Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Travis Scott Utopia

Cactus Jack/Epic
Cactus Jack/Epic

Listen: Travis Scott has come unstuck in time. Travis has gone to sleep a washed-up pariah and awakened on the day that his McDonald’s meal came out. He has walked through a door in 2023 and come out another one in 2019. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1971.

In 2023, the year of the great hip-hop-turns-50 media circus, a common concern-trolling thinkpiece subject has been the ostensible commercial decline of rap music. We’re about to hit August, and we haven’t had a rap song reach #1 on the Hot 100 all year. We didn’t have a #1 rap album, either, until Lil Uzi Vert’s massive schizophrenic data-dump Pink Tape came out a few weeks back. So what’s happening here? How is it that no rappers have seized the zeitgeist like Taylor Swift and Morgan Wallen and all those regional Mexican guys? Has rap reached the inevitable moment where its centrality dissipates, following jazz and rock on the long road toward general cultural irrelevance?

There are lots of reasons that we’re light on rap blockbusters right now, and one of them is the slow but real drain of potential monocultural rap superstars. Some of rap’s biggest names — Drake, Future — are nearing middle age and between album cycles. Kanye West is off-planet. Young Thug is locked up. Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, XXXTentacion, and too many others are dead. We’ve got plenty of rappers at the arena-headliner level — Lil Durk, Playboi Carti, Lil Baby, Moneybagg Yo, Tyler, $UICIDEBOY$ — but your mom probably doesn’t know who they are. And then there’s Travis Scott, who was on that A-list level before the backlash hit.

The backlash was probably inevitable. Even before the Astroworld festival, Travis Scott was Icarus, flying too close to complete overexposure. For a year or two, Scott cruised in imperial mode, releasing forgettable and forgotten singles that still debuted at #1 on the pop charts. He staked out a position as the approachable corporate face of bleary, drug-dipped trap music — the guy who could gargle Auto-Tuned hooks about Xanax and still become a toy in a McDonald’s commercial or pop up at the Super Bowl halftime show that everyone else was boycotting. You can’t be that forever.

But the fall came quicker than anyone imagined. Two years ago, at Travis Scott’s hometown festival in Houston, a crowd crush killed 10 people, including a nine-year-old kid, and injured hundreds more during his set. Travis had built up a reputation for electric, chaotic live shows, and those shows had left a few people seriously injured, but there’d never been anything on that level before. I maintain that the Live Nation promoters are the people to blame for the Astroworld atrocity — that the people involved in the nuts and bolts of grand-scale events bear much more responsibility for the loss of life than the person who was onstage at the time, entirely unaware of the scale of the chaos erupting in the crowd before him. But Travis Scott was the face of the Astroworld festival, and he became the face of all that death before all the insanely stupid online rumblings about how Astroworld was really some kind of satanic occult ritual.

After Astroworld, people wanted Travis Scott to go away. I’m not citing any statistics here because it wasn’t a statistics thing. The vibes were simply fucked. Travis Scott seemed to have no idea that he’d worn out his welcome, that the general public felt no sense of warmth or gratitude for him. He kept attempting comebacks — awards show performances, guest verses, festival performances. The rollout for Utopia, the first Travis Scott album in the five years since Astroworld, has been a mess, from the canceled pyramid-show boondoggle to the laughably weak lead single “K-POP.” Somehow, Travis got two of the biggest streaming stars in the world on the same song and came up with a song so low-impact that it’s likely to lose next week’s chart battle to Jason Aldean’s culture-war vigilante song. (The “K-POP” title refers to a ketamine-laced lollipop, not to anything BTS-related, and the track draws more on afrobeats and baile funk, but that title still feels like a grand swagger-jack.)

I was tired of Utopia before the album came out, and I hit play this morning with a sense of grim resignation. Imagine how surprised I was to discover that this shit goes. Travis Scott has done something I wouldn’t have thought possible. He’s made an album that essentially sets the clock back to 2018, that simply ignores the anxieties of circa-2023 rap stars in general and of Travis Scott in particular. Utopia sidesteps all the prevailing trends of today’s rap music. It never tries to play catchup with New York drill or Jersey club or any of the tiny regional micro-scenes that have become the real hotbeds of rap creativity in recent months. Instead, Travis Scott has simply given us a massive, messy slab of all-star psychedelic event-rap. He’s chosen to act like the past few years never happened, and it’s working better than anyone could’ve imagined.

Utopia isn’t exactly the same as Travis Scott’s last album, 2018’s Astroworld. (It must be awkward when your most successful and most recent record has the same name as your deadly-stampede festival.) Some of the guests on Utopia — Teezo Touchdown, Rob49 — didn’t have careers when Astroworld came out. Where Astroworld found Scott exploring his affection for Houston screw music, Utopia is more besotted with ’70s prog-rock. (Travis Scott isn’t attempting to make prog-rock, the way Lil Yachty is doing these days. But when you open an album with a Gentle Giant sample, you’re making a statement.) Ultimately, though, Astroworld and Utopia have most of the same strengths and weaknesses. Astroworld happens to be a pretty good event-rap album, and so is Utopia.

