If you go see Travi$ Scott live, you’ll see some exciting things. You’ll see Scott whirling across the stage, his hair flying in every direction. You see him diving headlong into the crowd — not the “hold on, everyone, get ready to catch me” stagedives that some rappers do, but the sudden and convulsive Trash Talk kind. You’ll see him ripping shirts off, sweating, spraying bottles of water everywhere, keeping up a sense of perpetual motion that’s exhausting just to watch. Sometimes, you’ll see Scott, in the heat of the moment, making questionable decisions, like dickishly banning photographers from the area, or outright insane ones, like demanding that festival audiences rush the security and dismantle the barricade. (That last one got him pulled offstage and arrested five minutes into his Lollapalooza set last month.) His live show is an impressive thing, on a purely physical level, and it accomplishes the goal of getting crowds to go bugshit. I’ve seen it happen. He throws himself completely into the act of performing, and he gets results from doing it. That’s a good thing. But what you won’t see at a Travi$ Scott show is Travi$ Scott rapping. Like, at all. He’ll sometimes bellow along with the recordings of his own hooks, but most of the time, he’s just using his microphone to encourage the crowd to get as up as he is. Whether Scott knows it or not, he’s essentially recreating the dynamic of an Insane Clown Posse show for an audience that wouldn’t be caught dead at one. All that jumping around is fun, but it can’t cover up the reality that Scott can’t perform the act of rapping the way some of his peers can. It’s a whole lot of theatrical intensity, but with nothing much at its core. Rodeo, Scott’s debut album, works in much the same way.
On paper, Rodeo should be one of the biggest and best rap albums of the year. Scott has spent the past few years touring hard, developing an aesthetic, honing a craft. He hasn’t made an album up until now, but he’s already made mixtape-level hits; “Upper Echelon,” from his 2013 mixtape Owl Pharaoh, remains an absolute banger. He’s spent time with masters, and his name appears over and over in the credits of Kanye West’s Yeezus, as a writer and producer. Rodeo is a massive and ambitious project, a sprawling album with a central theme about trying to master your own out-of-control life the way a cowboy masters a stampeding bull at a rodeo. There are proggish touches, like the way T.I. works as the album’s George Clinton-esque narrator, dropping in on song intros and outros to lay down some gobbledygook wisdom. The album has a sound, a gothic and apocalyptic synth-rap thunder that never stops sounding big. The roster of guests includes many of the most exciting people in rap and rap-adjacent music: Kanye West, the Weeknd, Quavo, Toro Y Moi, Chief Keef, Juicy J, Swae Lee. The tracklist includes the phrase “Maria I’m Drunk [Feat. Justin Bieber & Young Thug],” and you know that you want to know what that sounds like. The goddam first single is a blown-out seven-minute rap odyssey with appearances from Future and 2 Chainz. This should all add up to something, but it never does, since Scott is such a fundamental blank that the album ends up having no center.
Scott is from Houston, and he mentions his hometown fairly often, but it’s a bit of a misnomer to call him a “Houston rapper.” There’s nothing about him that screams Houston. He has no discernible regional accent, and his beats don’t draw any more from Houston screw music or UGK-style country-rap than your average big buzz-rap album does. (A$AP Rocky, who has a lot of things in common with Scott but who comes from New York, sounds like way more of a Houston rapper than Scott himself does.) Similarly, Scott barely ever says anything specific enough to place him in any corner of the universe. He’s not talking about actual experiences, actual personal history. Instead, he’s playing around with of-the-moment imagery about getting high and having sex. The first thing he says on the album is this: “No monogamy, menage with me / Pornography surrounding me.” We get a whole lot more of that over the next 66 minutes. Everyone raps about that stuff, and its mere existence on the album is not a problem. The problem is that Scott has nothing else to say about anything. We don’t learn what turned him into the party monster he describes, and we don’t hear any sense that he wants out of this life. There’s no emotional content whatsoever. And if this was straight-up party music and Scott was dedicated to making a turn-up weekend-night soundtrack, that would be fine. Something like Rae Sremmurd’s SremmLife serves as proof that a well-executed, springy, melodic party-rap album can succeed without displaying any internal life. But Rodeo is all Auto-Tune murmuring and dark, ponderous chords. It all seems like it should mean something, and it never does.
