Premature Evaluation: Travis Scott Astroworld
There’s a moment on Travis Scott’s new album Astroworld that’s among the prettiest things I’ve heard in recent memory, and Travis Scott doesn’t have anything directly to do with it. I’m talking about the part of “Stop Trying To Be God,” the album’s sixth song, where James Blake is singing and Stevie Wonder is playing harmonica. It only lasts a few seconds, and it’s glorious. Blake’s voice hits that unearthly echoed-out falsetto thing. He’s gotten done singing actual words, and so his voice, multitracked and reverbed into infinity, goes into pure wordless expressive overdrive. Wonder’s harmonica answers him, like it’s reaching out through space, tootling out melodies that wind themselves through Blake’s vocal, never quite intersecting. In the background, we hear piano and organ, both slathered in echo. All this time, Travis Scott has the good sense to shut up. This is good, since that very same song features Scott bleating the absurdly witless koan “diamonds are the wife of life.”
That’s how it goes on Travis Scott albums. That’s how it’s always gone, dating all the way back to the 2013 mixtape Owl Pharaoh. Scott puts together this heady collection of churning, gothic party-up beats, and he surrounds himself with a dizzying, preposterous array of world-class talent. And then he says some dumb shit. With years in the game, and with three proper albums to his name, Scott still hasn’t developed into an even remotely compelling rapper. And yet he still exists at this strange A-list intersection, able to pull together these stunning moments.
“Stop Trying To Be God” has four producers, one of whom is Scott himself, so maybe he deserves some credit for that moment. (Maybe he’s playing the organ? Try to picture Travis Scott playing organ. He’s wearing a cape and a Phantom Of The Opera mask, isn’t he?) But the real reason Scott deserves credit for that moment is that it’s a beautiful moment that wouldn’t exist without him. Maybe there are some other people on this planet who have both the pull and the imagination to put James Blake and Stevie Wonder on a track together. And yet somehow, Scott is the only one doing it. He’s the guy who gets to put his name on it.
Astroworld is Scott’s first real superstar festival-headliner album — the one where the release feels like an actual honest-to-God event. As such, he’s got more pull than he’s ever had before, and he’s got the power to make things happen that he’s never had before. And so Astroworld is full of moments almost as stunning as that Blake/Wonder bit. Scott noticed that Drake sounds fucking amazing over beats from the Memphis producer and BlocBoy JB collaborator Tay Keith, the guy who did “Look Alive” and “Nonstop.” And so Scott gets Drake to rap over another Tay Keith beat on “Sicko Mode,” and it’s great. Drake radiates casual menace over those monstrous 808 kicks, even when he’s just talking about falling asleep on a cross-continental flight. (“Out like a light! Heyyy! Like a light!”) On “Skeletons,” the Weeknd hits that ersatz Michael Jackson falsetto over a headblown Tame Impala instrumental — a new one, not a sampled one — and the album finds liftoff again. “Carousel” has Frank Ocean sounding a bit like Young Thug. “Astrothunder” has a Thundercat bassline that sounds like a satellite becoming sentient. Scott willed all of these things into existence.
And yet Scott also says so much stupid stuff. Scott is at his absolute worst when he’s rapping about sex, and he raps about sex all the time. Consider: “Me and my bitch, I swear we like the same sex / Fuck with all my chains on, let’s have chain sex.” Or: “That’s my Coco, I’m her Ice-T / Bend her over for some piping.” This one isn’t even so bad on paper, but the way he enunciates just makes me want to bang my head on my desk: “First visit, I gave her a pearl neck-lace / Next visit, I’ma need your girl nak-ed.” (He tries to twist things around so that “necklace” and “naked” will sound like they rhyme. It doesn’t work.) Also there’s this line: “It ain’t a moshpit if ain’t no injuries / I got ‘em stagediving out the nosebleeds.” When a paralyzed fan has sued you for egging him on to dive from a high-up balcony, a line like this is a terrible look.
Astroworld actually does make some strides toward Scott presenting himself as a fully formed persona, in that it’s the first time he’s really explored his own identity as a Houston rapper. Scott comes from Houston, but he’s not a product of Houston’s historically fertile and sui generis rap scene. (Instead, he came up as a producer, through Kanye West’s circles.) Scott doesn’t even have much of a Texan accent. But he does have a hero-worship dedication to the legends of his city, both the fallen ones and those still living. Dead rappers’ voices appear in ghostly, slowed-down sampled form: DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Big HAWK. On “Carousel,” Scott raps over the same sample (the Beastie Boys’ “Posse In Effect”) that drove Big Tuck’s 2004 underground classic “Not A Stain On Me,” and Big Tuck shows up, via voicemail, to offer his blessing. On “5% Tint” — a song with a title that quotes Slim Thug’s “Still Tippin'” verse — Scott raps over a screwed-up sample of Goodie Mob’s Atlanta rap classic “Cell Therapy,” turning an already dubbed-out lurch of a track into primordial gruel. And I like how “Sicko Mode” turns into a screwed-up version of itself just as it transitions into the self-explanatory “RIP Screw.”
Scott never tries to impose himself on his city’s rap legacy. He never, say, trades verses with Magno or Trae or Paul Wall, and he barely mentions candy paint or purple drank. Instead, he’s got an outsider’s appreciation for this stuff, and there’s something oddly heartwarming about this. It brings out things in his music, too. When he draws the parallels for you, it’s easy to hear what he’s pulled from DJ Screw’s psychedelic slow-crawl aesthetic — how it seeps into his own moody get-lit music. Hearing it, you can imagine the ways that the Screw sound would’ve fired up a young Scott’s imagination, and he’s got the respect to approach that sound from a distance. Still, that newly investigated hometown pride is not the same thing as depth. And the absence of depth is a problem here.
The weird thing about Scott’s music is that it sounds like it should have depth. He’s not Lil Jon, yowling over trebly and immediate beats and never even trying to really rap. If you go see him live, it’s pure party music; his entire role is to incite the crowd. And yet he does it through gurgling psychedelic bass hymns, through music that sounds depressed or overwhelmed. There’s a lot to like about Astroworld. Listen to it on good headphones, or on car speakers, and it can sound like the world exploding. A few drinks in, you can get lost in its shifting textures and in its canny deployment of superstar talents. But to do that, you have to let go of the idea that Scott can or should have anything to say at all.
As pure sound, the album is an impressive achievement. Most of the tracks list multiple producers, and they do that because the beats switch up multiple times per track, to the point where it’s tough to hear where the songs start and end. For whatever reason, Scott released it without feature credits — pretty funny considering how much he relies on his guest stars — which encourages us to hear the whole thing as one cohesive piece. And it works that way, all these bleary tracks bleeding into one another and playing out as one woozy whole. Even the deep grain of Scott’s voice works with all of it — as long as you experience that voice on purely musical terms, as one sound among many.
Astroworld really represents the moment when Scott replaces A$AP Rocky as rap’s leading vibe-curator — a rapper whose real gift is in borrowing the right things from the right sources at the right times. Rocky is still working, of course, but Testing, the album he released earlier this year, sounded bereft of ideas and energy. Astroworld suffers neither problem. There are lots of ways where Scott will never measure up to what Rocky was doing in his prime. Scott doesn’t have the same charm, the same effortlessness, or the same slippery and dextrous delivery. But he does have vision. And on Astroworld, he has a whole lot of it.
Astroworld is out now on Sony/Cactus Jack/Grand Hustle. Stream it below.