Travis Scott has always sounded like an amalgamation of other artists, prominently borrowing flows and cadences from mentor Kanye West as well as the likes of Future, Kid Cudi, and The Weeknd. To be frank, his music – to date – has been lacking in a singular vision, with Scott only showing flashes of brilliance and unable to craft a consistently engaging LP. Having a child with Kylie Jenner, one of the most famous celebrities on the planet, has only added to fears that the Texas-based artist is more committed to the idea of acting like a rock star than actually sounding like one. Thankfully, his brilliant third studio album, Astroworld, more than addresses these concerns; it is here that Travis Scott finally lives up to his potential.
Named after a theme park in Houston that closed in the late nineties, Astroworld has been crafted with the kind of focus and love sorely missing from the disjointed studio efforts Rodeo and Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. “They tore down AstroWorld to build more apartment space,” Scott told GQ Style. “We want it back. We want the building back. That’s why I’m doing [this album].” And just like a rollercoaster at the now defunct theme park, Astroworld is filled with unexpected twists and turns. The way this music seamlessly shifts from trap anthems (the killer 21 Savage verse on “NC-17”) to autotune-driven psychedelia (the almost alien-like synths of “Astrothunder”) is genuinely thrilling to listen to.
Do you remember the first time you heard the beat switch on Frank Ocean’s “Nights”? That feeling like your brain had just elevated beyond the stars? Well, Astroworld does this on at least five occasions. On album opener “Stargazing,” Scott lulls the listener into a false state of dreamy euphoria, before the beat evaporates into the chaos of a mosh pit. When Scott confidently raps “This right here is astronomical,” it doesn’t sound like a boast, but a fact. There’s similar disruption evident on “Sicko Mode,” which goes from Scott spitting jokey bars (“I might take all my exes and put them in a group!”) amid “No Limit”-era drums to guest star Drake flowing triumphantly over eerie keys that sound like they’ve been lifted straight from a John Carpenter horror film. These transitions feel a lot like going through the different rooms of a haunted house ride, with Scott always looking to outdo the last surprise and create an even louder scream from his audience. The structure of these songs splits off into pieces before being violently welded back together again – a move that feels not only inspired by Frank Ocean’s Blonde but also 1960s conceptual rock, particularly capricious songs such as The Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and Love’s “The Red Telephone.”
When it comes to features, there’s an embarrassment of riches being offered on Astroworld, with Scott often taking a backseat as he curates an atmosphere that matches the spontaneity of the different worlds at an amusement park. Frank Ocean’s soothing hook on “Carousel” and the heavenly guitar licks of Kevin Parker (who shows up on “Skeletons,” which sounds like the spiritual successor to his band Tame Impala’s classic “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”) are among the highlights. Yet nothing comes close to matching the sheer transcendence of hearing Kid Cudi’s haunting humming over the top of Stevie Wonder’s gorgeous harmonica playing on “Stop Trying To Be God.” By the time James Blake turns up to delicately sing one of his trademark introspective sermons, this track’s beauty will start to overwhelm you – it’s easily one of the best songs of 2018. In many ways, Scott’s greatest talent is in knowing when to step into the background and give someone else a go. Every feature on Astroworld feels like a chess move rather than an over-indulgence.
You could argue that the subject matter of Astroworld doesn’t stretch too far beyond problematic references to Xanax and silly punch lines about Stacey Dash, money, and easy sex (“She keeps an open mouth and an open mind” is among the most cringeworthy of Scott’s latest lyrics). However, Scott’s delicate vocal delivery makes these brags go a lot further than the average rapper — he delivers them on a double edged sword: vulnerability and melancholy threaten to tip over into sarcasm. It’s as if Astroworld is a look inside the mind of an artist who is happy to indulge in the excesses of fame, but having an existential crisis while doing so – a dilemma perfectly summarized in the tone of mournful highlight “Can’t Say.”
That’s not to say Scott’s verses are devoid of depth. The guitar-driven “Coffee Bean” is the greatest example of his growth lyrically, with Scott powerfully rapping about the racial struggles of being black and dating a Kardashian (“Your family told you I’m a bad move plus I’m already a black dude!”) in a way Kanye West attempted yet failed to do on ye’s introspective cut “Wouldn’t Leave.” The song’s strings, which carry a tinge of sadness, are also a beautiful touch. If you were to level any criticism at Astroworld, it would be that this kind of emotional clarity doesn’t occur more frequently.
There’s a druggy swirl to Astroworld, with the music’s many transitions feeling hallucinatory in nature. It’s a record that sounds like lucid dreaming via balling out at the strip club with Migos and 21 Savage. “Who? What!” and its many waves of electrical bass recall the beginning stages of an acid trip, while the gorgeous howls at the end of “5% Tint” are more Sufjan Stevens than Quavo. Perhaps none of this would be possible without A$AP Rocky’s 2015 sophomore At.Long.Last.A$AP, an LP that wrote the script for the psychedelic experimentation U.S. rappers have been letting inspire their music over the past few years. But even if A$AP’s album remains criminally underrated, Astroworld contains better music, never losing its ability to entertain or surprise. Maximum credit should also be given to veteran executive producer Mike Dean, who ensures this album breaks new ground sonically while still paying homage to Scott’s Texan roots via the trippy basslines of DJ Screw and a spoken word monologue by local legend Big Tuck.
Astroworld will be remembered as the moment Travis Scott produced a piece of music worthy of the riots he is capable of inducing. It’s a wildly entertaining circus ride, the unpredictable concept album of apocalyptic partying that Gorillaz threatened to make with last year’s Humanz, but ultimately failed to deliver. Travis Scott desperately needed a great album to justify the hype, and with Astroworld, he just might have a classic.