Travis Scott - Astroworld
“Who put this shit together, I’m the glue.”
Travis Scott has officially arrived and he brought the village with him to celebrate. His third studio album, Astroworld, arrives fashionably late from its announcement, and to many, it was absolutely worth the wait. Astroworld is a polished, but ethereal effort, that will no doubt cement his place amongst the mainstream for years to come, for better or worse.
Taking its name from the now defunct Six Flags theme park from Scott's hometown of Houston, Texas, Astroworld is a who’s who of writers, producers, and collaborators, each of which elevate this album to a potential modern classic. Astroworld, from a production and writing standpoint, is bold but measured, experimental but focused, and otherwise immaculate in its beat production. Lyrically, however, it contains some of the most vapid, ignorant rap (auto-tune or otherwise) that exists in the mainstream, devoid of almost anything beyond the stereotypical drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll lifestyle that fans can’t seem to get enough of.
The questions I find myself asking:
1. Is that a good thing?
2. How much of this is the doing of Travis Scott as an artist and how much is it the massive team behind him?
3. Does it even matter?
Anyone unfamiliar with Travis Scott shouldn’t feel entirely left out, only gaining real traction after producing some tracks for Kanye West, including the highly experimental and bloated mess Yeezus. Travis Scott took the idea of “collaboration” to a new level with his subsequent solo releases Rodeo and Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. Both albums had the similar praise and similar issues I listed above, but both were extremely well received commercially and critically. So, why mess with a formula that seems to work?
The formula is this: get as many big name industry people as humanly possible involved in the album to design not only a record of “singles” but to have it absurdly promoted and distributed. Going into all the collaborators on this album would warrant an article all to itself, but to put it into perspective, behold:
Record labels attached to this release: 3
Artist Features: 18
If there was ever a case to be made for “too many cooks” this would be it. Yet, Astroworld simply works amazingly well. Every song is immaculately produced and varied, gone over with a fine tooth comb to sound both organic and of the highest fidelity. The tracks are all approached with a more traditional song structure, usually complete with intros and bridges that feel like more than your standard “verse, hook, verse, hook” that exists in most of today’s rap music. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of verses going into auto-tune hooks to go around, but each song is also so much more.
A great example of this organic approach to song making is shown in tracks like “R.I.P. Screw” which can only be described as a trap ballad. “Skeletons” is modern R&B brilliance which goes straight into “Wake Up” which includes a soft acoustic guitar intro into an R&B/auto-tune rap with beautiful melodies throughout (thanks to The Weeknd lending vocals to both tracks). “Yosemite” is another great example where you can see the care taken to craft each song and the time taken to explore musical ideas that often get pushed to the side or left out amongst most the current mainstream rap.
That is exactly what makes Astroworld a true breath of fresh air. It showcases what is musically possible when the right people are brought together at the right time.
However, the album isn’t without its musical missteps. Tracks like “5% Tint” sound like someone learning their ABC’s to a standard trap song that slips in a dark/haunting outro, creating the illusion of substance. “Astrothunder” meanders around and ultimately goes nowhere. “Butterfly Effect”, which leans on an autotune melody is a standard outing for a trap rap song.
This is nicely balanced, however, by the vast array of stand out tracks. The album opens with the hypnotic and bombastic “Stargazing” that morphs and ends on a hard note. Quick to follow is “Sicko Mode”, the true standout of the album. It's a three act song that leaves you buzzing with features from Drake and others who completely overshadow Travis Scott on his own album. “Who? “What!” featuring longtime collaborator Quavo shows how fun trap rap can be when it’s done right. A few days after, the first real single “Stop Trying To Be God” was released, taking on the feel of a sermon in its delivery and beautiful hymn-like section sung by James Blake over a solo organ until Stevie Wonder comes in with a harmonica to accompany.
Yes, Stevie Wonder.
This is where we need to be realistic. Although the production and features define this album, there is very little left to be said about Travis Scott himself. The weakest songs are all ones in which Travis Scott doesn’t have any artists to feature and has lyrically taken the reins (to his own detriment). This is where Astroworld feels most like a squandered opportunity, having seemingly the full force of the music industry behind you to write lyrics like:
“Keep bouncin' that ass, you just might get award, yeah
If she bad, she get a pass into the tour (passes, yeah)”
“M&M's, sweet like candy cane
Drop the top, pop it, let it bang (pop it, pop it)”
Looking just beneath the surface we see the weakest component of Astroworld. Travis Scotts himself. While the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll persona is neat for a moment, it kills any credibility to a wider audience, both avid music fans and casual listeners alike. Some of these brain-dead types of lyrics might be expected and even this record shows it can be done right. However, it kills the momentum of Astroworld dead in its tracks.
On iTunes and Spotify, Travis Scott doesn’t list his features. This was no accident, in fact it's very evident just how intentional it is. He creates the facade that it was all effortless, that he is simply bolstering his status through his intentionally vague, irreverent and at times even downright comical lyrics. They do nothing to add to his credibility as an artist. Trust me, I dug deep.
Even on the closing track “Coffee Bean” where he attempts to sound the most “deep” with references to his relationship and baby mama Kylie Jenner, it devolves into riddles. It feels like he won the lottery to be on his own album and ironically it shines brightest when he steps out of his own way to allow top class producers and other artists to steer the ship. “Who put this shit together, I’m the glue” Travis Scott proclaims on the record. He would certainly have you think so, but in reality, it’s a throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach. Luckily for Travis, most of it stuck. Even the ignorant lyrical content is handled much better by his collaborators than Scott himself.
In this sense, it feels like a mature record was given to an infant, downgrading what could have been a masterpiece of a meal, into diabetes inducing high fructose corn syrup. He’s given people what he thinks they want and sure, a large percentage of the population has proven that is exactly what they want. But when that audience matures, and they will, they will leave in droves to pursue something more fulfilling and sustaining.
This is where I ask if it really matters if you treat the lyrics as another musical instrument. This is still an amazing record in its own right, it all sounds good on the surface, and if you’re strictly here for a musical journey, then there is more than enough to keep you entertained and coming back for more. It is, however, a depressing thought that one of the best produced and written mainstream albums in years must succumb to some of the dumbest lyrics. I simply can't reconcile thinking about what this album could have been with someone who actually had something to say.