What’s been most challenging when thinking about Travis Scott over the years is that he has been gradually cementing himself as one of rap’s leading characters without his music having any linear narrative. The Houston native isn’t necessarily alone in that. Migos, who he frequently collaborates with (see he and Quavo’s Huncho Jack), generally don’t make music about anything in particular outside of enjoying the spoils of a luxurious lifestyle, but have occasionally touched on their personal lives (Offset once rapped about not knowing what to do as a 17-year-old father). Future’s music falls in that territory as well, but he still tends to sneak in lines about his emotional bouts. But, if you were to be quizzed on topics related to how Travis Scott processes things going on in his life, you’d likely flunk. Scott’s saving grace when it comes to this deficiency is that he’s managed to create an alternative world with his music—one that includes carnival rides, scary clowns, driving on open roads in vintage sports cars, and having an unlimited supply of your drugs of choice. And with that convincing creation, the Kanye West protege has found himself on tracks and in studios with artists considered to be some of the best of their generations, if not ever.
What Travis Scott’s work has been establishing along the way is that there is still an intrinsic value to making music that makes people feel good, regardless of how intellectually stimulating it is. From his raspy auto-tune harmonies to his larger-than-life, mind-twisting production to his interpolation of his hometown’s sound, you know a Travis Scott song when you hear one. That’s the case when he’s the featured artist as well (take Rihanna’s “Woo” or Migos’ “Kelly Price” for instance). Scott started to sharpen his aesthetic footprint with his 2015 debut album, Rodeo. There were times throughout the project that his melodies sounded like a more sinister, drug-focused version of 808s era Kanye—which to some critics came off as straight biting. But more than any time leading up to it, he started to show that he could offer his own take on that format. “90210”—still one of his catalog’s best songs—jumped from a spacey tale about a woman on the LA scene who loved cocaine a little too much to a more easy going song about how good it felt to finally make it. He facilitated the unlikely, but stellar, pairing of Swae Lee and Chief Keef (“Nightcrawler”). “Impossible” was a woozy number about how invincible the right drugs can make you feel. But, in all, Rodeo fell short due to its dire need for more fluidity and less filler.
Scott’s sophomore album, 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight, addressed the bulk of his debut’s deficiencies. During a time in which some of his peers were rapping about their struggles with pill addiction, Travis went deeper into the euphoric world he could create with the help of those substances. From “coordinate” to “sdp interlude,” to “biebs in the trap,” the album almost exclusively advocated—even if unconsciously—for partying as hard as possible. Songs, in comparison to Rodeo, got shorter and less scattered (76 minutes long down to 54). The trimming made for a much smoother listen and it magnified just how mesmerizing, and even hypnotizing, Scott’s music could be when he’s focused on how to pace himself. That’s even clearer now that two years later, the artist’s third studio album, ASTROWORLD—the most polished and wide-ranging he’s ever proven to be—is out and it finally proves that Scott is deserving of top-tier rap accolades.
ASTROWORLD has been teased out to fans since the end of 2016, when Travis tweeted that it would arrive in 2017. “My whole idea was, if you locked in to Rodeo, you definitely locked into ASTROWORLD,“ he told Zane Lowe on .wav radio last week before the album dropped. “I’m just finishing the saga I started on my first album. This is supposed to be my second album.” Thematically, the album is supposed to pay homage to a Houston area amusement park of the same name that closed in 2005. But, of course when you’re dealing with an artist with Travis Scott’s reputation for going hard with no reservations, it’s safe to chalk up ASTROWORLD as a new alternative to a place that brought him immense joy as a youth growing up in Southeast Texas. Only this time, the theme park’s contents are under his control. And if you’ve been paying attention to Scott’s artistic journey, you’re probably familiar with what kind of place you’re entering.
From the first part of the album’s opening slow-burner “STARGAZING”, Scott inspires visions of psychedelic trips with a hint of that Houston swing. Then, predictably (yet no less satisfying), the song switches to another beat, this one even more galactic. The song establishes a theme that persists throughout ASTROWORLD which suggests that, what Travis Scott needed wasn’t a shift in content more than he needed to take the time to mold and form what he’d already been doing. The clearest level up was Scott stamping that he, much like his Chicago-born mentor, can be trusted as one of the genre’s best conductors.
Frank Ocean makes an appearance on hard hitter “Carousel” and adds more fuel to requests for the singer to drop an all-rap project. He also sounds great with Scott’s “IT’S LIT” and “STRAIGHT UP” ad libs backing him while he dishes out bars. On “No Bystanders” Scott nabs Chicago rap-singer Juice WRLD for parts of the hook and grabs Harlem riser Sheck Wes for an impressive update to Three 6 Mafia’s hook for “Tear Da Club Up.” Then, he somehow fits Tame Impala, Pharrell Williams, and The Weeknd on “Skeleton,” the album’s shortest song.
Much has already been made of the Drake-featuring “Sicko Mode” which cleverly teases Drizzy’s verse at the song’s beginning, only to bring him back to close out. But that’s not nearly the song’s most impressive element. Before a short appearance by Swae Lee on the hook and Mr. Graham’s full verse even come in, “Sicko Mode” seamlessly weaves together some of rap’s most influential forms: Biggie’s “Gimme The Loot” creeps in, 2 Live Crew’s Miami bass classic “I Wanna Rock (Doo Doo Brown)” has a moment, and Houston legend Big Hawk makes an appearance on the hook. It’s a fitting mashup considering how 2018’s been a year of reaching back into rap’s past to rework the sauce for today’s pallette. And with that reference-loaded approach, it’s even more fitting to bring in Memphis producer Tay Keith whose beats sound like anyone from Skinny Pimp to Gangsta Boo could glide over them right now.
The other example of Scott’s impressive puzzle-piecing is the grandiose “Stop Trying to be God.” The song itself has one of his more linear concepts to date, as he seems to be talking about not losing his head as fame gradually removes him further from reality. But even without that, the song’s combination of contributors is something that music fans only get in their dreams. It’s hard to think of a more heavenly link up than Kid Cudi’s hums and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, with James Blake’s voice to cap it off. This revolving door of guests who pop in and out of ASTROWORLD contribute to Scott’s rep as the supreme function host. But more importantly (with the help of not listing most of the featured artists), La Flame succeeds because he’s able to tap into the listener’s curiosity with a tinge of mystery: Who’s gonna be hidden on this song’s hook? Who is that rapping an old Three 6 Mafia classic? How the hell can Stevie Wonder fit on a track with a guy who raps about weed and pills?
ASTROWORLD could be a lesson for rap in 2018. It comes after a period of summer in which the genre’s juggernauts (Kanye, Drake, Nas, The Carters) all looked to seize “the moment” by dropping projects that felt half-cooked, rushed, or sloppily pieced together and effectively faded from general discourse after a few days. As unlikely of an outcome as some may see it, ASTROWORLD is one of 2018’s best bodies of work within rap. Travis Scott is no longer being upstaged by guests who he can’t keep up with lyrically. Instead, he’s found a way to plug them in to compliment the feeling he’d like to project through his music. The album also benefited from Scott taking nearly two years making it and committing to sharpening the skills he’s been working on since his first project, Owl Pharaoh, dropped in 2013. ASTROWORLD is the album that Travis Scott listeners knew was possible, but had no guarantee of ever getting it due to his penchant for excess. Luckily for them, he finally figured out a way to trim the fat.
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