The Houston rapper, songwriter, and producer Travis Scott makes strange music; the sort of post-everything rap that is part science fiction nightclub soundtrack and part destructive avant garde noise-mongering. Fresh out of his teenage years, Scott was mentored by Kanye West and T.I., signing first to West’s producer-focused imprint Very G.O.O.D. Beats before joining T.I.’s Grand Hustle label as a solo artist. Multiple production credits on West’s G.O.O.D. Music compilation album Cruel Summer, along with high-profile assists on records by artists like Big Sean and Rihanna followed.
Two solo mixtapes, Owl Pharaoh and Days Before Rodeo, came in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The bizarre tracks collected on those releases gave us a peek into the mind of this young artist, who in interviews appears a shy introvert yet who commands an aggressive stage presence; an seeming anomaly in the rap landscape. Brooding trap instrumentals, industrial aggression, heavily autotuned vocals, and a Kid Cudi-ish sense of emotional conflict prevailed. Continuing in the catchy-but-pitch-black trajectory of artists like Future and Chief Keef, Scott spun alternately boastful and deeply pessimistic lyrics atop the weirdo rap instrumentals, to a largely promising effect.
On debut album proper Rodeo, Scott joins forces with a curious mix of lesser-known Deep South beatmakers and chart-topping mega-producers. The guest vocal spots are shared amongst stars like 2 Chainz, The Weeknd, Young Thug, Kanye West, plus Chief Keef and Future themselves, and curious collaborators like indie pop artist Toro y Moi and cultural divider Justin Bieber. Amidst these seemingly disparate elements stands one polymath who presides over all, picking and choosing sonic weapons in his aural assault. On paper, Rodeo stands to be one of the year’s most ambitious and divisive records; in practice, it is something altogether more confusing.
Like his mentor West before him, Scott makes his music with a producer’s ear. Even when not directly crafting the beats we hear, Scott’s unmistakeable influence is ever-present. The rapper guides his bevy of collaborators with a careful precision that belies his age; here, melodies feedback into chaos where they would usually end, vocals are clipped and stuttered electronically where they would usually be seamlessly worded, and identifiable melodic elements are drowned in waves of static, bass, and ambiance that make them obscure. Scott’s formula is typified by mood above all else, defiantly rebellious and decidedly dark as it is. His singular mindset makes for a fascinating juxtaposition with the hard-hitting club rap he has made his focus; Scott’s personality and approach are not natural fits for the genre he operates within.
When it comes to this rapper’s lyrics, the vision is less impressive. While “terrible” may sound like a harsh label for the quality of Scott’s lyrics on previous releases, he does little to warrant more merit for his words on Rodeo. On single Antidote for instance, the second verse is typical of Scott’s style: “Anything can happen at the night show/ Everything can happen at the night show/ At the night show/ Anything can happen at the night show/ At the night show/ Your bitch not at home, she at the night show/ Fucking right, ho/Had to catch a flight for the night show/ Let’s get piped though/ Bottles got us right though, we ain’t sipping light though/ I ain’t got no type though/ Only got one night though, we can do it twice though/ It’s lit at the night show.”
Judging from such sentiments, it would appear Scott doesn’t have a lot to say. Yet what the rapper does with these words in his capacity as a producer and songwriter is impressive, and he saves some of his verses through clever manipulation; vocal flourishes are warped into wails, screeches, or rumbles, while the woozy, heavily effected harmonies Scott crafts are powerful and often strangely memorable. Though his lyrics are almost uniformly devoid of content, it is Scott’s overarching approach to his artistry that is most impactful. Mood-crafters like Scott often rely on atmosphere above all else; similarly, without his patented soundscapes of midnight industrial melancholy, Burial’s music lacks hook, focal point, and much of its greatness.
Lead single 3500 is a bass-driven monster of a track, where Future and 2 Chainz trade two of their best guest spots in recent memory and Scott turns in a typically unconventional verse. Largely lacking in much actual rhyming, Scott’s raps tend to ramble in a curious blend of street bravado, hedonism, and existential doubt. But tracks like 3500 aren’t about lyricism; sure, 2 Chainz turns in some amusing punchlines, but the star of the track is the menacing intent behind every note in the beat. Soaring guitar harmonies, kick drums cloaked in distortion, fathoms-deep sub bass, and tinkling piano form a decidedly post-apocalyptic vision of hip-hop in 2015. 3500 is unconventional to the last: Scott’s chorus isn’t much of a chorus at all, and the song dies out in 90 seconds of purely instrumental, decreasing-tempo melancholy that is somehow beautiful, yet the track is sure to be a live hit for mainstream rap fans. Scott’s ability to play for contrast is exciting when he’s at his best.
Wasted featuring Juicy J is a Southern screwed-up banger that takes a lilting flute melody and weaves it into an end-of-the-world street anthem. Distortion cloaks many of the elements in these tracks, occasionally overtaking the entire composition and heading in a direction more hardcore punk than hip-hop. On Wasted, the plodding drug haze and overwhelming assault of the music sounds 20 years old and yet futuristic all the same. Meanwhile, I Can Tell centres on a slowly-building intensity level to great effect, though Scott would be well-advised to do less singing on almost all of his songs; his voice isn't strong enough to carry melody-only tracks.
