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The Marketing Mayhem of Playboi Carti & Cardo

Abolishing algorithms, learn how King Vamp and his brood of collaborators are breaking the rules and the Internet.

On Jan. 1, 2024, the world woke up motivated, hungover, or on their phones.

Playboi Carti never went to sleep.

The Atlanta artist has lived in the shadows and the mosh pit since releasing 2020’s Whole Lotta Red — an abrasive album that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard.

Avoiding public appearances and mainstream media, Carti’s star has skyrocketed on streaming while remaining mysterious through message boards.

He’s become hip-hop’s anti-hero in aesthetic and advertising, inverting commercial channels like an upside-down bat. At one moment, he appears faceless in a viral Givenchy campaign; the next, he relays random mug shots for his self-branded merch.

His elusive nature reflects the marketing means of his Opium imprint, defying laws of labor and industry brand-building alike. By not being overtly pushed, Carti’s constantly sought after.

The more his wings spread, the harder he is to find.

Since WLR, Count Carti has dove deeper into his Dracula depths, canceling concerts and recording in Parisian caves. It’s made tracking his music and moves more difficult than Frank Ocean.

“The Carti tour? There’s still an air of what exactly is going on here,” Jon Caramanica recently said on Popcast Deluxe. “It’s the only arena tour of last year that I was absolutely like, ‘I must see this.’ More than SZA, more than Travis — I have to see the Playboi Carti tour, which does not exist.”

From calendar to catalog, everything surrounding Carti is equally chaotic and can’t be missed.

While most modern entertainers can only operate in the spotlight, Carti keeps creating in the dark as he’s built both anticipation and a world while all waited.

In the last 31 days, he’s emerged from his haute tomb, dropping four new tracks that defy genre and subvert streaming.

Releasing “2024,” “H00dByAir,” “BACKR00MS,” and “EVILJ0RDAN,” Carti’s been able to create excitement and urgency around his impending album without uploading a single song to Spotify, Apple Music, or SoundCloud.

Each track has come without warning — save a screaming Instagram story from Blackhaine — but has come with a very visceral visual.

The songs, along with their matching music videos, are said to spawn somewhat spontaneously even if the ideas are months, if not years, in the making.

“It’s been heavily intense,” Grammy award-winning producer Cardo told Boardroom with a laugh when discussing the recording process and the rollout.

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“Even me talking with Carti? He doesn’t indicate anything coming,” said Cardo.

In only a month, Playboi Carti’s unorthodox approach to marketing is anti-establishment and even anti-algorithm. It’s paying off in an era defined by fan engagement.

The early returns are a buzz no peer could capture, melting mood boards across Instagram and amassing millions on millions of YouTube views.

Coming back in the new year with new voices, new visuals, and new music, Boardroom explores the ascent and apex of the gothic genius flocked on the runway and the trenches alike.

The Chosen One

At only 28 years of age, Playboi Carti is already a decade deep in the game.

The teen talent joined Awful Records in 2014, working with Atlanta’s experimental underbelly of Father, iLoveMakonnen, and Key!. Quickly, his coordinates expanded beyond the Peach State and through SoundCloud, attracting the interest of A$AP Rocky and Interscope.

Backed by the industry’s most rebellious major label and hip-hop‘s most heralded young tastemaker, Carti’s charisma made his self-titled mixtape an attention magnet for A-list and ascending producers like Hit-Boy, Harry Fraud, Jake One, and Southside.

The mixtape’s lead single, “Magnolia,” made stars out of Carti and producer Pierre Bourne. Moreover, it legitimatized Rocky’s AWGE as a creative agency capable of courting talent and creating acclaimed visuals.

To this day, “Magnolia” has over 195 million video views on YouTube alone.

Rather than stay the course, Carti went left.

After early co-signs from Awful and A$AP affiliates, Carti’s turned up all dials on his debut album, Die Lit. Primarily produced by Bourne, the 2018 project pulled Travis Scott, Skepta, and Bryson Tiller into the fold.

The heavyweight co-signs catapulted Carti into the pop pendulum but by his own aesthetic. Each radio resident brought their talents to his world rather than vice versa.

At once, Carti was rocking punk clubs in Scottland while performing alongside Nicki Minaj on SNL.

