Review Summary: Who say that I ain’t gon’ sell?
Nobody should be bothered criticizing Travis Scott for a lack of technical, classist rap proficiency— there’s not much evidence that he aspires for that— but it needs to be written about, anyway. Even as Scott writes great choruses, sings addictive hooks, and performs chaotically, he can’t help but rap without saying much. There just doesn’t seem to be much that troubles or interests him. Even on Astroworld
, ostensibly the psychedelic sound of childhood dreams torn down for the sake of gentrification, his actual words includes a melange of double entendres and euphemisms too inane to bother listing. When he doesn’t pilfer other rapper’s styles (which he does, often) or perform with someone else, you’ll notice it. He’s just not very interested in rapping. What he’s interested in is aesthetic, with Astroworld
a sustained exercise in capturing nothing else other than aesthetic.
It’s important to note because just about any discussion of Travis Scott traces back to his disregard for rap in favour of vibes, ad nauseum. For all of his actual, qualified greatness-- “Pick Up the Phone,” “90210”-- critics still can’t overcome the need to dig deep into the incredible disinterest Scott has for rapping. I guess if you’re assessing Scott from the angle that he’s a rapper, which he sort of, technically, tangentially, is
, that’s a fair enough criticism (it’s a fair enough criticism, anyway, because his lyrics do span exactly two dimensions between nondescript and bad). But there’s not been much suggestion, here or otherwise, that Scott’s terribly concerned about anything other than curation. Even if Astroworld
isn’t the year’s best rap album, then it certainly feels, looks like, and seems like it is.
In fairness to Scott’s critics, the best of Astroworld
is attributable to his collaborators; Drake’s menace and Xanax abuse, Frank Ocean’s ersatz trapper pastiche, Sheck Wes’ ‘Bitch!’ ad-lib, Nav’s comically quiet and obligatory feature, Tame Impala’s dream pop turned nightmare instrumentals. In between all of it, Scott sounds impressive if not soulless, and stitches it together in a way that seems seamless, without any sameness. But, of course, there’s the sense of it being distended because it is bloated with other people’s names. Arguably, that’s Astroworld
best asset; Take a few minutes out of your day to appreciate “Stop Trying to Be God.” Its hook is sung by Kid Cudi, it features random, passionate flares of harmonica courtesy of Stevie Wonder, and a James Blake coda that chastises a deluded hero for being emotionally stunted and unable to engage. And Philip Bailey is there, too. Which is all the more momentous because as a song, it's not especially lyrical, meaningful, or otherwise intellectually satisfying. It really doesn’t aim for that. It just… bangs.
Which I would assume is Travis Scott’s modus operandi. Remember Rodeo
? Remember “3500?” Remember how it went for 7-minutes? Then you’ll probably remember that as good as it was, it was just standard for rap music in 2015. There’s an illusion of complexity and grandiosity about Scott. Some of it is deserved. Some of it clouds proper criticism. It is nevertheless hard to divorce from the source material, as Scott writes reems of lore and quotables around his album’s themes and importance only to produce serviceable, addictive club anthems instead. And so goes Astroworld
; an hour of ambitious song structures, disparate vocal and instrumental performances, and lyrical esoterica concerning Houston, tied together by Travis Scott’s affection for autotune and lowest common denominator rhymes and flows. Which isn’t particularly characteristic of a great rapper, but is more or less the ingredients of great music.