Ask a casual fan what they like about Travis Scott, and you’re likely to hear one thing again and again: “He has the best live show in hip-hop.” It’s a cliché, a familiar refrain that hints at Scott’s talents without giving him his full due. Ultimately it’s a backhanded compliment that means little, considering how many rappers still perform over MP3s of their vocals and hire their weed carriers to crowd the stage.
Say what you mean: Travis Scott has one of the best shows in music, period, and that’s by his design. The Houstonian is a rockstar at a time when their numbers are waning. No other musician is performing on an animatronic eagle like The Hobbit finally let black people into the Shire.
The summer of 2018 has been full of would-be blockbuster hip-hop releases, but it’s also been the safest season in recent rap memory. J. Cole’s KOD is urgent, Kanye’s ye is cathartic and Drake’s Scorpion is massive, but none of them are career-defining albums. By comparison, Astroworld — which comes out Friday, August 3 — has high creative stakes for Scott. While wildly popular with younger hip-hop fans, Scott is still consistently dinged by traditionalists for a lack of originality, and has not yet had a true breakthrough album. Right now, he has the opportunity to change that by taking risks in a landscape that rarely rewards it. In the process, he could steal the summer away from the titans that were supposed to dominate it.
The brand of Travis Scott is an impenetrable, well-oiled machine. If the mother of his child built a billion-dollar empire through cosmetics, Scott forged his musical domain by sowing chaos. To him, “less is more” is a fallacy. More is more. The kids need more vocal effects, bigger stage design, louder clothes, darker screams and rage-ier anthems. Scott’s musical descendants and fans are starting to mirror the world he envisioned. You can see it in Post Malone’s reverb-soaked country/rap hybrid, Lil Uzi’s stage-diving antics and even Migos’ transition from their scrappy early aesthetic to something more honed. It wasn’t always this way.
The biggest knock against Travis early in his career (and today) was his tendency to be an expert cipher, but rarely an innovator. Besides his help behind the boards on 2013’s landmark Yeezus, Scott seldom introduced music that didn’t sound indebted to his own influences. In a 2012 Complex interview, his stated stylistic forebears read like a lost iPod shuffle playlist from the late-aughts: Ma$e, Kanye, Kid Cudi, Cam’ron, Coldplay, The Fray, Gym Class Heroes.
“It’s not always about rap to me,” Scott explained. “It was mostly about melody. I thought raps were dope shit about spitting.”
Scott works in trilogies, mining the same idea repeatedly until it resembles an idealized final form. It is a vital part of his songcraft. For example, 2013’s “Upper Echelon” featuring T.I. and 2 Chainz; 2014’s “Mamacita” featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan; and 2015’s “3500” featuring Future and 2 Chainz all follow the same formula. Get two current or classic southern legends, give them a phenomenal beat to rap over, and move out of the way. The idea functions as the sonic equivalent of the first three Transformers movie with Travis as Michael Bay — cinematic entertainment disguised as rap.
Similarly, since 2013’s Owl Pharaoh, Travis Scott has been in the pursuit of creating the perfect Kid Cudi song. Tracks like “Bad Mood / Shit On You” are melodically and lyrically indebted to the sonic crooner, but lack something in their execution. The lyrics about suicide and anxiety mirror his emo idol, but the visceral emotion in his delivery doesn’t. A year later, the standout on Days Before Rodeo, “Skyfall” featuring Young Thug, found Scott making the spiritual successor to Cudi’s “Sky Might Fall.” The song was the Rodeo star’s first transcendent moment and arguably on par with Cudi’s best. Fast forward to “through the late night,” and not only did Travis get his idol to guest on the track, but he also went ahead and interpolated his biggest hit, “Day ‘N’ Nite.”
Travis has perfected many of the ideas he set out to conquer in 2013. So, what happens next? Metaphorically, the answer might lie in the name of his album. AstroWorld, Houston’s most beloved theme park, opened on June 1, 1968, and transported generations of children and adults into a world filled with Serpents, Starships, and Cyclones. How many other amusement parks can boast that they had their own MTV-styled video show, complete with Bobby Brown in all of his “My Prerogative” glory? After 37 years, AstroWorld closed down as a result of mismanagement, declining attendance, soaring land prices and maybe time moving past it. However, in a 2017 GQ interview, Scott explained why the place meant so much to him and his generation.
“They tore down AstroWorld to build more apartment space. That’s what [my album]’s going to sound like, like taking an amusement park away from kids. We want it back. We want the building back. That’s why I’m doing it. It took the fun out of the city.”
If you ask the kids, Travis Scott is already an icon. He has a classic mixtape. (Yes, Days Before Rodeo is classic.) The same argument could be made for Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight. Scott only has one Top 10 hit (the Drake-fronted “Portland”) on the Billboard Hot 100, but chart success is only one measure of a hit in 2018. Up to this point, Scott’s legacy has been rooted in looking in awe at his predecessors and peers — the Cudis, Kanyes, Thugs, and Quavos of the world. On Astroworld, Scott has a chance to move past them and create something that is singular to him and, maybe, something that represents the spirit of Houston. His golden head with its monstrous mouth agape is getting ready to take the world on a ride. Hopefully, at the end of the coaster we’ll see his name joining the pantheon he’s been chasing for so long.