Thursday, August 9, 2018

album review: 'astroworld' by travis scott

I've got conflicted feelings about Travis Scott. I liked him as a producer for his ability to deliver some forward-thinking, massive production, but then Rodeo happened and while many celebrated it for the wide range of collaborators and his uncanny ability to deliver terrific hooks, many of the tones and heft I liked about his production had evaporated, especially around Travis Scott as an MC who could assemble a decent flow but was far from lyrical or all that interesting. Then Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight happened... and contrary to pretty much everyone, I actually liked that more than Rodeo - I don't know what to tell you, the production and hooks clicked more strongly, the collaborations were more consistent, and while the content was borderline nonsensical, it at least felt more cohesive. Less experimental or challenging, sure - and that Huncho Jack collab project with Quavo didn't help matters - but for the first time the appeal started to click.

And then I saw Travis Scott live, opening for Kendrick Lamar, and what might have clicked before really connected there, but left me with more questions. Travis Scott could be such a force of personality on stage, a consummate hype man and real personality, so why he's tried to dampen it with so many slurred-over layers and effects or muffle it with overloaded lists of guest stars is utterly beyond me. And when I started seeing the critical acclaim piled onto Astroworld... look, I wasn't sure what to expect at this point, but I did see he got Pharrell, The Weeknd, and Tame Impala all on the same song, so the spectacle might be worth the price of admission. So what the hell, how is Astroworld?

Honestly, if I was conflicted about Travis Scott before, Astroworld has only further intensified that feeling, because I really wanted to like this a lot more than I do. More than ever it feels like Travis Scott is pushing into ambitious territory and calling in as many favors as he possibly could to deliver a twisted, over-the-top theme park experience... and yet like your average carnival, if you take just one step back, you can see the cheap seams, the suffocating and sticky atmosphere that smells a bit too sickly sweet, and it'll all be gone by the end of the summer and you'll be wondering how much you really got from the experience.

And what gets awkward about all of this is the sneaking suspicion that Travis Scott isn't really playing to his strengths with this, particularly in his delivery. Sure, it's as slathered in warping autotune as ever and the worship of Kid Cudi is as blatant as ever, but if you're coming here looking for the huge bangers that can make Scott's personality swell up so effectively live, it's strangely muted here, with him once again slipping closer to the curator role in twisting his plentiful guest stars towards his vision, where Scott often winds up feeling like a guest vocal presence on his own work. Granted, some of this is a natural consequence of the record feeling as woozy and drug-addled as it is - if it's meant to cultivate the feeling of being a passenger in one's own life warping around you, it definitely gets there - but if you're expecting there to be a sense of momentum or edge or a feeling that Scott has any clear idea where he's taking all of this, by the time you get to the back half of the record that feeling is utterly gone, and the atmosphere starts to slip away as well. 

Now a big part of this ties back to content - we'll come back to this - but no matter how many layers of autotune Scott piles on to make so many other artists sound like him, his choice not to become a more assertive presence means other voices become more prominent - Frank Ocean's deeper hook on 'CAROUSEL' is not quite my thing, but it is at least distinctive, as is Drake's frequently frustrating performance on the choppy 'SICKO MODE' - bragging about taking half a Xan to sleep on the plane is the sort of painfully basic reference I'd expect from Lil Dicky, not you Drake! But the problem is endemic: will you remember anything Travis Scott is saying on 'STOP TRYING TO BE GOD' or Stevie Wonder's harmonica followed by an absolutely beautiful bridge from James Blake? Will you care more about Tame Impala's synthesizers opposite The Weeknd on 'SKELETONS' or Travis Scott's cum-stained double entendres? Will it be Travis Scott pitching his voice even higher on 'NC-17', or 21 Savage actually being compelling for once? Of course, the big asterisk here is always how well his guests deliver, and it's already become a meme how badly layered Nav's vocals were on 'YOSEMITE', but what annoyed me more was how John Mayer's guitar work and Thundercat's bass were mixed into mush on 'ASTROTHUNDER', when for some ungodly reason the badly tuned strumming dominated 'WAKE UP' that sounds like a castoff from XXXTENTACION even as The Weeknd desperately tries to add some smoother groove amidst the ocean of Autotune.

