Review Summary: La Flame manages just enough fire...
It’s hard to write about Travis Scott’s debut outing nowadays. At the time, Rodeo
was easily the most overhyped and underwhelming project to bear Scott (and to a lesser degree Kanye West
’s) name. When Pitchfork gave it a 6, it was hard for anyone to find fault in it. But in the last year, the sounds and sentiments of Scott’s piecemeal effort have become the reigning sounds in hip-hop, being co-opted by everyone from Lil Yachty
. Somehow, one of rap music’s most high profile disappointments became the template for contemporary rap. So, almost exactly one year post-hence, Scott’s second studio effort somehow has even higher
expectations appended to it. Scott’s C-level material was zeitgeist-shifting. It begs the question of how his A-level material would affect the game. Fortunately for biters like Tory Lanez
and Lil Uzi Vert
, Scott doesn’t do much to push the envelope on Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
. However, he does again produce material that, while not necessarily A-level, will no doubt color the airwaves in the year(s) to come.
One of the biggest complaints leveled against Scott for the duration of his major label career is that he’s not really a presence. As a rapper, he’s equal parts Kanye and Drake
, just as likely to get political as he is personal, vindictive as he is vulnerable. As a singer, he’s Kid Cudi
on sizzurp. But these critiques and comparisons belie Scott’s greatest strength: his synthesis. Travis Scott is the DJ Khaled
of trap rap, less a true creative force and more a master curator. Scott’s ability to pull in disparate influences and collaborators is (near) unmatched in popular rap right now (Khaled serving as his one chief competitor), and this ability is one of the banner reasons to listen to a Scott album. Birds In The Trap…
only compounds this justification as Scott brings in a who’s who of popular and experimental music into the fold. Andre 3000
, Kid Cudi
, The Weeknd
, James Blake
(a reviewer favorite), and Young Thug
are just some of the names that pop up here. The fact that so many cooks are in the kitchen would, under any other artist, lead to an incohesive mess of an album. Fortunately for us, that’s not the case. Birds
is monolithic, almost to a fault.
The sonics here are uniformly dark and sinewy. The sonic cues that Scott’s been hammering away at for years now are firmly in place--overdriven bass and trap percussion, eclectic left-field samples, more AutoTune than a Bon Iver/Imogen Heap collab record--and he uses them all pretty effectively. The producers list here tells you pretty much everything you need to know about how good
the production is here. There’s the aforementioned James Blake, who contributes to “the ends,” there’s Dot Da Genius, who contributes to the Kid Cudi-featuring and interpolating “through the late night,” and Cashmere Cat and Boi-1da also make appearances here. And thanks to them and many more (the record's real MVP is Wondagurl, who supplies three of the record's best instrumentals), the record sounds great.
The lyrics, however, fall woefully short. Scott, as mentioned before, is less a “rapper” and more an aesthete in rapper’s clothing. Like contemporaries Drake and, to a lesser extent, Kanye, Scott’s strengths come in the construction of sounds and atmosphere, not in narrative and lyricism. Scott’s vocal contributions range from passively pleasant to jawdroppingly and hilariously bad, and the frequent vacillation lends the album a great deal of unnecessary tension. Songs like “sweet sweet” that boast absolutely bonkers (in the best possible way) instrumentals (again, thanks Wondagurl) are betrayed by bad lines like “Cause you're sweet, what's your status? Might hit your address, if I'm on a mattress.” Many of the album’s highlights, like “sdp interlude” and “through the late night” benefit from either an A1 feature (like Cudi on “late night” or Kendrick on “goosebumps”) or from Scott’s minimal lyricism.
Giving Scott credit where it’s due, he’s more than enjoyable when he focuses on a concrete and simple chorus or vocal line. “sdp interlude” is the best example of this. The song is pretty much all chorus, and it benefits from the mantra-like quality of the lyrics. It’s the “James Blake” principle, wherein AutoTune and repetition lend the song a beautific quality. This feature of Scott’s album can largely be forgiven because of his other positive features though. The ability to pull in compelling sonics and worthwhile collaborators helps to negate the problems with his presence and lyrics. This is more true here than it was on Rodeo
, where far too often the sonic ideas served to showcase, not sublimate, Scott’s lyrical fumblings.
More and more, Travis Scott’s projects resemble the projects of other cloud-rap and alt-rap acts. Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
is what a Yung Lean
project needs to be. The primary enjoyment here isn’t from Scott himself, but in the forces that he can amass and in the wacked out sounds he can produce. Listening to Scott for any kind of lyrical insight is missing the point. However, here there are at least enough sonic flashes and supporting players to save the album. That makes Birds…
more than just a worth Rodeo
follow-up. It makes it a replacement, which is exactly what Scott needed to make.