiers.
The strongest of these associations is his position as the dark prince of Opium, Playboi Carti’s record label. In his attempts to foster an enigmatic persona, Carson will do things like delete (or archive) all of his posts on Instagram, seemingly at random. He doesn’t listen to rap music, instead choosing “crazy shit” like the All-American Rejects. There are multiple posts in the Ken Carson subreddit that attempt to figure out why he hasn’t been smiling as much.
To maintain an air of mystery, though, the creative output has to be good. For the most part, Carson’s music has been middling. At its best, a respectable imitation of his mentor’s groundbreaking Whole Lotta Red. At its worst, forgettable cliches of rage music that are muted and uninventive.
But Carson’s latest album, A Great Chaos, manages to rewrite the script, fitting into one of the dominant, contemporary rap paradigms.
While Carson flaunts a discerning ear for production — “Yale,” his biggest song to date, features a pulsating synthline paired with interspersions of xylophonic notes, serving as an early template for modern rage rap — he isn’t the most inspiring rapper, even if he works within the style of a Pierre Bourne, more recent entrants like Yeat and Lunchbox, or Carti himself.
“Got my pants falling, these racks in my britches,” Carson croaks on “It’s Over,” demonstrating a more compelling use of language than the raps of his past. He could’ve cited designer pants that fit within the Opium aesthetic — tattered, all-black, and skintight — but opted to do his best Charles Dickens impersonation. It’s something Slick Rick might have said if he was born 40 years earlier, or Valee would have conceivably included in his elevator raps.
Lyrics aside, Carson’s pacing is what stands out on this project, something that eluded him on previous efforts where he often remained in one gear. “Geeked Up,” a song from his 2020 EP, Boy Barbie, feels like an out of body freestyle taking place within a middle school locker room. Based TJ, the mind behind the boards, laces Carson with bouncy keys that sound ripped from a tropical Mario Kart circuit, which orbit distorted bass hiccups.
It was an early flash of Carson’s knack for sniffing out the pocket of a beat, and merging his vocals accordingly. In this case what should be a run of the mill, sophomoric plugg song is imbued with the urgency of a Vyvvanse come-up. While enjoyable, it sounds like he is trying to get through a tongue twister and features the following line: “And if her nipples pierced, I bet they taste like fuckin’ quarters.”
On “Fighting My Demons” Carson is able to channel the most exciting cadences of his career into a maximalist, galactic swell. “Where the fuck my blunt, where the fuck my cup, where the fuck my reefer,” he opens, digging further into his throat with each question. The rest of his verse alternates between straight-line raps and pagan chants, sometimes stopping for a half-second before moving onto the next line. It’s a microcosm of the way he builds out his flows on the whole record — delivered as if his nose hasn’t been clear for months.
The glitchy undercurrent of “Pots” unfolds on a molecular level, sending ripples down limbs. “Paranoid” is a kinetic, self-contained body of water. There is a continuous ticker of hi-hat and snare rolls on “Overtime” that allow it to proceed at 60 FPS.
Ultimately, Carson seems to be focused on putting on a maximalist spectacle. All of its parts are whirring, like the project is one big combustion engine that after starting, cannot slow down. The listening experience can feel like occupying an IMAX theater in isolation, or passing underground during a train ride, ear popping and all.
If listened to over extended stretches, the album can become a war of attrition. This is not music to be still to. The production, while expertly constructed, is more rigid than flexible, making it difficult to recognize the humanity behind what Carson is saying. After going through the project multiple times consecutively, and finally removing headphones, there is a sense that one has emerged from an industrial warehouse, watching a conveyor belt loop over and over, at varying speeds.
While Carson’s fans don’t flock to his music to parse more abstract notions of our shared existence, instead looking to turn off and become part of a frenzied rhythm, two lines about MILFs stick out:
“I’m fucking on a MILF yeah, ayy, this bitch like thirty.”
“I was fuckin’ on a MILF, she was thirty-six.”
How do we know when we’re washed? When Carson’s artistry becomes a puzzle to be solved rather than something to enjoy or ignore? Or when he can do no right, despite an admirable, and even successful effort to tame a cacophony of noises that threaten to engulf everything in their wake. Maybe it’s even worse if a 38-year-old had zero skepticism about what they were listening to, joining the mosh pit with an IPA in hand.
It’s refreshing to know that A Great Chaos manages to pass the true litmus test. Does this hit me in my bones? The answer is a resounding yes.