LATENIGHT

Why Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD Was My Album of the Year

“Rollin rollin rollin got me stargazing—psychedelics got me goin’ crazy.”

The much anticipated release of Travis Scott’s 3rd album, ASTROWORLD, was a midsummer holiday to be celebrated with respect. Arizona iced teas, Backwoods rolling papers, and high school half-friends packed into my mom’s minivan. Though we’d barely interacted since college began, the occasion was momentous enough to rally the set of music nerds back into a group. After preparing with a late-night trip to a nearby nature preserve, we made for Jones Beach down a long, poorly-lit freeway, and finally, I pressed play.

If it isn’t clear already, Travis Scott’s 3rd album was a big deal for me. His last two albums were already personal classics: Rodeo was one long, drugged-out night anthem, and Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight perfectly mixed Travis’s warbly mumblings over beats that erased the distinction between dreamy cloud rap and aggressive trap. The difference now was that Travis Scott was everywhere. After years of nudging the culture, he started rotating it on an axis. 2018 saw him catapult from underrated internet star to mainstream musician, due in no small part to his quickly cemented relationship with Kylie Jenner. Concerts turned to SNL appearances, album covers became magazine covers. It felt like I had a personal stake in his rise, and I had already steeled myself to reach and argue ASTROWORLD into album-of-the-year conversations regardless of its quality; I had gassed up the project way too much to face reality if it flopped.

The album’s first song, “STARGAZING,” provides a fitting intro, to its sonic and lyrical concepts. If ASTROWORLD recreates the closed Houston amusement park it’s named for, this song is its rollercoaster. The song’s first half builds the same sort of suspense: high-hat drums click at eighth-note intervals, pushing the song just a little too fast for comfort while a stretched, metallic tone slowly calls and responds in the background. Sitting on top of beat-long 808s, these two sounds average out to an uneasy speed, unmistakably reminiscent of an acid come-up. The first verse begins as Travis switches between his trademark groaning and a high-pitched, unintelligible whine to describe his meteoric rise to success, regular and excessive drug use, and the start of his new family―all in the same verse.

“STARGAZING” crests two thirds of the way through with the sounds of rollercoasters and an airy set of howls before the ambiance cuts to silence. After a confused half-second, the 808s return faster and distorted. The hi-hats come in triplet bursts, and the slow background tone is replaced by an upward arpeggio that just keeps hitting. Beat switches are to be expected in a Travis project, but the abruptness is new. Travis stops mumbling and just raps—talking no sleep, mosh pit concerts, cocaine nose-bleeds straight through to the last line: “Ya feel me?”

I didn’t, but I was dumb lit in this Honda Odyssey. ASTROWORLD proceeded to deliver as both a listening experience and a thematic project. Even better, it did so by ignoring every expectation I had formed. The album jumps from ride to ride: purposefully avoiding the cohesion that flannel-wearing music critics have so often praised, the cohesion that made his last two projects so impressive. Travis pieces together a rapper’s dark fantasy: Kylie Jenner is routinely deified, the Weeknd sings a deeply emotional ballad to IV heroin, and our protagonist hops from show to flight to club as autotuned verses bleed into one long tribute to his nightlife escapades. Throughout, Travis’ vocals are the only constant, as the entire album is organized around disorienting contrasts. “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” holds a full theological discussion directly before “NO BYSTANDERS”—a song whose hook is three dudes yelling “FUCK THE CLUB UP.” The outro on “WAKE UP” promises a club banger, only to produce the creeping piano and eerie rattling on “5% TINT.”

This sort of norm-breaking feeds into a project-wide mission to dislodge the various staples that have come to typify pop-rap. “SICKO MODE” is the ideal example, both for its disrespect to The Hook as an institution, and the fact that it has nevertheless gone double-platinum. The Hook has acted as the rap verse’s more profitable antithesis, where catchy vocal melodies can justify putting hip-hop on mainstream radio. There is arguably no greater champion of The Hook than pop-rap’s primary deity: Drake. Any song with a Drake feature inevitably charts and usually defines a project, and when “SICKO MODE” began, I predicted the usual: Drake will spit an intro through the beat drop and rap two lines into the expected verse. All seemed to be going as I predicted But suddenly, his voice echoes down to silence. The beat unceremoniously switches to a punchy, industrial layering of drums as Travis rips 24 hookless bars, ending the verse with a reminder: “Who put this shit together—I’m the glue.” Only then is Drake brought back for his verse, the hit restarted on a different beat and followed up by a second Travis verse to end the song.

This ritual sacrifice of a Drake Hook recenters Travis as the executive producer of the album, and he claims any and all credit. It contributes to the larger point being made with the project, one symbolized by the grotesque, open-mouthed Travis Scott blow-up on the album’s cover. With ASTROWORLD, the rapper known as Travis Scott is building a children’s theme park for which he is the entrance and architect. The pop-rapper acknowledges his objectively weird role as ringleader in a WWE-like circus. The music is a drug, it’s a trip, it’s a voyeuristic glimpse into the highlight reels of a lifestyle that doesn’t actually exist. Rather than reject this role, ASTROWORLD leans into it, pasting together a caricature that is self-aware yet no less committed for it.

Travis plays his part beautifully, and it’s nearly 2 a.m by the time we reach the final song. The beat on “COFFEE BEAN” is unexpectedly relaxed. Gone is the chain-laden Hidden Hills denizen. Strippers and drop-tops are waved away, and where the rapper persona stood is some guy in shades who likes drugs and hip-hop. A muted, startlingly relatable Travis waits in line in a coffee shop and stresses about his girlfriend. After ten days without talking, Travis wonders, is he even good for Kylie? She’s a public figure, her family doesn’t like him, and he’s already got one strike for being a Black man. Already preparing for custody battles, Travis envisions his own divorce before he’s even married. “Bad, bad news.” The rapper’s finished, and these day-to-day issues remain unresolved.

Violin and Auto-Tune hummed the end of the album and the night’s trip as red-eyed kids climbed out one by one, exiting the minivan’s yawning doorway towards homes and train stations. Finally, it was just me and my green tea, paused at the stoplight. I’d spent the most exciting portion of my evening reading into every beat and versehypersexed commercial myths of gold, bottles, and logos. Was any of it worth the philosophizing? Where did this deep attraction to party rap come from, and what are its implications? How could I have better spent this time and energy? For a moment, I questioned my values and my sense of direction.

Then I pressed play again, because ASTROWORLD slaps.