Travis Karter is not your typical up-and-coming rapper. His goals, musical and otherwise, are loftier and wider in scope than one might expect from a college-aged artist. On his latest album, “WHITE PANTHER," Karter (born Kristofer Madu), a student at Johns Hopkins University, takes inspiration from his academic interests, personal history, and philanthropic pursuits. His music clearly serves a purpose beyond art itself. It can be difficult to separate art from artist, especially when the artist himself seems to want those lines blurred, but in this case, the artist himself stands out as far more interesting and complex than the album he created.
The first voice we hear on the album’s opener, “TIRED,” is that of a robotic-sounding woman informing the listener that “100 percent of the proceeds from this album go toward providing clean water for children around the world.” To those who do not know the artist’s backstory, this intro sequence may sound like a gimmick. But Karter does significant work on behalf of Water Is the Answer, a nonprofit organization he created in 2015 in order to improve access to clean water for communities in Nigeria. It is not by accident that Karter puts this information at the very beginning of his album; his international philanthropy defines him as an artist as much as any stylistic feature of his music.
Karter is at his most successful when he casts aside the trends that have defined much of the SoundCloud rap music created in recent years by his peers. Whereas popular rap songs have trended toward shorter lengths in the recent past, Karter isn’t afraid to let his songs play out for as long as is necessary; on “COLD,” he delivers some of the strongest (and longest) verses on the album as he addresses a spiteful former love interest. Karter raps, “I swear to God, nothing makes you strong like a fucking heartbreak,” and the triumphant nature of this particular break-up song makes it hard to doubt him.
The album’s highlight comes in the form of its seventh track, “BLACK PANTHER,” a nod to the globally popular movie of the same name. It’s easy to imagine that Karter can identify, on some level, with the superhero; the elements of heroism in the young artist’s pursuits are undeniable. The song is a heavy-hitting trap anthem with a thunderous beat and raucous, reverb-heavy vocals. Yet even here Karter makes sure to remind listeners that he has aims higher than simply making good music. Later in the song, he raps, “Came in this world to do somethin’, all these boys ain’t do nothin’,” expressing in no uncertain terms his compulsion to make a difference, whether in music or otherwise.
When Karter’s songs fall short, it is often because they slip into cliché. “ROCKSTAR” is an homage to the lifestyle of the rich and famous that feels out of touch with not only the rest of the album, but also Karter’s carefully curated image as an artist. “FLASHIN’” is his effort at a socially conscious track, offering commentary on racial profiling and police brutality. The song’s chorus is frustratingly repetitive and incorporates pitched-up vocals that undermine the weight of the lyrical content. The track concludes with a skit staging an encounter between a bigoted police officer and a black man, followed by an extended sample of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This sample feels out of place in the context of the song and the album as a whole: poignant, but not quite in line with the overall tone and themes at work.
Karter’s energy and ambition shine through on most of the album’s tracks, and when this energy wavers, it is more a product of age and inexperience than a lack of talent or skill. On “WHITE PANTHER OUTRO,” the chorus asks over and over again, “What do you want to do with your life?” Karter leaves listeners with the very question that motivates his music, his philanthropy, and all of his other endeavors. His rap career is just one part of his search for purpose. He seems to almost see it as more of an ongoing question than a final answer. In any case, the album’s conclusion is especially fitting. It leaves us with the image of a young man with tremendous potential, both in music and elsewhere, asking himself on how he ought to use it.