This is a column called Major Keys written by Phil Witmer, the only actual musician (technically) employed by Noisey. It's about timbres, theory, chords (lots of 'em), and how these nerdy qualities make us feel things.
Travis Scott’s third album Astroworld finds the reborn Houston native finally prioritizing his sonic ambitions over anything he’s actually trying to say, and it results in what’s easily his most rewarding full-length to date. It’s a modern version of the indulgent 70s blockbuster double-album, yielding considerable pleasures in its intricate surfaces, showstopping guest appearances, and symphonic track sequencing even as its mastermind fails to give us anything more substantial than “my life is incredible right now.” The one smudge on the album’s flawless sheen, as has now been documented in forums and meme accounts the world over, is Nav’s verse on “Yosemite.” These 15 seconds have taught countless fans the importance of the recording and mixing process, but why was such a gaffe even allowed through in the first place? Astroworld’s engineers aren’t speaking, but the answer likely doesn’t lie with them, even if Nav suggested so on Instagram. If anything, this verse is emblematic of how, thanks to mixtapes, there’s no divide between polish and messiness in modern hip-hop.
What shall heretofore be referred to as “The Yosemite Incident” isn’t even the only instance of dubiously recorded rap this year. Blocboy JB’s dance anthem/scrap soundtrack “Shoot” is notably underproduced, the rapper’s voice a thin, airy buzz when it should be booming out of the speakers. Many of the songs on Drake’s Scorpion sound like skeletal demos, a single track of his vocals on top of a beat that’s usually little more than drums, bass, and a synth or sample loop. “In My Feelings” also possesses the same, weird vocal hollowness of “Shoot” and it’s currently the ubiquitous megahit of the year. The adjustments made to the album, later on, seem to confirm its unfinished nature. Astroworld itself is mastered extraordinarily loud, as even quieter songs like “R.I.P. Screw” are brickwalled to the point of audio clipping and distortion. Of course, this could be a case of Scott again borrowing from his mentor Kanye West, whose own albums were sometimes victims of the loudness war.
None of these cases are as egregious (or as funny) as the Yosemite Incident, but little things like these and other odd details and mistakes in this era (the inaudible kick drums in Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota,” the ambient crunching of plastic bags(?) in DJ Esco and Future’s “100it Racks,” just to name two) keep happening. It’s unlikely that engineers are getting lazier, not to mention incredibly disrespectful to suggest so in the first place. The more plausible reason behind this is in the most pervasive pre-streaming method of consuming rap: the mixtape.
By their nature, mixtapes are messy. They’re often mixed quickly and amateurishly, with DJ drops drowning out entire songs and too-quiet, unmastered beats cowering under the rapper’s voice. This is part of their charm—the format did originate as physical CD-Rs sold in convenience stores and on the street—but a whole generation has now grown up with a hip-hop canon in which mixtapes play a large part. Future’s trilogy, Lil Wayne’s Dedication and Da Drought series, and the early works of A$AP Mob and Odd Future (who now share a sample of Big Tuck’s “Not a Stain on Me” with Travis Scott) are just a few of the scrappy, online-only releases that are often regarded as influential classics. Though many of today’s “tapes” are in fact glossy, professionally mixed free albums, the quick-and-dirty model probably holds the most prominence in the minds of most young rap listeners and has thus been internalized. This music was good even though it sounded like shit, so why bother buffing out the edges if quality and energy will shine through regardless?
There’s also obviously the intentional abrasiveness of the new school: the bass on the late XXXTentacion’s “Look at Me!” notoriously crumples into a gabber-ish squarewave, and Lil Pump’s early hit “D Rose” is so deep-fried it sounds as if someone cranked all the levels up after recording. There’s something to be said about how the use of this kind of distortion could have been inspired meme culture mainstays like YouTube “ear rape” videos, tapping into an innate humour that comes from experiencing media warped via incompetence or indifference. You could also point out that Lil B’s oeuvre encompassed both this scorched-earth mixing style and the unfinished messiness of DatPiff distribution before they were cool. Either way, it’s apparent that rap’s current sound is partially defined by a more lax approach to fidelity, even on high-profile releases like Astroworld.
Is this punk? Maybe. Travis Scott and other rock-worshipping rappers would certainly like that comparison to be made. While I don’t want to discredit the work that he and many other talented producers put in on this album, there is a very good chance that much of the vocal recording was done in the weeks (or days, or even hours or minutes) leading up to release. This is normal: rap functions best when it can comment on the most recent events possible. In the mad dash to finish Astroworld, with many of the world’s biggest rap and pop stars being shuttled in and out of Hawaii, it’s more than likely that someone just forgot to check if Nav’s verse was mixed correctly. If so, then it might be fixed at a later date, since Kanye pioneered the concept of the patchable album with The Life of Pablo two years ago. But the fact that these mistakes even make it to the final version of a commercial LP speaks to a new kind of creative process. Big-budget rap albums by cultishly adored artists are now recorded under the same “fuck it” duress of a college student pulling an all-nighter on a term paper. The fallibility is kind of endearing.
Phil Witmer a well-known GOAT and fawn lover. He's on Twitter.