Wednesday, September 7, 2016

album review: 'birds in the trap sing mcknight' by travis scott

Man, Travis Scott can frustrate me.

See, I didn't want to cover Rodeo last year, mostly on the thinking that his production was too cavernous and dark to really support the banal party lyrics and his general lack of distinctive personality, but going back to that review, I can say that I don't really hate that record so much as I find it underwhelming. The problem wasn't as bad as on Days Before Rodeo, but Travis Scott was getting crowded off the stage by guest stars with more presence or charisma, and it was hard not to see his persona as a composite of other artists.

That said, in recent months I've come to the conclusion that Travis Scott can work for me in the right environment, because he does have a knack for huge hooks that can go over the top, and he's not afraid of giving his mix the depth you'd need to pull it off. I wouldn't really be expecting substance... but again, he's making over-the-top party music, you don't really need a lot of substance if you avoid errors and crank up the bombast. That's one of the reasons I was a little exasperated when people accused me of 'not liking party music' during the Rae Sremmurd review - I can like it when it has convincing swell and personality that doesn't fill me with seething rage, and at least instrumentally Travis Scott can deliver that, and even over the past few months on hooks like 'Champions', he's been a propulsive presence. 

That said, I was a little worried about The Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight - outside of the frankly bizarre title, this record had the feel of being rushed out to capitalize on Travis Scott's now ascending popularity - and yet it missed its planned release date twice! And with fewer production credits than ever - yes, I know he's the executive producer but it's not a good sign that he's handling less of the beatwork with each successive album when that production was what added so much flavor - and still plenty of guest stars... look, I had reason to be concerned, but I really did want to like this - so, did it work?

Honestly, while I know I enjoyed this more than Rodeo, I'm not sure I could tell you why. In terms of content or bars, Travis Scott really isn't delivering much that's incredibly distinctive or hard-hitting or even all that different from what we got on Rodeo, or even all that much that I normally consider iconic about Travis Scott in his production... but I did like this more. In other words, it's a decent record - not a great one and I'm still convinced Travis Scott has a lot more he could do if he took full control of his production or made a more focused project - but it does show some improvements.

Granted, I think more of the improvements come in what Travis Scott doesn't do compared to what he does - as a rapper, he doesn't tend to take a lot of chances, which means that his half-sung flows can mostly connect but start to blur together a bit. I will say that if we're looking at heavily-autotuned rappers in this vein I will take Travis Scott over Future these days because at least Travis Scott shows a greater breadth of emotion besides droning nihilism and can enunciate, but the counterpoint to that is that he's not exactly strong as a technical lyricist, forcing rhymes or rhyming words with themselves, or in some cases like 'beibs in the trap' opting for painfully basic flows. And sure, he's not a complex or subtle lyricist, but for as strong as some of his hooks can be, it's a little frustrating that outside of the Kid Cudi collaboration 'through the late night' or 'wonderful' with The Weeknd or maybe 'coordinate' he doesn't come through with harder-hitting choruses. I think some of this is because he opts for a slightly higher pitch compared to the thicker low-to-midrange where he sounds a little better, but again, that's a personal preference.

