This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Psych Trap
Favorite Tracks: “STARGAZING,” “CAROUSEL,” “SKELETONS,” “5% TINT,” “NC-17,” “COFFEE BEAN”
A young rapper, several star-turning albums into his career, flies to Hawaii to work with world class producers on an album that will combine the worlds of indie rock, hip hop, and pop, to make what is their most daring and experimental project yet. This star, at this current moment, is finding a way to transcend a culture they’ve been helping build for the last several years, blurring the line between pop star and rap star while rising above the current scene in ways their peers cannot. Oh, and they’ve married into the Kardashian clan.
The parallels between Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD and Kanye West’s MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY are almost too glaring to ignore. And don’t worry, I know; to compare any rap record to one of the decade’s greatest works, one that many consider to be West’s magnum opus, should be (and perhaps is) unfair. And yet . . . in its own way, all of this makes ASTROWORLD somewhat endearing. Eight years after West asserted his pop dominance on an unsuspecting public with what is, regardless of your opinion him, a grandiose, decadent, and meticulously crafted record that still feels larger than life today, no artist has really even attempted to match that surreal, luxurious omnipresence. How could you, really?
ASTROWORLD, generally, fails to either match West’s boundless pop savvy or reach Scott’s own exhaustive hype machine, but I’m not entirely sure either of those failings deter his latest album, and they certainly don’t seem to deter Scott. Coming amidst an exhaustive down-note year for hip hop in general, that ASTROWORLD feels A) too long, B) too bloated, and C) self-important, is actually pretty par for the course. But ASTROWORLD, despite all of that, never feels like it’s chasing streaming numbers (even if those were inevitable) and never feels complacent, a major step above most major label event releases in 2018. And while it benefits from coming after the likes of Migos, Drake, Rae Sremmurd, and other current titans of culture, Scott’s latest succeeds and fails outside of that spectrum as well.
Sonically, ASTROWORLD is a well-meaning mess. Names like Stevie Wonder, Kevin Parker, Frank Ocean, and Drake headline an album filled with songs that are too long (everything here that’s over five minutes speed bumps all momentum) and lack pop presence. Fascinatingly there really isn’t a conventional single in the mix—even “BUTTERFLY EFFECT” (remember that old song from over a year ago), with its fluttering cloud beat, was an atypical selection for radio play. When Scott regresses into a SoundCloud haze, ignoring the big production moments elsewhere on the album, he sounds at once comfortable and dated. Tracks on the back half of ASTROWORLD like “WHO? WHAT!,” “BUTTERFLY EFFECT,” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” would feel more at home on BIRDS IN THE TRAP SING MCKNIGHT than on the messier, altogether stranger opening half of the album, which frequently digresses into psychedelia and guitar-fronted beats.
Of course the difference between West and Scott is that Scott’s desire to work with an artist like, say, Thundercat, feels like a one-off, a kind of singular moment amongst many other moments without everything actually meshing together. We see flashes of cohesive brilliance, in particular the run from dry thump-along “WAKE UP,” through a chopped and screwed take on Goodie Mobb’s “Cell Theory” in “5% TINT,” to another plodding, violent piano-fronted attack in “NC-17.” It’s the albums best stretch, not because it hits some of the previous colorful highs (the psyched-out “SKELETONS” and the late ‘90s guitar work on “YOSEMITE” are fun in a vacuum, as is the accenting harmonica on the Stevie Wonder joint “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”) but because it feels slaved over on a macro level.
By the time we even hit the album’s tired, almost stale-sounding finale, Scott has charted so much ground you feel exhausted rather than exhilarated—perhaps the truest testament to its amusement park imagery. Closer “COFFEE BEAN,” one of Scott’s better performances, comes at an inopportune time when the record has been out of gas for several tracks. Scott, in general, is one of the least interesting performers on his own album, showed up by either the hypnotically bright flash of artists like Wonder, Thundercat, and Parker, or by talented deliveries from his impressive lineup of guests like Drake or James Blake, or especially highlights from 21 Savage and Swae Lee. Scott often either bleeds into his own psychy beats (“STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” “ASTROTHUNDER”) or delivers boring, unmemorable verses (“R.I.P. SCREW,” notably). The bright lights of ASTROWORLD seem to have shrunken up a lot of Scott’s raw energy and talent, leaving the production and his cast of carnival barkers to make up that slack.
If you leave ASTROWORLD thinking anything, consider reassessing the sheer ambition of it all. While the album undoubtedly succeeds because it falls in the wake of other high-profile releases, it feels purposeful and intentionally bold where other records have felt like cash grabs. Scott’s regurgitation of trap, psych, and soul is fascinating even if it’s messy, and he deserves credit for not using his moment to simply recreate BIRDS IN THE TRAP or RODEO. It’s worth taking a moment to go “STARGAZING” even if the end results are less mind-bending than they read on paper.