“I feel like I’m great at having a poker face,” says Ken Carson, about his ability
to keep his mood in check. On this Monday afternoon, four days before the
scheduled release of one of the most anticipated—and delayed—hip-hop
records of the year, that ability had been tested. “My album just leaked today,
he shares. “So of course, I’m mad as hell! But did I get on here, mad as hell?
Nah.” No he didn’t. In fact, over Zoom from his home studio in Atlanta, Carson was
the same smiling, affable guy that over the past four years has gone from being
the first signee to superstar Playboi Carti’s Opium label and grown into one of
young rap’s MVPs—a brash iconoclast with a rock and roll spirit and an
unrelenting taste for a good time. The blunt he’s smoking may have helped
mellow out his spirits, but he’s also a pro, and soldiers through a conversation
despite, only hours before, bandits having gotten to his second studio album,
suddenly giving new meaning to its name: A Great Chaos.

A Great Chaos Album Artwork

No artist not named Radiohead is left unbothered by an album leak, but for
Ken, who wasn’t interested in discussing the development—he had already
posted a terse “u a bitch” directed at the leaker just before 5AM—it had to feel
especially cruel, since A Great Chaos had already taken a long road to get here.
Carson began whetting appetites late last year, when he posted a snippet of
what would be the album’s “Paranoid,” a joint effort with his friend, labelmate
and frequent collaborator, Destroy Lonely. January’s release of a mixtape, Lost
Files 4
, and a Valentine’s Day’s drop of a sentimental (by Carson’s raw
standards, anyway) single “I need u” only increased anticipation for the LP.
Carson diehards on Reddit and elsewhere speculated at a summertime release
for the successor to the rapper’s 2021 debut Project X and its follow up, a year
later, X. Both albums were July releases, and established Carson as a force to
be reckoned with, in Gen Z hip-hop and beyond. At young rap’s mecca, Rolling
Loud, he’s already a third-line artist, the countless festivals he’s played
worldwide include this year’s Bonnaroo, Reading, Leeds and Lollapalooza, and
his 2020 single, the unassuming but enduring “Yale,” was recently certified Gold by the RIAA, making Carson the first Opium artist to achieve the milestone.

But for much of the year, A Great Chaos remained elusive. There is no more
restless or impatient fan cohort than young rap, a world where “Drop That
Shit!” is an online mantra, and Carson himself shared in the eagerness to get
the record out. New merch in May, and finally in June the confirmation of a
release date of July 17 th . “Album of the Yr I promise” posted his manager. New
songs “It’s Over” and “Paranoid” were even added to Carson’s festival set. But
July 17th came and went, and still no album. You could sense Ken—who’s made
no secret of his desire to drop music as often as possible—chomping at the bit
for AGC to release. “it’s not me, doing wut I can,” the rapper posted. In an
August interview with VIBE, he declared the record “100% done,” insisting it
wasn’t him keeping it from dropping. Fan rumors abounded. Were features
holding it up? Was it delayed to make room for Playboi Carti’s rumored next LP
(it wasn’t—Carti will now reportedly drop in 2024). Turns out, Carson says, the
postponement was down to something more mundane. “It’s just that
everything wasn’t cleared, stuff like that,” he explains. “It was out of my hands,
really.” As for those other theories? “A lot of people overthink a lot of stuff.
It’s really, I can’t get past the clearance, bruh. It was just, ‘We gonna have to
wait.’” And besides, Carson adds, at a certain point it had to drop, because if
you allow him more time, the workaholic will just make more music. “If you
gave me the option, I’d keep making it for five or six years!” he says with a
laugh. “So, perfect timing is really everything.”

Ken Carson | Photography by Gunner Stahl

And even if that perfect timing, eventually announced as October 13th, was
hijacked by four days by a leak, fans (who hopefully waited until Friday to listen
to it) should know by now that, as a whole, A Great Chaos is Carson’s strongest
record yet. Project X gave us his signature songs “Rock and Roll” and “Hella”
and put Ken at the vanguard of new Atlanta rap. X delivered memorable singles
too, in “Murda Musik” and “Freestyle 2”—considered by many to be his finest
track to date. But they both set the table for this moment. “With Project X, I felt
like it was me introducing myself, and then with X, I feel like I was trying to get
to where I am right now,” he explains. “But this is my most exciting record, and
most anticipated.” Nor, he adds, does he feel like he has anything to prove,
despite the sophomore LP struggling to impress critics. Making music for
anyone else’s approval, least of all journalists or vloggers, doesn’t interest Ken.