The momentum was enough to lead Carti to start his agency/label, Opium, in 2019, bringing on acts such as Ken Carson and Destroy Lonely since.

Like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake, and other artists before him, the Carti umbrella was big enough to break new talent while simultaneously creating new sonics.

The sum of all parts proved highly flammable and original when Carti released Whole Lotta Red on Christmas Day 2020.

Executive-produced by Ye and designer Matthew M. Williams, the DONDA descendants defied odds and convention by assisting Carti on a sophomore album adored by The Washington Post, FADER, and Pitchfork.

While the architects behind Graduation and Haus of Gaga provided pillars for world-building, it was the young vamp providing the lifeblood for all things Red.

“Carti is his own creative director,” Williams told Highsnobiety in 2021. “He has his own vision. He can’t be anything but himself.”

Playboi Carti
(Joseph Okpako / WireImage)

The dark and daring departure from mumble rap or anything akin to radio relevance was a big risk with immediate consequences.

“When Whole Lotta Red came out? Some people probably didn’t understand where he was coming from,” said Cardo. “It was a whole different sound. He’s an artist. He’s pushing the envelope, for sure.”

Despite co-signs from the fashion and design worlds, the album was panned mercilessly by music scholars and hip-hop purists. For any critics waiting on another “Magnolia,” the third formal project from Playboi Carti was instead an informal debut.

“I hate that I waited so long to be myself,” Carti told Highsnobiety. “I wish I came in like this.”

Making Magic City into Transylvania, the blended brilliance of baby voices, heavy metal distortion, and demonic shrieking was a far cry from Milly Rocking.

It was also a testament to Carti’s entire catalog being not just drastically different but inordinately popular despite next to no conventional marketing push.

Less than a decade in the game, each of Carti’s albums has hit 2.5 billion streams on Spotify — a title only touched in rap by the late, great Juice WRLD.

Since debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200, Whole Lotta Red has charted for 137 weeks, occupying a top-selling/stream album list for the better part of four years that accounts for all artists and genres.

The gothic genre-bender is stretching the music and marketing even more for his next project, tentatively titled I Am Music.

“Production is important to me,” Carti told Crack Magazine in 2021. “Every project, I just like to show my audience something different … we looking for the next sound at all times.”

To do so, he’s double-downed his Opium inner circle and brought on one of hip-hop’s most trusted and agile talents.

Cardo Season

Few producers are as instrumental in the evolving sound of modern music as Cardo Got Wings.

Born Ronald Nathan LaTour Jr. in St. Paul, Minn., the Texas transplant deep in Dallas has been shaping the sound of Chevrolet speakers, hip-hop heavyweights, and Hot 100 radio for over a decade.

Famously, Cardo came to fame by bringing breezy beats to once-indie upstart Wiz Khalifa.

Fresh out of label limbo, Wiz worked with Cardo to craft a sunny, celebratory sound spotlighted on 2010’s Kush & Orange Juice.

Releasing at a time when hip-hop was dominated by Lex Luger trap anthems like “B.M.F.” and emotionally heavy hybrid cuts from Kid Cudi and Drake, Wiz won over the Internet and the youth with songs that were light and fun.

Through Cardo’s contributions to Kush & Orange Juice, Wiz Khalifa rose as an icon, covering magazines and dominating radio. It also made Taylor Gang a movement.

“That project alone signified bringing back feel-good music,” said Cardo. “Which was missing from rap music at that time.”

The mixtape shifted party sonics and adolescent aesthetics.

“We had little kids putting blonde streaks in their hair and wearing cargo shorts with Chuck Taylors,” Cardo said. “We took the world by storm and saw it break the Internet.”

Since shaping Wiz’s most praised project, Cardo has stayed consistent but far from predictable.

Playboi Carti
Cardo (Image courtesy of @lartcollette)

From Travis Scott‘s “Goosebumps” and ScHoolboy Q’s “That Part” up to Jeezy’s “Seen It All” and Meek Mill’s “Levels,” the ‘Cardo sound’ is not just daring; it’s undefined.

For the last decade, Cardo’s kept busy capturing emotions and moments rather than hammering home a formula.

