When Sickamore, Travis Scott’s longtime A&R and collaborator, talked to Rolling Stone about the rapper’s new album, he described a time when he — and Scott — were fed up with the discourse around their work together. “We felt like Travis wasn’t getting respect from the rapper community, you know what I mean?” Sickamore said. “Every time you read an article, there’s always a ton of backhanded compliments on him — ‘curator,’ they try to write him off as some person who’s just good for features.”
He’s right that conversations around Scott often come laced with a poison pill. People give him plenty of compliments, but they come with implied critiques. He’s great live (because the music is simplistic); he’s popular (but only with the teens, who don’t know better); he’s perfecting the synthesized strain of rap he helped define on Kanye West’s Yeezus (but doesn’t have his own original ideas). In fact, that last point — the idea of Scott as a curator, the title that Sickamore took umbrage with — shouldn’t be understood as a weakness at all. That’s clearer than ever on Astroworld, Scott’s third studio album, where he weaves together his sources in ways that transcend simple copy-and-pasting.
The best example of this evolution comes early on the album, with “Sicko Mode,” which is quickly becoming Astroworld‘s de facto standout. It starts with an extended intro from the biggest rapper in the world: Here’s Drake, sounding very much like Drake. But at the track’s one-minute mark, the instant it sounds like Scott has crafted a great Drake song, the beat switches. Travis has long been enamored with squeezing two songs into one — he’s worked more with the dramatic mid-song shift than any other current rapper — but rarely does the dime turn work as well as it does here. Then, two minutes deeper into the track, he does it again.
Instrumentally, “Sicko Mode” is three songs in one, and Scott’s instincts are the reason he can pull it off. The backhanded compliment of “curator” is what makes this such a good song. “Sicko Mode” will be going off for the rest of the summer, an exceedingly rare achievement for a song that plays with its own momentum this much. It works because of Scott’s sense of balance, his blindingly confident ability to manage a song’s tone. Each movement of the song sounds distinct, but each hits the same emotional register with unnerving accuracy.
His laser focus extends to all the other voices you hear on “Sicko Mode.” Drake’s thoughts on responsible benzodiazepine use; Swae Lee, saccharine but sparingly deployed (“someone said…”); and recycled samples of Notorious B.I.G., Uncle Luke and local Houston hero Big Hawk all slide into the mix, then slide back out when they’re no longer needed. It should be overwhelming, cacophonous. Instead it’s dark and swirling. Scott has been playing with this style for his entire career; on “Sicko Mode,” it’s executed better than ever.