This thing has scope. After the aforementioned Gentle Giant vocal moment, opening track “Hyaena” smashes straight into a giant, bloodthirsty breakbeat laced with hacked-up harpsichords. “Looove” rides a sinuous house bassline into a desert-planet horizon. “Telekinesis” has Travis Scott, Future, and SZA sailing on a majestic organ-drone. The beat-drop on “Fein” hits like a nuclear torpedo. “My Eyes” goes for absolute beauty, with Justin Vernon and Sampha wailing over Boards Of Canada-style pitter-pat drums and decaying synth-glimmers. “Meltdown” aims to be “Sicko Mode 2.0,” with Drake and Travis Scott settling scores over at least three seismic beat-switches, and it actually mostly gets there. Multi-part tracks melt into one another, and the whole thing has been mastered to sound like suns exploding in IMAX. After a couple of years of low-ambition streaming-bait rap records, it’s weirdly heartening to hear someone going for it, making a record that sounds huge and expensive.

On Utopia, Travis Scott ropes in many of his old collaborators, and those collaborators get many of the best moments. Drake is tense and angry on “Meltdown,” and he takes shots at Pharrell, a guy who’s also on the record. Teezo Touchdown’s operatic glam-rock vocals on “Modern Jam” seem to come out of nowhere. 21 Savage is reliably cold-blooded in his couple of guest-verses. Westside Gunn sounds like he was born to rap over echo-drenched drums and haunted organs like the ones on “Lost Forever.” Beyoncé’s grand, commanding showcase “Delresto (Echoes)” could’ve easily been a Renaissance outtake, which works just fine for me. Plenty of the tracks here could’ve appeared on big albums in past years, and if the online rumor mill is to be believed, some of them almost did appear on records like Kanye West’s Donda and Metro Boomin’s Heroes & Villains. That’s fine, too, when you consider that every Travis Scott album works best as a lovingly curated compilation.

If Travis Scott isn’t trying to recapture his own past glories on Utopia, then he’s chasing his most obvious influence. Travis so clearly wants to create the kind of moment-defining statement-album that Kanye West used to make. Specifically, the Travis of Utopia seems to be chasing the Kanye of Yeezus. (Scott was one of the producers who worked on Yeezus, and West has a couple of production credits on Utopia.) The sounds on Yeezus and Utopia aren’t all the same, though the towering shuffle-beat of “Circus Maximus” is an obvious and intentional echo of “Black Skinhead.” But Travis Scott isn’t quite up to that, and that’s where the problems come in. Even at his most aggravating and indefensible, Kanye West was always interesting. Travis Scott is simply not.

If you can ignore the actual substance of the lyrics, Utopia has some of the best rapping that Travis Scott has ever done. On opening track “Hyaena,” for instance, Scott really locks in with that breakbeat, hitting the pocket and displaying a casual command that I’ve rarely heard in him. But what he’s saying is stuff like this: “Write a show by myself like I’m Chelsea Handler/ Or write a series ’bout my bitches like I’m Kelsey Grammer.” There are so many lyrical clunkers on this record. Consider: “I like a bi girl on a bicycle/ Then I bought a car, now she feel entitled/ My dick so hard, pokin’ like the Eiffеl.” Or: “Take a sip, I been goin’ off the rip/ I been bumpin’ more Coldplay, the world cold as shit.” If you don’t process the words that Scott is saying, he usually sounds pretty cool on Utopia. If you give those lyrics any thought at all, the illusion glitches out.

I’m sure there’s celebrity gossip to be mined from Utopia; TMZ is already speculating on one like where Travis Scott apparently goes after Timothée Chalamet. As far as I can tell, Scott only addresses the Astroworld tragedy with one line on the whole record: “If they just knew what Scotty would do to jump off the stage and save him a child.” Scott seems more concerned about the occult conspiracy-theory shit, making constant religious references: “They think I’m satanic, I keep me a reverend.” (That should satisfy everyone.) The Travis line I keep seeing quoted is this one: “I’m loyal, bitch, I got Ye over Biden.” That’s not great! Travis follows it immediately with this: “I let the shit go off the top, yeah, no typin’.” Maybe he should try typing his lyrics out. It couldn’t hurt.

The things that I tend to value the most in rap music — linguistic fireworks, granular specificity, personality — are not within Travis Scott’s skillset. They never have been. At this point, I don’t really expect anything like that from Travis. Travis Scott’s skills lie elsewhere. He’s good at making the type of music that advanced alien races might reach for when they’re testing the speakerboxes in the trunks of their spacecraft. On that level, Utopia is an unqualified success. The Travis Scott parts of the Travis Scott album are a bit of a mess, but it’s been a while since we’ve gotten a rap album that works as a widescreen sonic experience, and I’m happy to have it, whatever year it might happen to be right now.

Utopia is out now on Cactus Jack/Epic.

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