It all resulted in Diamond singles for Drake and deep album cuts for Kendrick Lamar. In 2024, Skepta calls Cardo for international anthems while Baby Keem seeks his sonics for his sophomore effort.

Already, Cardo is seemingly everywhere at once. However, the shared spirit of Cardo’s catalog is making music that’s missing. Records that are unorthodox and unexpected.

“With sound? I’m very experimental,” said Cardo. “There’s a big void in rap. I won’t say that people are afraid to be themselves, but they kind of are.”

When it comes to hip-hop — or more music in 2024 — no one is less afraid to be who they are than Playboi Carti.

In turn, that’s why Count Carti has counted on Cardo consistently since Whole Lotta Red for spark and spontaneity.

“Me and Carti have been working for some time, almost four years on and off,” said Cardo, who partook in production on Carti’s recent run of “EVILJ0RDAN,” “BACKR00MS,” and “H00dByAir.”

“It’s my job as a composer to take artists to another level, especially with the sound,” Cardo continued. “Carti came to that naturally.”

Like Wiz on the cusp of superstardom, Carti is working with Cardo to create music in opposition to all that’s happening in hip-hop. It all aligns with Playboi’s mission statement when it comes to creating.

“Change the sound of music,” Carti told XXL’s Vanessa Satten in 2022. “Every time.”

That new sound is centuries away from the Kush & Orange Juice cuts that put Cardo on but are exactly what his collaborator — and perhaps music as a whole — needs right now.

Leaning into the horrorcore chords of vintage Three 6 Mafia, Cardo’s drafting off a deep love of DJ Paul and Juicy J without simply recycling an old record.

When crafted with Carti’s cult and synced to his cinema scare? The results cut through like Wes Craven, bleeding through speakers and all listeners’ veins.

“Even though it sounds dark as hell? It has that level that turns you up,” Cardo said. “It makes you buck.”

Facing and voicing it all is Playboi Carti — an elusive artist oozing with charisma who once described himself as “adorable but evil.”

Before this rollout, you could count Carti’s music video catalog on one hand. In 2024, he’s sinking his fangs into each visual, not just starring in said clip but inviting fans into his occult lens.

“If you want to be a bad guy, there’s no days off,” Carti told Highsnobiety. “You commit to whatever your vision is and make it every day, every time someone sees you.”

Instantly, it’s resonating.

“If you just show people your mind and how it works? You can go somewhere,” said Cardo. “It’s a shock every time. I want to share that feeling with the world.”

Thus far, the world and the web are feeling — and craving — it.

Market Tested

Many moons ago, Lil Wayne became the world’s biggest rap star by breaking the biggest rule in rap.

He gave his music away for free.

Flooding the Internet and the streets with uncleared freestyles and stream-of-consciousness songs, Weezy F. Baby went from forgotten Hot Boy to the hottest rapper alive. As time passed, his genius proved in both his music and marketing.

Able to balance two opposing ideas on a TRL tightrope, Wayne won over D-boys with A+ bars, melting ice grills with Monroe piercings atop his shiny smile.

Wayne was prolific and provocative at once. He was outworking the competition in the name of creativity and capitalism, all while donating the bulk of his punchlines.

In 2024, Playboi Carti is not entirely different.

Operating with a similar sense of danger and recklessness, fans clamor for Carti, not just because of his boundary-pushing confidence but a sense of discovery.

Since 2020’s Whole Lotta Red, Carti has not sent a single song of his own Opium output to the iTunes Store or even SoundCloud.

Still, thousands of fans upload rips of countless Carti leaks to Spotify. Millions more follow fake Playboi Carti accounts just to hear the unreleased work, often disguised on streaming platforms as podcast episodes or uploaded under faux names in coded language.

Playboi Carti
(Joseph Okpako / WireImage)

This counter-culture, or even counter-commerce approach, makes Carti more interesting than any traditional marketing plan ever could. It has fans, collaborators, and even Carti himself swimming in curiosity.

“What Carti’s doing? I feel like he’s building out his traction through himself and socials versus going to Billboard or DSPs,” said Cardo. “You’ve gotta respect it because he’s testing the waters, trying to see where everybody is at as far as music or listening.”

