Tuesday, September 8, 2015

album review: 'rodeo' by travi$ scott

I wasn't going to do this review.

See, one of the big positives about Billboard BREAKDOWN for me is that I can get a few weeks or months warning about albums coming down the pipe that might not be to my preferences based off of lead-off singles. And sure, it's far from an exact science, but more often than not, if I'm hearing your lead-off single and it's over seven minutes of decently produced but completely empty luxury rap with Future and 2 Chainz, I'm not inclined to look up your debut album.

And that's where I thought it would end with me and Travi$ Scott, Houston producer-turned-'rapper' affiliated with Kanye West and T.I.. He became known for his oppressive dark and bleak production, which I could appreciate, but I keep going back to the old adage I have with luxury rap: if the beats are so dark and dreary where it's clear nobody's having any fun, why in the Nine Hells would I? And it wasn't as if Travi$ Scott was a rapper worth caring about - this isn't A$AP Rocky, where you could at least expect some competently structured flows - on a technical level, Travi$ Scott just wasn't impressing me.

And when I took a look at the credits for this upcoming album, I didn't know what to think. Sure, he had some respectable names, but he only had a couple production credits - in other words, it looked like he was de-emphasizing the talents that made him famous for those that wouldn't help him stand out in a lineup. On top of that, his features list immediately struck me as questionable. I already mentioned Future and 2 Chainz, but Quavo from Migos? Young Thug and Justin Bieber? Chief Keef and Swae Lee from Rae Sremmurd? But I thought, 'Okay, maybe with him stepping away from the production boards, it might not be as cavernous and dreary'... even though the lead-off single and the album's running time of over an hour did not inspire confidence. But hey, I'm willing to try new things, so how was the Rodeo?

Honestly, I'm not seeing much on this album that sets Travi$ Scott apart from meeting midway between Future and A$AP Rocky with a splash of Kanye and Migos on top, a slice of unbridled, washed out hedonism in swampy, cavernous production. And sure, I know better than at this point to expect anything all that lyrical, but the more I tried to dredge through the depths of this album, the less I found things to really grip me. I dunno, I've spent most of this year trying to dig into multiple sides of this more debauched side of hip-hop, and I do reckon that Travi$ Scott might come closer to winning me over by blending a little more grit into the faux-opulent darkness. But as much as I can respect good production, there needs to be something to ground it in terms of content or personality. 

Now the second charge is admittedly more steep, as Travi$ Scott at first glimpse does seem to have his own unique brand of heavily distorted and autotuned vocals midway between Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak and Future - and for the most part it doesn't really sound bad, balancing the rougher edges of southern hip-hop with fragments of shattered elegance and more of a melodic presentation. And for hooks, it can be damn potent, especially when boosted by the walls of roaring distortion with guitars and synth to make it sound so much more imposing than it naturally is, makes it seem more cohesive and a little wilder. And to give him further credit, Travi$ Scott is not a bad rapper - very far from a great one in terms of punchlines or storytelling or anything close to new content - we'll come back to this - but he's got flows that can connect, even if he does rhyme the same word with itself way too much to really work for me. And if he stuck with that more imposing tone, he might have won more points, but the constant varying of the layers of pitch correction and reverb means that it's hard to get a definitive picture on Travi$ Scott's unique personality - I hear his voice, but it can feel like a facsimile of other artists he's working with. 

And really, it's hit-and-miss when it comes to these guest, because you know you're running into trouble when the most memorable credited verses come from Juicy J, 2 Chainz, The Weeknd, and Justin Bieber. In this case, the big surprise is Bieber, who proves surprisingly decent on the half-rap/half-croon that nearly everyone is trying to emulate on this album. The rest are memorable simply because they're competent - Juicy J's hedonism, 2 Chainz being wildly over-the-top and kind of funny - which really runs contrary to the downbeat tone that Future's aimless bitching about Ciara brings in the second verse - and The Weeknd actually sounding pretty visceral with this brand of production, it's got teeth to it. The rest... in terms of backing singers, I really did love Kacy Hill's Enya-like willowy voice on '90210' and Toro y Moi sounds great against the Pharrell-produced rollick of 'Flying High', but beyond that? Young Thug is less interesting or excited than normal against the drearier tones of 'Maria I'm Drunk' - I think he really needs brighter instrumentals to be tolerable with me - Swae Lee is actually listenable on 'Nightcrawler' mostly because he's more anonymous than usual, Chief Keef and Quavo from Migos both do their below-average thing, and Future is just insufferable. But the absolute worst is Kanye West here - not only does the beat do nothing with a decent Jimi Hendrix sample, Kanye's howling vocals sounds like a reject from Yeezus that should have stayed rejected. Like it or not, dude, you're not MC Ride, you don't have enough bass in your voice, and as much as the instrumental kind of reminds me a bit of an off-brand Death Grips, it's nowhere near as raw or abrasive as it needs to be to pull this off.