“I don’t make my music for the critics,” he asserts. “When I’m in the studio, I’m
not like, ‘Oh I hope this person really likes it this time,’ if they didn’t like it last
time. I don’t give a fuck at all! I didn’t even give a fuck the first time! With being an artist, once you paint a picture? There’s gonna be motherfuckers who don’t like the picture. There’s gonna be motherfuckers who think it’s the ugliest picture in the world! It could be the biggest picture in the world, and there’ll still be like it’s ugly or you’re not a good artist. There’s always gonna be those opinions, whether it’s
somebody with a following, or just some random motherfucker saying it. And if
you’re gonna be focusing on everybody’s opinion? Well, that says a lot about
your artistry.”

Synth backdrops spiral, sparkle, buzz and swirl on A Great Chaos, on which
Carson worked with some of his favorite beatmakers and producers from past
records, including Atlanta’s Lil 88 (Jalan Lowe), Philadelphia’s F1lthy (Richard
Ortiz) and AM (Arman Andican), Nashville’s Clif Shayne, and a host of young
Europeans: Starboy (Anton Mendo), bart how (Bart van Hoewijk) and Lucian
(Stefan Cismiglu) of the collective Neilaworld. All have extensive credits
working with the Opium artists and other leading lights in young rap, including
Trippie Redd, Yeat and Lil Yachty. “It’s all about ears, bruh,” Carson says of the
producers. “I never turn down—I’m not biased, I’m listening to everything. And
I feel like they’re listening to everything I’m not listening to. So whatever I
haven’t heard, they’re showing it to me.”

Verbally, Carson—who has always preferred the freestyle “punching in”
approach as opposed to writing down lyrics, delivers some sharp bars. On the
hook of focus track and new music video “Jennifer’s Body”: “Two things I’ve
never seen / A n—a that run from a gun and a bitch I need!” is an echo of Ken’s
frequent take on women—he loves them, but isn’t about to need them too
much. “I try to put that energy out because, you’ve got a lot of people in this
world who feel like you need a female,” he says. “But it’s like, at one point you
might? But right now, you just might not.” On the other hand, he admits: “I got
a girlfriend, I ain’t gonna lie. But it’s a long-distance thing, so it’s different.” Just
how different he won’t say, but hedonism still dominates A Great Chaos. The
new “Singapore”—another collab with Destroy Lonely—evokes stripper parties
(“We don’t do it a lot, but when we do it, we like have super fun,” he says),
while “Jennifer’s Body,” inspired by the 2009 Megan Fox movie of the same
name, and “Succubus” draw on the woman-as-maneater trope. In “Paranoid”
he declares, “I fuck Barbie bitches / All my hoes be plastic.” The return of the
Barbie reference! From the man whose debut EP was 2020’s Boy Barbie!

Which brings me to a still strangely little-known fact about Ken…

The rapper born Kenyatta Frazier was “Ken Carson” long before Ryan Gosling
was “Just Ken.” Confused? Don’t be. Only the most committed fans of the
musician know that his artist name actually came from the full name of the 62-
year-old partner to Barbie. You didn’t know that the Ken doll had a last name?
Of course he does. He even has a Wikipedia page. The choice of the toy stud’s
name as an alias when Carson was coming up arose out of a desire to fuck with
the idea of the perfect man who is, at the end of the day, a supporting player
in Barbie’s show. “Yeah, you know, Ken,” he says with a laugh. “I like clothes
and shit.” When I suggest that given this past summer’s pink-slathered orgy of
coverage from every pop culture outlet on the planet surrounding Greta
Gerwig’s juggernaut movie, maybe July really would have been the best time
for him to drop his LP, the very real Ken Carson only laughs. Loudly.

Years before choosing that name though, the most seminal moment in Ken’s
musical life came when, in an often-told story, in eighth grade he discovered
that a friend of a friend was the nephew of TM88, the celebrated ATL hitmaker,
co-founder, along with Southside and Lex Luger, of the production and
songwriting team 808 Mafia. TM’s credits alone read like a Who’s Who of
2010s and 2020s hip-hop: Gucci, Waka, Migos, Thug, 21, Wiz, Juicy J, Uzi and
many more. Ken had been making music at home since he was 12, but was too
shy to share it. After TM caught one song though, and heard potential in it, by
age 15, Carson began regularly spending time around the team’s studio. “I was
just learning. I mean, I knew how to make music, but I just wanted to get
better,” he explains. “I was just trying to get better.” He was improving his
craft, learning about the business, and meeting artist after artist, up-and-
coming and established, none more crucially to his career than Carti. In 2019,
after hearing only two of Carson’s songs, the mercurial superstar made him
first on the roster of the fledgling Opium. This was a year after Die Lit, a record
that hinted at the shapeshifting ninja that Carti would become, and the ethos
of Opium, Carson says, is in keeping with its founder: “I feel like there’s no
fucking rules, we can all pretty much do whatever the fuck we want.”

