Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

7.1

In May 2016, before even the release of Travis Scott’s fourth studio album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, he shocked his fans when he announced that he was already working on its follow-up, a project titled ASTROWORLD.  Named after the now torn down Six Flags owned amusement park in Houston, Travis stated that it would be the true follow up to his first major label release, 2015’s Rodeo. He explained his intentions behind the title in an interview with GQ as follows: “They tore down AstroWorld to build more apartment space. That’s what it’s going to sound like, like taking an amusement park away from kids. We want it back. We want the building back. That’s why I’m doing it. It took the fun out of the city.”  The ability for Travis to create this level of hype, however, was not gained overnight.

After cutting his teeth writing and producing for Kanye West’s GOOD Music camp, Travis has climbed up the latter from studio genius to superstardom, putting out a full length project every year from 2013 onwards.  On his first mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, Travis worked out the kinks in his music, transitioning from collaborator to solo artist. Days Before Radio gave him his first taste of real success, with Mamacita and Skyfall remaining fan favorites to this day.  Rodeo saw Travis emerge from the underground, with a combination of pop megahits such as Antidote and compositionally progressive songs like 3500 and 90210, stretching the limits of what was possible in mainstream trap.  2016’s Birds In the Trap Sing McKnight, while disappointing a few of his day one fans, elevated Travis Scott into the pop stratosphere, securing his place as an A list celebrity, festival headliner, and household name among anyone not living under a rock. Last year’s Quavo collaboration, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, served as the only low point in an otherwise stellar track record, with Travis and the Migo boiling their sounds into a homogenous mix of generic trap bangers, mostly indistinguishable from one another.  This brings us to the modern day, and on August 3, 2018, after multiple setbacks and delays, Travis has delivered his most anticipated album to date. For the first time in his career, Travis has nothing to prove and nothing to lose.

The album kicks off with STARGAZING, a psychedelic anthem that’s been teased at recent live shows, picking up stylistically right where Birds left off.  This song is Travis Scott in true form; eerie synths, pulsing bass, chopped vocal samples, and confident auto-crooning throughout.  While the first half of this track sets the stage for the album, a fantastic Mike Dean interlude and beat change sees Travis delivering straight forward bars, something that he’s rarely done since 2015, sounding quite a bit like label mate CyHi The Prince (who, by the way, has a writing credit every time Travis gives us a 16 on the project).

Just as Birds in the Trap managed to pull an unexpected feature from a mostly reclusive artist in the second track, CAROUSEL finds Frank Ocean delivering guest vocals, trying his best to blend with the thundering, somewhat atonal beat.  Where Andre 3000 elevated the Birds track into legendary territory, Frank seems to fit in like a square peg in a round hole, seemingly only landing on this song for the sake of having a Frank feature.

SICKO MODE is a phenomenal highlight of the album, living up the potential that Travis has shown on more ambitious songs in his catalog such as Oh My, Dis Side and 90210. Using Drake as more than just a tool to move units, he delivers one of his most exciting features in years, crooning out a moody intro of confident bravado, and leading into what could be the hardest verse of 2018, only to be cut off after two bars.  The rest of the track is a twisting rap rollercoaster, containing Swae Lee vocals, Famous Dex references, and Tay-Keith’s front-and-center hi-hats. RIP SCREW pays homage to Houston legend DJ Screw, who pioneered the syrupy Houston sound that Travis has since adapted into the modern trap era. One of the lazier cuts on the album, it sounds like the producers took the keys on this one, copy/pasting unrelated bars and sung lines into a semi-cohesive track, good to ride out to, but nothing game changing.

ASTROWORLD begins to reveal its true colors as the nearly 6 minute cut, STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, rolls around.  Beginning with a sleepy instrumental and a lazy verse that finds Travis sounding uninterested, the song only begins to pick up after a couple minutes when a much appreciated combo of Kid Cudi hums and Stevie Wonder harmonica join in. The song then flawlessly slides into a tear-jerking outro from James Blake, delivering gorgeous vocal harmonies over a Rhodes/pipe organ instrumental, turning into pure bliss when Stevie Wonder’s harp riffing comes back to close out the track, which is looking to be a highlight of both the album and Travis’s whole cannon.  This cut exposes two facts about ASTROWORLD: first, the sound that carries the majority of the project has gotten old after only five tracks. Second, one of the best moments of the album contained literally zero input from Scott himself. One begins to realize around this point that Travis has less to offer his own project than his collaborators.