Now one area where Scott improved considerably was his choice of guest stars, all of whom seem to know exactly what's expected from them on a Travis Scott project. And sure, it can be a little weird for Kendrick to drop some of his most basic bars on the 'love' song 'goosebumps' and that high-pitched voice certainly was something, you can tell he's having fun in a way reminiscent of untitled unmastered. from earlier this year. The rapper who does take things more seriously is Andre 3000 on 'the ends' which opens up the record discussing how he easily could have been killed as a child in the rash of child murders in Atlanta in the late 70s-early 80s - it accentuates that feel of slightly unstable gritty danger that I'd always liked about Travis Scott's production, even if it's rarely mirrored in the content. Hell, even if 21 Savage's content is kind of gross on 'outside', he at least gets the atmosphere, and Cassie's crooning guest vocals on 'lose' match the glitching bombast pretty well. Hell, even Young Thug's wonky flow grew on me a bit on the prechorus of 'Pick Up The Phone', even if I'm not wild at all about the content, and while there's a part of me that thinks that Kid Cudi could have done more on his two collaborations on this record - especially on 'way back' - he's fallen so far that even rehashing his biggest hit is a welcome spark, and you can tell Travis Scott is thrilled to work with him - one of the reasons 'through the late night' is easily the best song here, even despite that cactus line for which I'm actually on the fence whether it's a stroke of genius or one of the worst things I've heard all year. And I also enjoyed what The Weeknd did on 'wonderful' - he's always had good chemistry with Travis Scott, and the fact the song plays as celebratory for the both of them is a fresh taste. Of course, they can't all be winners, which takes us to 'first take', easily the worst track on this album as Travis Scott and Bryson Tiller pine over girls who are treating them badly and they try to reassert control - and it's as ugly as you'd imagine, not helped by Bryson Tiller still doing his Chris Brown impression.

Granted, this is where we have to talk about lyrics and themes... and I'm kind of at a loss here. I said back when I covered Rodeo that the actual content was the biggest weakness of that album, but most of that was driven by T.I. adding narration around the tracks to try and justify the empty hedonism, a stab at subtext that was never backed up. Interestingly, this record was going to try something similar with Andre 3000 before he just dropped a verse, but in an odd way I appreciate the lack of pretense. For the most part, this is an empty, drug-addled party record, and yet like with The Weeknd it seems like Travis Scott is constantly aware of those who are trying to live as hard as him and yet don't understand the deeper consequences. Tracks like 'beibs in the trap', 'sweet sweet', 'the ends' and 'outside' don't just set the stage for Travis Scott's thinking, but also the slew of girls with cocaine around their noses desperate to capture more - which brings a certain irony when by the time this record switches to its last quarter with 'lose' and 'guidance' and 'wonderful', Travis Scott is looking for more fun and enjoyment, not mire himself in depression, which come to think of it has a similar emotional arc to parts of Beauty Behind The Madness.

Come to think of it, maybe that's why so much of the production on this record doesn't have the same punishing, cavernous darkness that used to be iconic of Travis Scott, because this is easily his most sparse record to date, especially in the basslines and beats. The atmosphere is considerably thinner and pushes the vocals more to the forefront, even on darker tracks with the gurgling distant guitars and oily ghosts of synthesizer on 'the ends', or the sharper low synths against the offkilter blurry melodies of 'coordinate' or the trap patter against the faded elegance of 'through the late night' - again, a song I really like. The odd thing is that by lightening the atmosphere a lot of little intricacies in the production come out that I like a fair bit, especially when Travis Scott wants things to hit a little harder: the clattering beat that runs 'sdp interlude', the orchestral bombast of 'lose', the faded woodwind whistle that flits around 'sweet sweet' that slowly builds more depth with fluttering fragments before heavily distorted guitars roar to life for a pretty sweet outro, a more magnified version of the layered outro of 'way back' that shows Travis Scott is just as capable of cannibalizing Kanye West as the other way around. But that usage of distorted guitar, even if just accents, does some real heavy liftings, operating as a counterbalance to the piano chords on 'outside', or the off-kilter grit on 'goosebumps' - almost to the point where you wish they'd use it to augment the low synth swell and shifts in percussion across 'wonderful' - it really could have taken the song over the top and driven this album home instead of a half-assembled autotuned outro that was fine, but could have been better.

But overall... look, I didn't mind this project. Not going to call it great - I'm convinced Travis Scott has a heavier, more anthemic project that would be a better fit for his persona and could deliver more convincing impact - but this record does seem to show him on the path towards it. Coupled with stronger guest performances overall compared to Rodeo... yeah, I'm feeling a light 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a Travis Scott fan and are looking for some solid, club-ready tracks that might not have the same immediate impact as Rodeo but do have staying power all the same. As for everyone else... well, take it from a guy who's not really a Travis Scott fan, this album didn't win me over, but it is on the right track, which is a good sign.

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