Ken Carson | Photography by Gunner Stahl

A good thing, since rules don’t sit too well with Ken. This is a guy who once
slapped a teacher, got kicked out of military school after just three months for
having a phone, and who so identified with possibly he most unhinged party
movie of all time, 2012’s Project X—with its car in the swimming pool,
rampant raunch, garden gnome full of ecstasy, and burning trees in the
neighbors’ yard—that he named his debut full-length after it. Rule-flaunting is
in the lyrics of early hit and fan favorite “Teen Bean”: “I do what I want, I don’t
play by the rules / I don’t do what you tell me to do.” On the new LP’s “It’s Over” and “Rockstar Lifestyle” he flexes on a rawk persona: VVS diamonds, Balenciaga, a man who’s “bigger than the law” and who tells his label, “Fuck it, I don’t need no promo.” Now that’s confidence. When I mention to Ken that a couple of his young rap peers have told me in recent years that these days, sustaining interest can be more challenging than getting attention in the first place, he coolly replies, “Probably, in their case!” before adding with a laugh, “Not mine!”

A Great Chaos would seem to justify the optimism. Other highlights include
“Like This” featuring Lil Uzi Vert and Destroy Lonely over a haunting track, and
two of the record’s most intense standouts: “Me N My Kup,” and “Hardcore,” a
rager that is light on lyrics but pounds the title word like a jackhammer and is
tailor made for a mosh pit. “With songs like that I just hear the beat, and then I
just magically already know what I want,” he says. “Like, my producers send
me beats all day, but I don’t go and listen to them unless I’m in the studio and I
can actually pull em up. Because there’s no sense in me listening to em unless I
can do what I do. But when I’m already in the studio, got the beat, I’m pressing
my engineer, ‘Yo, pull this up! And I just come up with it really fast.”

The postponement of the album has in a way worked out well for Carson, as
the new songs are ready to roar to life as he heads out with the entire Opium
crew, Destroy Lonely, Homixide Gang and of course, leader of the pack Playboi
Carti on the Antagonist tour, which launches in just over a month in Dublin. It
will be, remarkably, Ken’s fourth trip to Europe this year alone. When I posit
that just maybe that’s where the mystery long-distance girl resides, he gives
me that poker face again. He does plan to include as much new music as
possible in his set. “Of course! I was trying to perform strictly this [album], but
I’m gonna perform a few older songs,” he says. “I’m tryna perform all new shit.
I’m tired of performing that other shit!” A rebel to the core.

Likely to be included in the show is “Vampire Hour,” a favorite of Ken’s, which
in rolling melodics repeatedly insists, “I’ll never change / I’ll remain the same”
and later, “I’m staying in my lane.” The rapper stated recently that he never
intended A Great Chaos to be a radical left turn, no matter what wildly
speculating fans suggested online. And while Opium might welcome
experimentation from its artists, Carson says this wasn’t the time for a major
switch-up. “I just don’t think that was my place with this album,” he explains.
“There’s always a place and time to do that. And that’s what’s wrong with
everybody! Just cause Carti made a left turn and did that, doesn’t mean that you got to make a left turn. Just do what you gotta do! I’ll make my left turn
when I want.”

It has to be said though, among the general party atmosphere that dominates
the record, there are glimpses of vulnerability and even darkness we haven’t
seen from Carson before. Unlike some of his angstier peers he’s never been
one to readily share his struggles. But on “Paranoid” he warns, “I’ll take your
life before you take mine.” Is he, in fact, sometimes paranoid? “Hell yeah, I live
in Atlanta!” he exclaims, adding that things don’t necessarily get easier with
success. “Matter of fact, it get worse. You have more success, then you gotta
worry about more shit.” On the affecting “Lose It” he admits, “I been going
through it,” and cautions, “Please don’t push me to the edge / I’m boutta lose
it.” “I feel like I always keep a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “Just to keep
going. I’m super self-motivating.”

To some people’s surprise, the seemingly easygoing Ken told a Polish
interviewer this summer that he’s “a super angry person” who channels that
tension into his work. Without trying to sound like a therapist, I ask where that
anger comes from. “It’s just daily shit,” he says. “Like, the shit I go through, the
average person don’t got to go through. Industry, life, clout chasers—all that.”
That includes, on this particular, day, leakers with nothing better to do than try
and ruin the rollout of a record he’s justifiably proud of.

Carson also knows that the faithful who populate the subreddit, commiserate
on Discord and pack out his live shows are all navigating this thing called life,
and that might mean depression, anxiety, or drugs to numb either. Which is
why, on “Fighting My Demons”, another confessional track that conjures
popping X and playing Russian roulette, Ken isn’t speaking just about himself.
“Like I said, when I’m rapping, I’m speaking for myself and for others,” he
explains. “So it’s like—I’m sure everybody’s got their own demons. That’s a
natural thing. And even if they don’t call them “demons,” they’re problems.
And everybody be fighting their problems. I just breathe it at the music. I leave
my emotions in the music.”

Discover Ken Carson’s A Great Chaos, below!

Discover More