Travis Scott has some of the most outsized and ambitious artistic impulses in modern rap. His album covers come courtesy of fashion icon Nick Knight, famed Rolling Stone illustrator Ralph Steadman and, on his latest, candy-coated photographer David LaChappelle. His fashion-forward eye has produced collaboration with Helmut Lang. His recent live tour featured punk rock energy and a giant robotic bird. The guest list of vocalists and producers on his third studio album includes Drake, Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, two-thirds of Migos, John Mayer, James Blake, Tame Impala, Stevie Wonder and many more. They’re all quietly listed in the credits as Astroworld‘s supporting cast instead of advertised as proper features.
In the sixth year of his career, Astroworld marks the first time that his music has actually matched the aspirations of his art-crunk bluster, rock-star stage dives and aisle-crossing fashions. Early mixtapes like Owl Pharaoh felt like Kosplay West, the grand gestures and pan-genre motions of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy turned into a way of life. On his major label albums Rodeo and Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, he settled into a signature, but ultimately samey sound, a regionless mix of Kanye West’s prestige textures, the boom of Atlanta trap and the slurring screw accents of his native Houston. His energy had the edges of punk but the overall haze was that of narcoleptic pop. Recent stars like Playboi Carti, 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert and Post Malone all owe his luxury lean a small tip of the Styrofoam.
Scott’s last two albums lived in the late night emotions of the Weeknd and Drake, but Astroworld’s first nine songs (and its excellent closer) show him entering the other side of the morning with renewed clarity and energy. Sure, he still talks about sex, drugs, swag and personal demons, but it now comes with the wisdom of songs like “Stop Trying to Be God.” And that is to say nothing about that song’s wide-reaching grab bag of ideas: an indie-trap song with Kid Cudi, a James Blake bridge and a reverbed harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. Opening up a little more, closer “Coffee Bean” is a jazz-rap in the vein of Digable Planets or Gang Starr where Scott details his some of his relationship bumps with Kylie Jenner. (“Shawty, we can be mad cool/Just hit me if anything past due/Your family told you I’m a bad move/Plus, I’m already a black dude.”)
Scott talks about flights a lot and, indeed, his big tent vision seems to explode across North America, venturing further from his tried-and-true Houston-Atlanta-Chicago sounds than ever before. Album highlight, the hard-knocking “Sicko Mode” features Canadian polyglot Drake and Atlanta party-starter Swae Lee, includes samples of New York mayor Biggie Smalls and Miami diplomat Uncle Luke and embeds the slowed-down voice of Screwed Up Click member Big Hawk, a musical nod to DJ Screw and Houston’s slow-rolling legacy. The beat change four times in its 5 minute and 12 second running time.
Scott emphasizes his Houston roots across Astroworld, an album named for the city’s long-closed Six Flags outpost. In practice, this means references to local legends like, Hawk, Fat Pat, Big Moe and even a sample from a local Nineties news report on Screw. However, on a musical level it means more classic boom, more menace. “Carousel” rewrites “Not a Stain on Me,” the circa 2008 song by Houston rapper Big Tuck (which borrows the Beastie Boys’ 1986 proto-crunk classic “The New Style”); “5% Tint” is a screwed version of Goodie Mob’s 1998 “Cell Therapy.” Big and brash, Astroworld is closer to matching “Stargazing”‘s hard-hitting boast, “And it ain’t a mosh pit if ain’t no injuries.” Most notably, “No Bystanders” explodes with “Fuck the club up,” a tweak on a classic Three 6 Mafia chant.
Unfortunately, Scott doesn’t keep the envelope pushing up for the whole album: a seven-song stretch in the back end is vintage Travis with its zoned-out, hypnotic throb. However, the rest marks the most interesting music of his career, Scott no longer just looking the part of a brilliant artist, but sounding like it too.