The song NO BYSTANDERS, featuring SoundCloud superstar Juice Wrld and Cactus Jack signee Sheck Wes, would fit right in with the latter’s discography. Featuring a punk-like beat and delivery, and a 36 Mafia referencing hook, the song is a blast, held back only by Travis’s unenthusiastic vocals.  Astoundingly, all of the pieces fall into place on SKELETONS, with an impeccable instrumental crafted by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker (marking his second high profile hip-hop collaboration of the year, following Kanye West’s Violent Crimes). The track is a euphoric combination of spacy backing vocals, courtesy of Pharrell Williams and The Weeknd, and one of Travis’s most fun verses of the album.  The Weeknd makes his second appearance on the Lo-Fi, guitar centric WAKE UP. While not one of the more complex or challenging tracks, it’s a great pop-rap/R&B fusion, and is a top contender for hit material.

The album begins to lose steam with 5% TINT and NC-17, with the only memorable moment between the two songs being a 21 Savage verse, who does very little to live up to the high standards set by their 2016 collaboration, Outside. Somehow, though, without changing the formula of the previous two tracks, ASTROTHUNDER finally achieves the futuristic-sleepy-trap perfection that Travis tries so hard to achieve.  Filled with slinky synths (think Chris Brown’s Look at me Now), the song sounds like 2am in an abandoned amusement park.

YOSEMITE, while essentially a remix of Gunna and Lil Baby’s 2018 hit Sold Out Dates, is still a fun change of pace. Travis and Gunna flow effortlessly over the stripped back beat, proving that it’s only a matter of time until the Young Thug protégé reaches inevitable superstar status.  After this, changing very little of YOSEMITE’s formula, the song CAN’T SAY serves as maybe the best pop track on the whole album.  The relative nobody, Don Toliver, comes in with one of the freshest sounding features so far, fitting right in alongside Travis’s signature sound.  Being the most radio-ready song of the bunch, we can expect to be hearing this cut in passing cars for months to come.

The omnipresent Migos make a to-be-expected appearance on WHO? WHAT?, with Travis, Quavo, and Takeoff link up again after last year’s Eye 2 Eye. Offset is sadly absent from this cut.  Even containing the most high profile rap feature of the album, it’s unfortunately one of its least necessary tracks. With a hook sounding indistinguishable from about a dozen other Travis songs, and the two Migo’s doing their best to blend in rather than stand out, the song is little more than a throwaway, likely here only to boost streaming figures.  The next track is BUTTERFLY EFFECT, and if there’s anything left to say about the year and a half old hit, it’s a simply question of WHY did this make the album, and not the incredible teaser Watch…

HOUSTONFORNICATION is Travis doing what Travis does best: standard beat, moody lyrics, and vocals that alternate from brooding baritone to triumphant, stadium ready tenor. He’s working comfortably within his wheelhouse, not too ambitious, but 100% him.  The next cut brings the album to a close with the self-reflective and boom bap flavored COFFEE BEAN.  Speaking vaguely on his high profile relationship and newfound fatherhood, Travis finds himself admitting that he’s “Bad news” for his partner, just as his mentor Kanye West did on 2016’s Wolves.  While the song is unique in Travis’s discography, one can’t help but think that it could have been so much more.  With several half-finished bars and ideas, muddy mixing, and an uninspired beat, there’s very little replay value to this song.  Ending with a Mike Dean guitar solo, who’s added his unique style to several GOOD Music hits, such as Devil in a New Dress, has potential to end the album out with a bang, but instead decides to simply fizzle out.

In a sense, Travis Scott has lived up to his promise to create a proper sequel to Rodeo.  Whereas Birds in The Trap holds a consistent, focused sound from front to back, ASTROWORLD puts emphasis on each individual track, crafting a garden variety of sounds, textures, and songs within songs. Perhaps an artist should never become too comfortable in their own skin, as the features and collaborators were absolutely essential to keeping the hour-long album interesting. For better or worse, ASTROWORLD is Travis’s least consistent project.  Stunning high points will keep fans coming back to the album again and again, but the low points can be so boring that certain tracks will likely be skipped for future generations to come.

-Joey Hughes