The stars aligned — or more accurately, moved aside — over the past few months for Travis Scott. Since his breakout in 2013, the Houstonian has earned just enough clout and co-signs to survive accusations of being a biter. This year, he’s outlasted some of his rivals: Rae Sremmurd’s SR3MM failed to produce a hit anywhere near “Black Beatles”-status; Young Thug is good, but he’s a ways from being a bankable superstar; and Future still hasn’t found love. Of course, the biggest underperformer is Scott’s most crucial backer, Kanye West, who corroded his image with an embrace of far right-wing ideology before releasing a subpar album. Scott’s peers’ stalling leaves a void that seems tailored for him to fill.
But Astroworld benefits from more than good timing. At some point, between allegedly ghostwriting West’s Yeezus and dropping 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, Scott managed to mold his sonic collage of hand-me-downs into a singular aesthetic: a melange of chillwave, punk, and darkly warped trap covered by absurd gothic imagery (i.e. Dark Angel Travis on the cover of McKnight). While he isn’t the charismatic frontman his peers are, Scott acquits himself through skilled curation; the right kind of hero for an era where the New York Times can list “director of vibes” as someone’s occupation.
Astroworld — named after Houston’s shuttered Six Flags park — is the rapper’s second major release within the last year, following his late 2017 Quavo collaboration Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho. One feels like the inverse of the other. Scott’s songs work best when he’s the supporting character in his soundscapes, not rapping in front of them. Huncho Jack forces him to do just that (because two superstars high-fiving each other is the sell), but even his signature ad-libs end up feeling out of place. Astroworld maximizes Scott’s strengths in ways that, for once, don’t feel like his ambitions are out-sizing him.
The sharper focus immediately pays off with opener “Stargazing.” Built off a carousel of twinkling notes and ghoulish coos, the track peaks as Scott cries out to a muse (“I was always high up on the lean/Then this girl came here to save my life”). His voice digitizes and bends skyward in a joyously melodramatic moment that could be described as Afrofuturistic emo. Elsewhere, he readily cedes the floor to his famous friends, putting together combinations that are unpredictable yet seamless. “Sicko Mode” is a mini-suite of bangers: an interrupted Hot 100 Drake hook, a frosty duet with Swae Lee, and Aubrey throwing staccato boasts over Tay Keith’s stardusted bass line. The raucousness sticks through all the switch-ups.
Astroworld mostly holds itself together despite its aggressive number of moving parts, which includes a half-rapping Frank Ocean (“Carousel”); Sheck Wes interpolating Three 6 Mafia (“No Bystanders”); Scott, over a Tame Impala beat, deciding not to smoke weed out of post-coital respect for Kylie Jenner (“Skeletons”); and weaving James Blake, Kid Cudi, and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica together for a baptismal highlight (“Stop Trying to Be God”). These hairpin turns are tied together by kaleidoscopic riffs that evoke the sort of twisted naive wonder seen on the cover. The monolithic keys that dramatize the second half of “NC-17” and “Houstonfornication”’s wistful backdrop are two of the most entrancing moments in hip-hop production this year.
Astroworld is also about paying homage, sampling 2 Live Crew (“Sicko Mode”), cribbing Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” (“5% Tint”), and honoring hometown great DJ Screw (“R.I.P. Screw”) over an aggressively angelic mix of Swae Lee’s coos and candy-sweet keys. The album admirably becomes a place for reverence and fist-swinging psychedelia, but apparently also one without much room for the star’s own voice. While he cuts down on the weak punchlines, Scott’s verses rarely show emotional complexity beyond vague brooding in designer clothes. “Stargazing” stretches that drama out of Scott’s voice for Astroworld’s peak, while closer “Coffee Bean” — likely a look into his romance with Kylie — has some of the specificity that’s been chronically absent from his lyrics (“Your family told you I’m a bad move/Plus I’m already a black dude”). But there’s so much going on in Astroworld’s maximalist restless soundscape, it’s clear the park founder’s humanity isn’t the main attraction. Travis Scott’s persona still isn’t as sharp as his production — but again, he’s mainly here for the vibes. B