But this opens the question surrounding what vibe Travis Scott was even looking to pursue in the first place with this production - the murky trap bass grooves are of course dominant, but Scott's choice of melodic tones tend to be a little more jagged and scattered - from faint synths colouring the background without much driving melody to flashes of more organic instrumentation that move to the forefront and can't help but feel a little discordant and clipped among a mix as swamped as this is, with songs like 'SKELETONS' and the borderline boom-bap against the chopped up guitar of 'COFFEE BEAN' showing more than a few glimpses in Kanye's direction. And when this project is able to leverage more of those organic melodies, I actually think the album develops some real personality outside of the desaturated trap mire that drips over so much of this project. Hell, many have criticized it as the moment the record takes a downturn but I actually like '5% TINT' with its rinky-dink pianos, frail whirring clicks, the odd gargling laugh of what sounds like a frog, and the misty swell of the outro that's genuinely gorgeous - it's one of the few points where the album captures the haunted carnival vibe it's trying to cultivate, and it's certainly more distinctive than when this project defaults to by-the-numbers midtempo trap or when it shoves the overexposed 'BUTTERFLY EFFECT' onto the track listing likely just to juice up the album's streaming numbers for certification. Hell, I certainly prefer it to the multiple beat switches on 'SICKO MODE' trying to find some tone that works... but this highlights arguably the biggest two problem swith the record as a whole: momentum and atmosphere. The only song that comes close to having tempo or punch is 'NO BYSTANDERS' where Juice WRLD is brought on for higher accents and Sheck Wes delivers a hook, but beyond that this record settles into murky, low-key midtempo trap... which would probably work a lot better if the instrumental tones blended and didn't lead to a lot of whiplash transitions, both within songs and between them.

And then we go to the content... and look, even Travis Scott fans will acknowledge he's not a lyricist, and as such it's hard to avoid the brand name porn, rampant drug abuse, taking your girl, and bleary-eyed moments passing for self-reflection. And if he was just cranking out bangers that can work, but slowing things down and showing Scott rapping more than ever draws more attention to the writing and the feeling that his inability to fully articulate a distinctive idea compromises both the atmosphere and any deeper sense of reflection. And even avoiding the landmine of 'R.I.P. DJ SCREW' where despite the late producer's overdose death the drug abuse only seems to be slowing, it's hard to get a handle on where any of this record might lead. Tracts are dedicated to celebrating the long dormant Houston scene in hip-hop in how much Scott wants to resurrect the hazy fantasy of AstroWorld from his childhood, implying some form of desperate escape that's always been the uneasy subtext in the melancholy in his darkest work and drug abuse. But there's little introspection beyond fragmented hints of dejected humility on 'STOP TRYING TO BE GOD' and paranoia that actually does some atmospheric heavy lifting across the midsection, and while there are references to systemic racism and even a conversation he had with Bill Clinton on 'HOUSTONFORNICATION', it's fleeting at best. Hell, it's one reason I actually liked 'COFFEE BEAN' that ended the record: it's a return to caffeinated reality, where he gets frank about his expectations around his relationship with Kylie Jenner, which he expects may well be doomed in the long-term due to the distance in their professional lives, her family's concerns about his reputation, and his own melancholy. Hell, you get the impression that this record is him looking for that desperate escape to childhood escape, just him and his baby girl... but even he knows deep down that despite all of his success, he can never quite get back.

Of course, a lot of this is conjecture, partially because AstroWorld isn't particularly interested in being coherent or structured - it's a hazy wallow in shallow opulence trying to recapture a lost dream. And without much momentum or consistency, it's a tough record to truly recommend, even if I do think this is the sort of record that Travis Scott had to make at some point. Of course the diehard fans have been heralding this as his best yet, and really... honestly, it's tough to say, but I'll give it an extremely light 6/10 and a recommendation for that crowd. Everyone else... not sure it's got the widespread appeal to really click long term, but it's an interesting listen all the same, so check it out.

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