In the grand tradition of Iamsu! & Problem’s Million Dollar Afro and Rich Homie Quan’s Still Goin In Reloaded, here’s another column about a mixtape that didn’t come out in the past seven days, one that’s taken a few months to prove just how important it is. This one is different, though. Both Million Dollar Afro and Still Goin In Reloaded are classic growers, finely crafted but unassuming tapes with hooks that take their time to sneak up on you. By contrast, Owl Pharaoh, from the young Houstonian rapper/producer Travi$ Scott, is a messy splurge of ideas, both good and bad. When Scott first started showing up on rap blogs months ago, I was content to dismiss him as another A$AP-come-lately, and certain parts of Owl Pharaoh do bear that theory out. (He was also part of XXL’s most recent Freshman class, which never really helps anything.) But then Scott’s name showed up over and over again in the credits to Yeezus, probably my favorite album of the year thus far, and it just didn’t make sense to keep ignoring his name. Indeed, some of my favorite rappers have put a ton of faith in this kid; he’s signed to Kanye West’s Very G.O.O.D. Beats as a producer and T.I.’s Grand Hustle as a rapper. And listening to Owl Pharaoh, it’s pretty obvious that Scott helped Kanye arrive at some of the apocalyptic goth-reggae moments on Yeezus, or maybe that West and Scott helped each other arrive at those moments.
As a rapper, Scott is a perfectly serviceable presence, but he never really distinguishes himself. He’s fluid and singsony, sliding in and out of double-time without getting sweaty with effort or muttery some pretty strong melodic hooks through the ever-present gloss of Auto-Tune. But nothing about his mic presence elevates him past, say, B.o.B. I wouldn’t necessarily recognize his voice blind, and I can’t recall any of his lines from Owl Pharaoh when it’s not on. The things I remember are the musical moments: The lurching and clanking beats, the righteously bilious dancehall choruses, the world-ending synth riffs. Scott is, at this point, very much a part of Kanye’s shadowy production cabal, and since Kanye helped him put together Owl Pharaoh, it’s hard to tell which parts of the tape come from Kanye or Scott or Mike Dean or Young Chop. But the production style pulls from reggae and Memphis goth-crunk and Lex Luger blare and moody IDM, turning it all into a monolithic churn that any rapper would be lucky to call his own.
The greatest moment on Owl Pharaoh, by quite some distance, is the thundering single “Upper Echelon,” which has an indelible kinda-yelled 2 Chainz hook and an on-fire T.I. verse and a beat that sounds like your soul burning. “Upper Echelon” is an absolute anthem, the sort of song that exists to cave in your car windows. On the tape, though, the track lasts less than three minutes, and it segways headlong into “Chaz Interlude,” a queasy electro-burble that recalls J Dilla and features Toro Y Moi. It’s a weirdly effective transition, the all-out banger into the seasick electronic curiosity. Owl Pharaoh also has other curiosities, and none of them are remotely as effective. A few tracks consist of nothing but the sound of one track playing, abruptly cutting off, and clicking and whirring into another track, like a cassette being flipped over. Those tracks are annoying as fuck, and they interrupt any momentum the tape builds up, but they aren’t a problem anymore when you delete them from your iTunes. And without the sense of experimentation that leads to bullshit like that, you might not get that “Upper Echelon”/”Chaz Interlude” transition. More importantly, the other bangers, like “Blocka La Flame” and “Bandz,” carry that sense of weirdness somewhere in their DNA as well, putting tiny little left-turns into the production and keeping things from getting too rote and obvious.
At times, it can get a bit too obvious that Scott is a Kanye protege. “Hell Of A Night” is, more or less, a wholesale bite of Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye, and a track like “Bad Mood Shit On You” veers way too far into Kid Cudi territory. And all the tape’s best ideas are also there, in more fully-realized form, on Yeezus. Still, the tape works as an intriguing dry-run at that production style, a sketch of the amazingness to come. And if you want to listen to it as the DVD extras for Yeezus, that’s fine, since Yeezus is the rare album that actually deserves to have DVD extras. Even without the Yeezus factor, though, Owl Pharaoh still has monsters like “Upper Echelon” on it, which means it stands just fine on its own merits.
Download Owl Pharaoh here.