Houston-born Travis Scott is known by his most resolute, impassioned followers as a maverick, as one of hip-hop’s biggest trendsetters, and certainly the man to watch in 2018. Since his first studio albums (Rodeo and Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight), he has developed an almost spiritual eminence.
He is most often praised for his use of the voice-manipulating device Auto-Tune; this tool can be heard in almost every song and feature he has done since his mixtape years: the robotic, hypnotic croons; the splicey, computerized ad-libs – it sounds oversaturated but precise, not so much that he becomes mechanical but like he spits out pixels with every breath. His mentor and former manager, Kanye West, pioneered this kind of creative misuse of Auto-Tune on his album 808s & Heartbreaks, but it is widespread throughout rap and R&B now.
Another key component of the La Flame Formula is his proclivity for featuring other artists on tracks; on Rodeo, he had a stunning cast that included West, Future, 2 Chainz, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, and more. Some say Scott brings in so many guests because he is not creative enough or strong enough as a vocal personality to pull off a track unassisted, but others celebrate him precisely for this curatorial ability – a flair for linking together great artists to create great tracks - and with each new record, fans have come to expect a higher and higher quotient of musical aristocrats.
Scott’s new LP Astroworld boasts both some of the most impressive production quality yet and perhaps the finest roster of all his albums; it delivers exhaustively, yet it also feels like something is missing. In Rodeo and Birds there was a sense of direction, as though the albums had a sonic destination – in Rodeo, we heard a consistent, pleasurable grittiness and in Birds, that grit came coated with a fruity, melodious gloss. But on Astroworld it’s both like there is nothing new here, and like there’s less cohesion; it feels as if Scott has thrown a sometimes cohesive, sometimes disparate medley of tracks together against the wall, hoping that some would stick.
What made Travis stand out in the past was his total realization of the soundscape; many modern hip hop artists rap and sing about drug taking and girl bedding but very few truly intoxicate the listener like La Flame does with his tantalizing textures and head-spinning atmospherics.
His soundscape teems with thick melodies full of reverb and slow warbly percussion bits that glide over the psychedelic, circulating synths. The long decays draped over every soundbite humidify the tracks, making the listener feel like they really are inside this virtual space of drugged-out haze. Travis and his audio engineers (most notably Mike Dean) know best how to contour a sound space to feel like the mixing channels never stop, each note and bite fading in just as the other peters out to give the illusion that the sounds surround you, as entrancing as an intense acid trip. It makes sense that his music is so popular with smokers!
Astroworld works best when Travis follows this impulse to the utmost: tracks like “STARGAZING” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” are among the most intoxicating, both thrilling in their computerized cloudiness as Travis rips through the synthetic air with two of his best hooks on the entire album in “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, got me stargazin’ … / Psychedelics got me goin’ crazy” on the former and “I might need me some ventilation / A little vacation, Houstonfornication” on the latter. Another star track, “ASTROTHUNDER”, features Scott moaning wistfully about his dream life feeling perpetually distant – a consequence of ever-increasing fame – wrapped in perhaps the most immaculate production on the entire album, with John Mayer and Thundercat at the helm engineering a rollercoaster ride of diffuse emotion to perfectly match the overpowering sense of confusion that his vocals convey.
Other enjoyable tracks like “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” and “R.I.P. SCREW” showcase another layer of Travis’s sound skill at work: using Auto-Tune (and other distortion devices), Travis pits high-pitched vocal whines and ad-libs (and for example, in the former, Stevie Wonder’s guest harmonica) against low end bass or deeper vocals, all at the same points in tracks. This pleasurable effect enhances the three-dimensional-seeming sonic atmosphere.
Astroworld’s pitfalls arise when Scott departs from his trademark sound altogether, like on “5% TINT” and “YOSEMITE”. The former track is a fantastic tune (it samples Goodie Mob’s 1995 Southern anthem “Cell Therapy”), but its structural emptiness is jarring: except for the slow, dragging reverb on the bass, there is nothing distinctly Travis Scott on this track. On the latter, Travis teams up with rappers Gunna and NAV to put out something that feels happy; instead of his usual shadow-lord aesthetic, Travis raps over a poppy, spring-flavored instrumental that is bereft of the paranoia and labyrinthine mystery that usually colors his songs. It would not necessarily be a bad mood-switch, but there is nothing interesting in either the backing or the vocals to redeem the track. Both tracks would work much better as singles (or scrapped, in the case of “YOSEMITE”) than as partners to the thick, atmospheric tracks like “STARGAZING” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” that sound like they come from a vastly different galaxy.
The other main problem in Astroworld is that some of the tracks feel washed-out: with both the 21 Savage featuring “NC-17” and the Quavo and Takeoff (of Migos) featuring “WHO? WHAT!”, the tracks feel like uninspired leftovers from last year’s Without Warning trap album. On both these songs, Scott projects zero authority, and each instrumental feels like a premade template rather than a soundscape crafted specifically around each vocalist’s verses and vibe. These tracks come across as afterthoughts made for the sole purpose of having 21 Savage and Migos features on the album.
Despite these complaints, there is much more to like than dislike in the album. With the best tracks picking up slack from the less thrilling ones, and hidden treasure troves at every corner (like the diaphanous instrumental in “SKELETONS”, work of psychedelic rock star Kevin Parker of Tame Impala), Astroworld takes you on a thrill-filled ride much like a rollercoaster from the theme park it is named after.
Astroworld may not live up to the stature of Rodeo or Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, but more often than not, its grandeur is exciting.
TOP: "R.I.P. SCREW", "NO BYSTANDERS", "SKELETONS", "5% TINT", "ASTROTHUNDER", "HOUSTONFORNICATION"
BOTTOM: “NC-17”, “YOSEMITE”, “WHO? WHAT!”