On Travis Scott’s third album, Houston’s AstroWorld is truly revived.
In the current age of hip hop, two years without releasing an album is a long time. For Travis Scott – the new generation’s beloved maestro – his third album infamously became the most anticipated rap album of both 2017 and 2018. He emerged in 2012 as a producer for Kanye West, curating a sound that fused alternative and trap most famously exercised on 2015’s Rodeo, universally considered his best album to date for its detail to production, melodies and song structure. The follow-up Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight simplified the blueprint for commercial appeal, yet still captured Scott’s twilight edge. Titled after the discontinued amusement park in Houston, Texas, Astroworld has the burden of living up to high expectations. Fans are banking on a wave of promises, cryptic social media pictures and crossing fingers for their favourite leaked snippet to show up.
Despite all the pressure, Astroworld flourishes with every listen. Scott weaves between complexity and simplicity to compose an album that covers all bases, yet prioritises entertainment and replay value. The story goes that AstroWorld was closed down and replaced with rodeos. If this is the case, the concept of Astroworld fits well into Scott’s saga. The euphoria of Astroworld makes it a worthy predecessor to the darkness of Rodeo, capturing the blissful environment of a teenager with no cares in the world (who then had his happiness taken away on Rodeo).
Sonically, Astroworld intentionally mirrors a soundtrack to an amusement park, composing a contrast between tracks appropriate during Daytime attractions and Nighttime attractions, whether that is a rollercoaster ride (“Sicko Mode”), a disturbing dungeon (“5% Tint”, NC–17″) or a dreamy wonderland (“R.I.P. Screw”, “Butterfly Effect”). Though not entirely a full-blown concept album, Astroworld keeps a riveting pulse on melodic aesthetic.
“Stargazing” is the first of many songs where Scott pays close attention to layered production and song structure, a trademark flexed on his magnum opus Rodeo, informing the listener there’s nothing but surprises to follow. Scott’s psychedelic crooning and drowsy synths is the force for “Stargazing” serving as the theme song to AstroWorld. The second-half diversion is where Scott’s hunger truly manifests, bringing unfiltered rapping over the whirring hi-hats. The song “Sicko Mode” outdoes itself in ambition, packing three songs in one to construct a rollercoaster of a listening experience. Drake and Travis Scott also share impressive chemistry, going back and forth playfully (“Like a light”), not to mention references to iconic Biggie songs and the slew of one-liners (“Different colored chains, think my jeweler really sellin’ fruits / And they chokin’, man, know the crackers wish it was a noose”).
If Astroworld is Scott’s amusement park, “No Bystanders” is the main attraction. Assisted by Juice WRLD and Sheck Wes’ chant, the track is a thumping, heroic anthem of colossal energy. Skittering flutes, subtle strings, and an addictive drum pattern are some of the few details to the production that elevate “No Bystanders” to grandeur status. Conveniently “No Bystanders” is also the home to the best verse of the album. Scott’s rapid flow and infectious cadence puts him in a technical mode we are rarely exposed to.
Scott is known for his role as a conductor, which shines exceptionally across Astroworld. His flair for detail radiates on the 5-minute sermon “Stop Trying to Be God”. The hums of Kid Cudi and harmonica by Stevie Wonder are meticulously placed, with the enchanting vocals of James Blake stealing the show in the powerful ending. The song is one of the few with fixed subject matter, downplaying the God complex rappers tend to possess. It also grants a refreshing detour from Scott’s pill-popping poetry.
When Scott opts to take a backseat, it is impressive how valuable the guest appearances are. Most add a unique flavour to the respective song, or lend their sound to Travis to forge a formidable collaboration. That is the case with “Yosemite”, a song that belongs to Gunna but reaches it peak at the bridge thanks to Scott’s soothing hums. Luckily the infamous Nav is only granted outro duties, but his short performance is satisfactory. Elsewhere, newcomer Don Toliver steals the show with a voice that sounds like Akon and T-Pain had a lovechild (“Can’t Say”). The Tame Impala-produced “Skeletons” brings back the alternative edge of Rodeo, yet again minimising guest vocals of The Weeknd, Kevin Parker and Pharrell to the bare bones.
Throughout his career, Travis Scott has ensured he puts melody over everything. On Astroworld, there’s melody in abundance. With the exception of one song, there is always a hypnotic hook allocated either by Scott or a featured artist, even sprinkling verses that serve as secondary hooks. As a result, Astroworld leaves an auditory imprint from start to finish.
Astroworld also ensures Scott doesn’t fail in matching the melodies of the hooks with equally-infectious production. Thanks to the likes of Mike Dean, WondaGurl, Frank Dukes, Hit-Boy, Tay Keith and Boi-1da, the soundtrack of Astroworld bounces from psychedelia (“Skeletons”) to simplistic trap (“Yosemite”) in a heartbeat, leaving nothing but high-grade beats to add to the brew of sticky Auto-Tune.
For an album that barely scratches the surface in personal subject matter, “Coffee Bean” – a song reminiscent of Kanye West’s “30 Hours” – is a refreshing detour towards introspection. Nineteen85 strips back the trap production to a straightforward, mellow hip hop beat, allowing Scott to reflect on his relationship without the assistance of Auto-Tune. Backed up by the spectacular violin and electric guitar, “Coffee Bean” is a fitting way to end the trip.
However, not every attraction of Astroworld is worth visiting. The corny “Wake Up” is packaged with a one-dimensional performance by The Weeknd, who dominates the song using the same vocal tones and cliché pussy praises he expresses on every record. The Migos-assisted “Who! What?” may be bearable in comparison, but is evidently a Huncho Jack leftover. Considering “Butterfly Effect” was released over a year ago, its simplicity that was once appealing has ultimately run dry. “AstroThunder” provides a pleasant psychedelic cruise, though adds nothing to the album thematically besides a sense of soul-searching. These tracks tend to border the 2-minute mark, missing the polish of the longer cuts that are unsurprisingly the best offerings.
At times, Scott’s eerie aesthetic is absent in favour of tailoring to other artists’ tricks (i.e. Swae Lee’s “R.I.P. Screw” and Gunna’s “Yosemite”). Fortunately for Scott, his gift as an artistic chameleon grants Astroworld plenty of sonic diversity, ensuring he doesn’t sound out of place on his own song.
Aside a few tracks, Astroworld is a relieving return to form for Travis Scott. The delicate details, range in production and star-studded lineup fulfils Scott’s intentions to transform the nostalgic environment of AstroWorld into an entertaining musical adaptation. If Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight was considered a step in the wrong direction, Astroworld makes amends by reinstalling creative ambition. It is jam-packed, and may just be the most colossal album of the year. AstroWorld returns and is here to stay.
Rating: 9 / 10
Best tracks: “Houstonfornication”, “Stop Trying to Be God”, “No Bystanders”, “Sicko Mode”, “Yosemite”, “Can’t Say”, “Coffee Bean”, “AstroThunder”