ASTROWORLD by Travis Scott
In 2015, I realized that Travis Scott was a visionary composer, a dignified curator of sound. Conceptually, “Rodeo” was a jazz album – for a number of songs, Scott developed a singular musical motif and built upon it for six-plus minutes, curating 2Chainz verses and guitar solos over elaborate breakdowns in the way The John Coltrane Quartet might use a bass solo or a piano arpeggio. It is fitting that Scott would compose his sound with such a high conceptual musicality – sonically, he is a child of peak-era Kanye West. Scott himself even collaborates with a frequent Kanye partner and one of our millenium’s most underrated producers, Mike Dean. This past weekend, I heard Travis described as “Trap Kanye” by my insightful friend Peter Robinson as new cuts from Astroworld blasted from the speakers behind us.
On paper, Astroworld looks like it might be Travis’s most virtuosic composition. Collaborations with Kevin Parker, Thundercat, and John Mayer attempt to bend musical borders beyond their usual flexibilities. Many of the songs on Astroworld would find home on an entirely different Spotify Daily Mix if only the trap drums were removed. Sonically, this is a predictable growth for Travis as he has always presented as a trap-rock medium – stretching in the void between genres to pull his sound and image forward. Travis has been performing these acrobatics long before the SoundCloud trap-punk trend – it is arguable that he contributed to pioneering the wave. As a millennial music lover however, (read: Kanye West fan) I cannot help but hold up Kanye's more recent discography as THE rap-rock yardstick by which we can make observations (read: not make judgments) about Astroworld and what it means for trap music and popular music altogether.
I enjoyed listening through Astroworld. The piece radiates with two paradoxical ideas: first, that Astroworld is piece of punk-art and second, that it is meant to be taken seriously for its technicality. In punk music culture, emotion is often regarded higher than musicality. Travis Scott’s image and concerts are culturally punk, but this album is carefully crafted with a meticulous care that is, in a way, anti-punk. Swaying between rage and delicacy, Astroworld feels like a bull in a familiar china shop, bucking wildly and freely – knowing how not to break anything, making the listener both thrilled and anxious the whole ride through.
Because we aren’t used to high musicality in trap music, Travis Scott’s Astroworld feels a bit strange and a bit forced in some places. Take for example, the album’s second track, “CAROUSEL”. It is a highly creative idea to place a pop/rock vocalist over a regional hip-hop sample from 2004. The form however, is much more attractive than the function here. Frank Ocean and Big Tuck do not fit as well as they could sonically. In many places on the album, Travis orchestrates with strokes of genius. "NO BYSTANDERS" is the clearest example of Travis' curation prowess. The music shines in other moments in the album as well - Kid Cudi’s hums and Swae Lee’s crooning work to enhance the overall sounds of their respective musical environments.
Still, some of the features feel more disruptive – as if Travis is passing the microphone off completely instead of working the featured artist into his world. For reference, Kanye West’s 30 Hours takes an obscure Arthur Russell sample from an experimental guitar album, bends the sample toward a new function, and paints over it with soulful Andre 3000 yelps, all while retaining an immaculate form. On “SICKO MODE”, Travis abruptly shoves even more wholesale Drake in our faces. Later, he highlights a curious Stevie Wonder harmonica solo on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”. Both of these features are only exciting because of who the featured artist is.
It feels at times that Scott is just a few more songs from reaching a genius level of production. It feels as though he is torn between composing for art’s own sake and composing for clout, a hallmark of this era’s trap sound. This is one of the many ways that Scott seems limited by the constructions of genre - many songs on Astroworld would have felt so much more natural without trap drums or autotune. One of the albums stars, “COFFEE BEAN” forsakes a traditional trap sound and allows Travis to fully shine as a post-genre artist. Because trap naturally tends toward lower musicality, it becomes difficult for Travis to show us the extent of his capability with Astroworld. Where Kanye West scours the earth for ingredients to prepare a filling and savory five course dish, Travis Scott farms fair-trade, organic legumes and harvests Napa Valley grapes and feels like he has to use them to make us the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich we have ever had. Travis Scott has either outgrown his natural confines or is yet to be able to make exquisite trap music that balances his aptitude as a composer with the format of music that made him famous.
I do not want to be misunderstood, I feel that it is probably both pretentious and elitist to pretend like trap music is any less artful than any other music form. Jackson Pollock is no less an artist than Amy Sherman. However, if you were to imagine yourself attempting to paint a presidential portrait of Michelle Obama, forced into paint-splatter format, you might also imagine it would be quite difficult to bring that work to a place of rarefied air. The amazing thing about Astroworld is that Travis Scott is very close. Astroworld is the adolescent sound of a soon-to-be realized genius. It is ambitious and beautiful nonetheless.
Words by Jason Ikpatt. Illustrations by Eileen Wu.