There’s a sort of a flat grandeur to Rodeo. It sounds impressive in a car, all those bass wobbles and plangent pianos and operatic synth-churns. Scott is best when he’s braying a simple phrase over and over; it’s what turns his single “Antidote” into such a weird little earworm. But when it comes to actual rapping, Scott is a complete nonentity. There’s no personality or force or urgency in his delivery. He doesn’t have anything he’s burning to tell us, and that urgency has been there in every great rapper in history, even the ones who just wanted to tell us how rich they were or how good they were at rapping. Scott’s verses sound like they’re killing time between his hooks, and his hooks sometimes sound like they’re killing time between guest appearances.
If there’s a reason to slog through “Rodeo,” those guest appearances are it. With its soupy psych-rock samples, the Kanye West collab “Piss On Your Grave” doesn’t really fit with the rest of Rodeo, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it’s only on the album because West decided that it wasn’t good enough for Swish. But the album absolutely crackles to life when West shows up yelling about all the different ways he’ll use you as a pee receptacle. There’s also an electricity when the Weeknd’s voice first appears. He sings about the same things Scott always raps about, but there’s a sense of urgent longing in his voice, and Scott never attempts anything similar. Similarly, Future, on DS2, was stuck in the same sex-and-pills K-holes, but there was a wall-eyed desperation in his delivery that’s way beyond what Scott is capable of. On “3500,” Future’s voice has all the magnetic power, while 2 Chainz has all the quotables. In his one verse, 2 Chainz offers way more goofy fun than Scott gives on the whole rest of the album. Best line: “I do shit that you dreamed of / I was born with a mean mug / I was born with some nappy hair, drinking breast milk out a lean cup.” Or maybe: “Crib bigger than your imagination.”
Ten years ago, we got conclusive proof that you didn’t have to be a great rapper to make a great rap album. On 2005’s The Documentary, a young Compton rapper named the Game dropped a whole lot of clumsy, marble-mouthed punchlines about the entire rap-classics syllabus and allowed every single famous guest on the album to overshadow him. But he had a lot of famous guests, all operating at peak capacity, and he was using gleaming future-beats from the Dr. Dre/G-Unit braintrust. On top of that, he had a personality, a gruff neediness that made him a vaguely compelling figure. He was an identifiable human being trying to make hits and succeeding. If Scott has any real personality, we don’t hear any evidence of it on Rodeo. And if he was trying to make hits, maybe that wouldn’t matter. But he’s trying to make dense and churning space-rap, and so he’s given us a turgid soupy mess. Scott wants us to think of him as an artist, and that’s great. But the problem with being an artist is that you have to make some actual art, not some bullshit that vaguely looks like art from a distance. And Rodeo is some bullshit.
1. Jeezy – “God”
See, this is what I’m talking about. For a decade, Young Jeezy has been playing around with the same sort of epic regionless stomps that Scott likes using, and he doesn’t generally have a whole lot to say. But he’s got urgency and personality, and those serve to make “God” sound a whole lot bigger than it otherwise would.
2. SD – “Burn One”
On his new Just The Beginning mixtape, this Chicago rapper fucks around with the same heavy, gargly delivery and druggy underwater qualities that have marked a lot of Chief Keef’s recent music. But he pushes those ideas further into the realm of the psychedelic, and “Burn One,” on which he’s pretty much just incanting things over woozy acoustic blues guitars, is the finest example.
3. Mos Def & Ski Beatz – “Sensei On The Block”
When’s the last time we heard Mos Def having this much fun rapping? It’s been years. You might have to go back long before he changed his name to Yasiin Bey. You might have to go back before 16 Blocks and The Italian Job and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. You might have to go back to the era when rapping (and, sure, singing) was all that the Mighty Mos did. Please, please, more of this. Nobody else has ever been able to spit deep-sounding nonsense with anything like that man’s easy, loping charisma.
4. Big K.R.I.T. – “86”
Big K.R.I.T. can do a lot of things. But the reason he started getting attention is that he can do old-school swaggering, snarly mid-’90s country-rap better than just about anyone else around. And when he locks back into that zone, he’s at his best.
5. Skepta, Bashy & Kano – “Can’t See Me Again”
May the grime revival never die.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Rap movie obliterates EDM movie in a complete reversal of how the festival business works pic.twitter.com/h4qwjSxYR4
— Travi$ Trite (@alshipley) August 31, 2015