Elsewhere, 90210 morphs from a quiet synthesiser driven ballad-of-sorts into a euphoric, refreshingly bright second half. It’s one of the album’s best moments, made great by Scott’s willful embrace of progressive song form and an exuberant mood beyond his comfort zone. More psychedelic rock than envelope-pushing rap, 90210 dramatically shifts midway into an album highlight. But the joy of hearing Scott explore his potential as a songwriter and producer is bittersweet; we are reminded that the majority of Rodeo is disappointingly uninteresting and unadventurous.
Throughout Rodeo, Scott shamelessly cribs from the distorted autotune West so patented on the closing moments of Runaway. As on the melodic second half of 90210, Scott uses the singular effect well, always wearing his influences on his sleeve, sounding simultaneously familiar and new, original and copycat. Still, despite his seemingly clear acknowledgement of influence, it sometimes feels as though Scott is taking a plethora of ideas from his peers and passing them off as his own. It may be said that while there is little on Rodeo that has not been heard before, it is true that these elements have rarely been heard together. Scott’s gift primarily lies in his magpie-like ability to collect the innovations of others and blend them seamlessly under his own name.
Yet some of these tracks do sound boldly inventive, as though most artists wouldn’t have the guts to make them, such as the West-featuring Piss on Your Grave. Reminiscent of the bizarre Yeezus outtake God Level, Piss on Your Grave blends Kyuss-esque stoner metal and electronic bombast into an abrasive storm. “My, my, my, my, look at little Scotty now/ The same fuckers that used to doubt/ All preaching that they proud/ I pull my zipper down and whip it out,” raps Scott on some of his ferocious bars, while West chimes in maniacally: “Piss on your grave/ Turn this up teacher, play this in the third grade/ Can’t hide from the truth, yeah we’re about to go ape/These streets is not safe.”
For his part, West hasn’t sounded like this since Yeezus was released two years ago. Scott seems to bring out a distinct brand of rebellious aggression in the 38 year old, and the tracks they make together tend to veer into dark, antagonistic territory. While Piss on Your Grave won’t be winning any awards for songwriting or lyricism, it is a superb piece of warped production mastery and fuck-the-mainstream statement-making. If the rest of Rodeo were a little bolder in the vein of Piss on Your Grave, it may have been the first mainstream album to approach Death Grips levels of unrestrained fury.
Scott’s mind is seemingly overflowing with ideas, and in many ways his struggle to make sense of his imagination holds him back. Too often - as on Flying High, the spectacularly unsuccessful Toro y Moi collaboration, or the dully monotonous club could-have-been Nightcrawler - these songs lose their direction altogether, as they are engulfed in an inconsistent format too alien to be interesting or comprehensible. Then there are regrettable tracks like Oh My Dis Side and Impossible that meander along without ever being much more than boring, mumbled autotune gibberish. Scott seems unable to perfect the balance of doing too much and doing too little.
Ultimately, there aren’t enough moments of interest to save this album. Rodeo should have been the moment of Travis Scott’s powerful arrival; instead, it is a collection of songs that continue in much the same vein as his early work. While his primary function as an artist has never been to write meaningful lyrics, it is disappointing to see that Scott hasn’t found anything new to say over the past few years. And even the biggest producers in the game can’t save most of these songs from being jumbled, messy missives from a strange young mind.
3005, Wasted, 90210, the Weeknd-featuring pop cut Pray 4 Love, Piss on Your Grave, Antidote, and I Can Tell are all - to varying degrees - rewarding songs, but these seven tracks comprise only half of the overlong 65 minute record. Ultimately, the mind-numbing drudgery of the other cuts wins out, and Rodeo goes by in an unlikeable blur. Young Thug shows up with Bieber on Maria/I’m Drunk, and the New Orleans rapper’s presence serves as a potent reminder that Thug’s April Barter 6 mixtape was infinitely more interesting and repeatable than Rodeo. Thug’s music is full of kinetic energy, while Scott’s downcast murk outwears its welcome over the course of a full-length album.
There is a legion of rap artists making post-trap music consisting of deep bass, pounding drums, and warbled, autotune-drenched vocals. Scott doesn’t have the brash charisma of Chief Keef, the paranoid street prophet allure of Future, or the effervescent poppy appeal of Young Thug; after Rodeo, it is still not clear exactly what Scott has to offer as a solo artist. His ear as a producer is finely-tuned, but not to the point an entire album can be carried on that strength alone. He's certainly no singer, and not much of a rapper.
Taken on the merits of his best tracks however, it is clear that Scott has the potential to differentiate himself from his peers through directional risk-taking, but on Rodeo he has done little to rise above the pack. An artist who could have reinvigorated and repositioned an entire genre has settled for being simply another artist stuck in the middle, lacking in invention and uniqueness. Rodeo is actually a lesser record than Scott's two early mixtapes because it lacks the air of promise those releases had.
In fact, the best part of Rodeo comes in the closing 30 seconds of the album. Here, T.I. delivers an unintentionally-poignant spoken word closing sentiment, as he reflects on Scott’s place in the music world, pondering as the young artist puts himself forward on his debut:
“The question that arises to the mind: Will he make it? Was it worth it? Did he win? Will he survive?”
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