But to be fair, if I'm going to look for the one element to recommend off of this album, it'd definitely be the instrumentation. I'll give Travi$ Scott this, he's got an keen eye for production that's swampy and bass-heavy, but still maintaining enough melody to remain catchy and undeniably sinister. I dug the choppy, buzzed fragments that collapsed inwards into the blackness of 'Pornography', that flute against the filthy beat on 'Wasted', and the great transition from bass-heavy guitar rumbles to the more soulful, almost symphonic keyboards and skittering handclaps on '90210'. Hell, the majority of the change-ups and transitions on this album are handled really well, with the mix depth allowing for deeper layers while still maintaining the atmosphere. And even when it's not handled great, I liked the damp, jungle feel of the first half of 'Maria I'm Drunk' or the menacing bass against the drippy pianos and choppy beat of 'I Can Tell'. It's not always great - 'Nightcrawler' feels like a few too many buzzing layers were piled on, and the wispy synth tones on 'Impossible' just felt atonal and grated on my nerves - same with the second half of 'Maria I'm Drunk' - but considering the actual crispness of the hi-hats and beats is cranked way down, it does allow this album to have a pretty impressive sense of flow. Hell, even songs I have little use for like '3500' uses the strings and guitars incredibly well to add swell, and it's got a potent hook - in fact, most of the hooks on this album are pretty decent. And I'm definitely willing to concede that if you throw this album on during a party or if you just want to get stoned or spark up a darker mood, instrumentally this album can definitely deliver.

But now we have to talk about lyrics... and folks, if we're looking for an area this album just falls completely flat for me, it's here. At least A$AP Rocky tried to venture into different subject matter on his last album to make it stand out... this album is a selection of darker-leaning club bangers about sex, drugs, screwing your girl in the butt, and supposedly breaking boundaries, the latter of which I find incredibly hard to buy because it's not exactly like Travi$ Scott is tracing much new ground here, especially considering he didn't produce a lot of this album. The most depth we get out of the lyrics is courtesy of T.I. and The Weeknd, the former who operates as an unofficial narrator that sketches out Travi$ Scott's choice to take the plunge into this life that he knows could lead him down a dark path, and yet it's his only way out. Much like The Weeknd, it's trying to walk the line between outright hedonistic glorification and treating it like the necessary evil to survive, with the addendum that unless we're willing to take the same steps, we shouldn't judge him for his actions. And I do like that T.I. leaves it open-ended by saying it's not clear if Travi$ Scott's choice will pay off, whether he'll survive that rodeo. Now let me say this: this is a pretty compelling framework for this sort of hedonism... if Travi$ Scott wasn't a completely boring MC. We barely get fragments of insight beyond your typical swaggering club and drug anthems, and most of those are lyrically interchangeable, lacking in punchlines or even memorable phrases, good or bad that stand out. It feels so recycled, and it highlights T.I.'s monologues as less insight and more just thin excuses trying to add the trapping of depth where it really isn't there. 

So yeah, in the end... you know, I really wanted to like this album, because there are songs I liked on this album. But at the end of the day Rodeo tumbles towards the same category a lot of this less lyrical music does - taking itself way too seriously and dark, and with not enough interesting bars to back it up. Yeah, I know you're not going to care about the lyrics at a strip club or party where this gets turned up, but outside of that environment, what more does this give you? And as I've said in the past, shallower music can connect if the performer has more charisma or at least some wit to back up good production... sadly, I'm not seeing a lot of that here. For me, it's a strong 5/10 and a recommendation if you're more into this sort of sound. I completely understand that there's an audience for this... maybe it's just not me, and I think I'm okay with that.

No comments:

Post a Comment