After nearly 2 years of constant hype and promises of “soon”, it’s almost a relief to finally have ASTROWORLD. While 2016 and 2017 brought us Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (BITTSM) and Huncho Jack Jack Huncho (HJJH) respectively, both fell short of the mark: Huncho Jack was mostly generic and poorly executed, and BITTSM, despite having some incredible highs, was far from a worthy sequel to Rodeo. Fans longed for a return to the moody and complex tracks that Rodeo and its predecessors had provided, and when Astroworld was billed by Scott himself as Rodeo’s spiritual successor, it only served to fuel the ever-rising expectations.
Before delving into the album itself, it’s important to highlight what elevates Scott above his contemporaries. Travis Scott’s best work has always been marked with a dark, moody ethereality. Take Impossible, a cult favourite, for example. Everything about this track is utterly dreamlike, from Travis’ featherlight vocals to the shattered, yet glistening intro. This is complemented throughout by a dark and moody atmosphere: demonic half-voices rise in the background, with Travis modulating his voice to add intensity to every word. The song’s structure jumps from one section to another with surprising ease, with Scott’s vocals shifting from frantic, primal yelps to distorted, layered autotune, from subtle melodies to hazy mumblings. It’s easy to see what makes his music so compelling.
Astroworld is the first of Scott’s solo projects to truly try to break away from this dark, ethereal sound, for better and for worse. While the album does feature some of Scott’s traditional sonics, much of the album is marked by an unusual lightness. Tracks like WAKE UP and YOSEMITE are crisp, warm and upbeat, featuring guitar-led beats that are undeniably summery. There’s no doubt that these tracks will push Travis further into the spotlight: the upbeat BUTTERFLY EFFECT has already racked up an impressive 378 million streams on Spotify alone, and SICKO MODE looks poised for radio success. But, amongst this lightness, a certain depth has been lost – for the most part Travis’ gothic autotune layering is gone, his subtle production inflections missing. On tracks such as NC-17, it feels like Travis has gone from dominating the genre to letting the genre dominate him.
That’s not to say that this new direction is bad, however. When done well, the shift allows Travis to push his ethereal experimentation in new directions: it’s hard to see STOP TRYING TO BE GOD’s grouping of Stevie Wonder, Kid Cudi, Philip Bailey and James Blake fitting under Scott’s previous sonics. Likewise, the 30 Hours-inspired COFFEE BEAN is utterly compelling, presenting a personal narrative rarely shown in Scott’s discography. Some of the best moments come when Scott retains his ethereal sonics within this upbeat vibe: the warbling ASTROTHUNDER is simple but majestic, and the Tame Impala-led SKELETONS revives Scott’s ethereal sound within his new framework, to incredible success.
But it’s when ASTROWORLD stays true to Travis’ roots that it truly flourishes. Nothing embodies this more than HOUSTONFORNICATION, a perfect fusion of Travis’ dark aesthetic with his recent trap stylings. While the gothic-inspired beat certainly delivers, it’s Travis that elevates the track to the next level, whipping out a series of sticky flows that provide a phenomenal energy. The same can be seen on 5% TINT, a bizarre eerie plodding of gothic keys that pushes Scott’s sound forward, while still learning from the successes of fan-favourite mixtape Days Before Rodeo. This fusion of old and new brings ASTROWORLD’s best moments to life: the mesmerizing STARGAZING, the psychedelic RIP SCREW, and the magnificent STOP TRYING TO BE GOD all push Travis’ sound forwards, while remaining grounded in his earlier work.
Despite the album’s change of pace, Scott’s ensemble is as strong as ever. On the vocal side, rising stars Don Toliver, Sheck Wes and Gunna accompany big names like Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Drake, producing the mishmash of talent we’ve come to expect from Scott’s releases. While most featured artists bring their A Game (Don Toliver absolutely shines on the earworm CAN’T SAY), Scott’s feature placement, a historical advantage for the producer-turned-rapper, is somewhat lacking. Frank Ocean’s second verse on CAROUSEL is entirely unnecessary, while Takeoff’s solid verse on WHO? WHAT! is placed almost as an afterthought. That’s to say nothing of NAV, whose whispering shambles of a ‘verse’ has inspired a flood of mockery across every social media site worldwide. While I can’t fault his features’ performances, the synergy of Scott’s production and features is somewhat lost, with some features’ placement demonstrating a lack of artistic focus.
It’s taken me over 20 full listens of the album to finally reach one simple conclusion: ASTROWORLD has been an experiment. The album has attempted to bridge the gap between Scott’s moody, cacophonic roots and his rising stardom, with mixed results. At it’s best, ASTROWORLD cements Scott’s vocals within a brighter, more colourful soundscape, creating euphoric hits like SKELETONS and STOP TRYING TO BE GOD. These moments will continue to shine amongst the best of Scott’s discography, and bode well for the rapper-producer’s future efforts. At its worst, however, the album discards Scott’s legacy, attempting to conform to weak mainstream needs and a simplistic, yet utterly unfulfilling set of structures. Don’t get me wrong – this is overall an incredibly impressive record, and I’m sure that it will do wonders for Scott’s career. It’s just that we know he can do more.