Travis Scott’s ‘Astroworld’ Is a Star-Studded Hip-Hop Amusement Park
Travis Scott is currently one of the biggest rappers in the world, yet one would be hard pressed to pinpoint exactly what qualities of his music truly define him and set him apart. His over-the-top, electrifying live shows trump most everything in sight, and his music sets out to follow suit, always striving to be the biggest and boldest. You’ve surely noticed that rappers are becoming a lot more like rockstars. There’s been something of a sea change, and not many rappers seem to embody the phenomenon more than Travis Scott. His star-studded new album, “Astroworld” is named after an amusement park in Scott’s hometown of Houston, Texas that was shut down to make room for apartments. The cover art depicts a theme park with a giant gold statue of Scott’s head breathing fire. And the album is exactly what you would expect from the artwork.
Opener “Stargazing” is another variation of a song that’s been on repeat in the hip-hop hive mind over the last few years — Auto-tune seemingly fed through more Auto-tune, with squelched, screeched adlibs all over. Scott sings, “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, got me stargazin’… Psychedelics got me goin’ crazy.” Relatively meaningless as this might seem, it encapsulates the album fairly well, and let’s you know what’s in store. Listening to the record gives one the impression of wandering in an urban theme park, of sorts, encountering all types of decadent sound candy and colorful characters. It might be rather futile to attempt making sense of it, but you can expect it to have you “goin’ crazy.” “Astroworld” is all about glitz and glamor, spectacle and excess. Of course, that goes without saying in mainstream hip-hop — but then again, this is Travis Scott, so supersize that.
Ironically, the second song, “Carousel,” features the lines, “Boy, you’re too flash, too flash / Keep the flash minimal.” At any rate, it’s a catchy chorus. Frank Ocean is on the mic here, contributing his trademark crooning. The third verse features him and Travis in tandem, and the interplay between their different registers makes for a memorable moment. “Sicko Mode,” featuring Drake, is split into three parts, each with a different beat. Each section somehow manages to end up infectious within its short span. There are eerie carnival vibes, some raging bass, and a manic feel from the shifting soundscapes. Next, Scott commemorates fellow Houstoner DJ Screw on “R.I.P. Screw.” It’s not quite an elegy, more a celebration, with bubbling ‘80s synth sounds, crackling percussion, and some gliding vocals from Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee. Surprisingly, there are no “chopped and screwed” elements. Then again, that would be too predictable — and there are plenty elsewhere on the album.
Of course, a song with vaguely religious undertones is a virtual inevitability on a hip-hop album, and in this case, the song is “Stop Trying to Play God.” The guest appearances show no signs of waning, although they leave some to be desired. Kid Cudi’s main contribution to the track is a repeated line of “Hmm-hmm.” Stevie Wonder, of all people, shows up just on harmonica duties, which is undeniably badass. James Blake sings a few lines in a bridge toward the end, and his scant lyrics are unsurprisingly some of the most poetic on the album. Things get raucous on “No Bystanders,” with rapper Sheck Wes screaming, “Fuck the club up,” Lil Jon style. “Skeletons” features both Pharrell Williams and The Weeknd, as well as psychedelic indie outfit Tame Impala, creating some hazy, amorphous ambiance. There’s also a verse on which Travis sounds rather oddly like Kanye, in terms of both content and delivery. The Weeknd stays on for “Wake Up,” to do his usual thing with his usual excellence, although his gratuitous refrain is a bit cringeworthy. Come to think of it, there are interesting chorus choices all over the album. The next song, “5% Tint,” could make for an effective NRA commercial, with the lines, “Who’s that creeping through my window? / Before you come outside, I got the M4.”
With the “god song” checked off the list, it comes time for the “sex jam,” appropriately titled “NC-17.” It has a particularly lush instrumental, with intricate, jazzy guitar bits. 21 Savage makes an appearance, and Travis sing-raps in yet another of his million different voices and, while it’s a mystery exactly how much of a role voice processors play, you have to hand it to him for versatility at this point. “Astrothunder” is all fun house mirrors and neon lights, keeping with the amusement park theme. “Yosemite” features rapper Gunna, who makes due on his name with some machinegun snippets, as well a pretty insignificant outro appearance from NAV. Singer Don Oliver picks up where The Weeknd left off on “Can’t Say,” but gives the song a character all of its own, with his distinctive voice sounding, at moments, equal parts townie, alien, and Akon.
“Who? What!” is a sure standout, with the chemistry between Scott and Migos’ Quavo proving downright infectious. It segues into lead single “Butterfly Effect,” essentially an extension of the same song. There’s a trend of rappers shamelessly repeating and recycling the same half-sung soundbite until it becomes something of a stylistic stamp. When taken to excesses, it can result in entire albums comprised of the same song — Future, we’re looking at you. It’s likely that Scott noticed that the similarity of “Who? What!” and “Butterfly Effect” was a bit much, and cleverly subverted the issue by presenting them back to back. At any rate, “Butterfly Effect” is a stellar single.
At this point, Travis Scott’s game is a bit like empire building in its sheer scale and ridiculous grandeur. He has assembled the most illustrious names in hip-hop today, and set up a sonic circus for us all. All of his trademark tricks are on display. Multiple Auto-tune identities in various registers are interspersed with regular rapping in top form. There are dark, trap-informed, jazz-tinged productions, and enough star power to exhaust you. As with his legendary live shows, Scott seems to have taken a page from Andy Warhol, whose creed was “always leave them wanting less” — and he pulls it off so well, that you’ll likely be left wanting more.
“Astroworld” is available Aug. 3 on Apple Music.