Who, what, when, and why are all integral in an album rollout. With Carti, he’s taken it to another level by implementing where.

Around the web, Playboi Carti claims 3.5 million followers on YouTube. More mysteriously, he has 11.6 million followers on Instagram, despite one single feed post.

Building by way of the chase, his label Opium has surpassed the 1 million follower mark since uploading the “EVILJ0RDAN” video.

Already, that individual post boasts more than 780,000 likes and over 55,000 comments. However, it’s not just social media where Carti singles are resonating.

If suits aren’t convinced a song can cross over without being on a DSP, consider the fanfare in Toronto when Carti collaborator Travis Scott played “BACKR00MS” at Scotiabank Arena within a week of its release.

The sold-out show — the second of two T. Dot dates — went wild from moshpit to nosebleeds when Chase B played the Carti cut.

The viral moment was only a week after Scott shut down Barclays in Brooklyn, playing the Playboi-featuring “FE!N” — a song now at over 300 million Spotify streams — an outlandish 10 times in a row. The energy was only amplified when Carti himself came out for a cameo in Cali.

It’s all adding to the legend of an artist already on the cusp of merging and melting underground gore with stadium-status ticket sales.

An idol capable of appearing in the front row at Paris Fashion Week while going viral through camcorder footage.

“BACKR00MS is at 12 million,” Cardo said, with the number now eclipsing the 16 million mark. “I just looked yesterday because I thought Carti was going to drop [“EVILJ0RDAN”] on YouTube, and I saw it was 12 million in two weeks! It’s crazy.”

Even still, it’s not streaming on any DSPs or charting on Billboard because of its off-kilter rollout. Ironically enough, avoiding Spotify and Apple Music may be a better business strategy than following the old model.

This proves true for the artist and his partners.

“It does a lot because YouTube pays a lot more,” says Cardo. “Their payouts are on the spot damn near.”

From viral online one day to the Spring/Summer 2024 Louis Vuitton show the next, day nor night exist for the one they call King Vamp.

The mix of social media music uploads, horrorcore camcorder videos, and fashion house hype all point to the year of Playboi Carti.

Sleepless studio sessions in 2023 are already showing early returns in 2024 for rap’s Nosferatu, who is already anointed as the punk prince among pop royalty.

Pharrell is a fan, and The Weeknd is a collaborator. Madonna is both. The rebellious rock star has been knighted by his predecessors while chosen by the new crop of kids looking for a counterculture hero.

Like those before him, he’s unlike those around him. Any artist of change has to possess both outsider appeal and insider intrigue. In less than a decade, Carti has owned exactly that. He has enough talent to appear on singles alongside Tyler the Creator and Lana Del Rey, yet channels Tech N9ne when it comes to fan forming.

Carti is other, no different than Pharrell, Kanye, Wayne, Tyler, or Travis before them. Still, he’s speaking to an audience never fully embraced by hip-hop.

“You got rock stars, punks, emos, goths,” Carti told XXL in 2022. “I’m just being myself and I feel like it’s a lot of people who really want to be themselves and do a lot of different things. That’s the reason why it’s a cult because everybody is not going to understand and I understand. When they see me, especially when I was coming up? ‘Damn, Carti look just like me.'”

“Everybody has that motivation and ambition to be unique,” said Cardo. “They just have to bring that up out of them.”

Carti is unique and all out there. All the while, the new album is without title, tour, or release date.

Fans can’t legally stream the songs on Spotify or properly predict when the next single, viral video, or full-fledged project will arrive. Perhaps that’s precisely what they want and exactly what he has planned.

“That’s my theory: he wants people to be intrigued or shocked by what’s coming next,” Cardo said. “Even though people might not understand right then and there? You have to let it sit with you.”

As Carti cuts up the sonics and aesthetics for the next drop, one can imagine the crucible of Ojivolta, Swamp Izzo, Sex Is Death, Earl on the Beat, Johnny Juliano, and Cardo will all be involved.

Still, even those closest to Carti expect the unexpected.

“I like the element of surprise, the shock value,” said Cardo. “That’s what makes you feel like a kid again. When you wake up on Christmas to open a present but don’t know what it is? You know it’s something.”

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.