It is easily one of the most anticipated albums of 2018. Finally, Travis Scott’s third studio album – ASTROWORLD – has finally arrived. Despite being let down by a 2016 release date, fans stayed loyal to Travis’ eye for detail, experimental approach and ability to craft an album (not to mention his OVO-like intelligence in hit-making), patiently awaiting and devouring any new content from the artist. So, now with a complete project, does Travis continue to innovate or has rap moved past him in the last two years?
The short answer: he’s still in a league of his own. Bouncing back from the disappointingly generic collaborative project, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, the return of Travis Scott proves to be more intricate and calculated than anyone anticipated.
That isn’t to say ASTROWORLD is flawless. Throughout the album, it’s clear that Travis is still a young artist developing and refining his sound. In fact, the second track, CAROUSEL, is a mess. The Beastie Boys sample is atonal and disorienting, causing the 808s to sound shaky and the synth keys to sound like abrasive spikes. As a Frank Ocean fan, it pains me to comment on how yelp-y and painful his verse sounds on this track. SICKO MODE barely fares any better. With two beat changes, an uninspired verse from Drake (stealing flows again, this time from Famous Dex’s Japan) as well as a third instrumental that sounds like a variant of Look Alive (Tay Keith suspiciously producing both tracks), it’s dance-floor filler unnecessarily shoehorned in. Also questionable is the placement of 2017’s BUTTERFLY EFFECT on the project (instead of the Lil Uzi Vert and Kanye West featured WATCH which came out a few months ago). It isn’t a huge misstep and doesn’t disrupt the track listing, but it has been played out over the last year.
But the high points on the album are truly high. There’s a wide array of producers on this album, from Pharell and CyHi the Prince to Tame Impala, resulting in a greater instrumental palette than on Rodeo and Birds (those projects primarily being produced by Metro Boomin and Mike Dean). For the most part, the hypnotic trap production remains boundary pushing, and the hooks remain sticky. STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, featuring Kid Cudi hums, James Blake vocals and Stevie Wonder on harmonica may be Song of the Year, as beautiful and sweeping as it is earnest in its message. Travis’ ability to find ideal features for his beats and letting them take centre-stage, easily positions him as successor to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye. Getting 21 Savage on NC-17 was the perfect fit, as he delivers possibly the best verse on the album, and newcomer Don Toliver shines on CAN’T SAY (there are loads more uncredited features that feel like easter eggs worth discovering on revisits). The closer, COFFEE BEAN, presents Travis at his most reflective and weary, addressing self-doubt and his feelings of being an outsider in the Kardashian Klan over a smoky, boom-bap reminiscent beat produced by Nineteen85.
As a whole, ASTROWORLD displays Travis’ attempt to improve on the criticisms of his last two solo projects. He restricts himself from self-indulgence and the songs don’t feel as overproduced as they did on Rodeo while maintaining a much stronger stylistic focus than on Birds. Travis has clearly put great thought into the direction and execution of this album as well as its overall flow. It’s not as polished as a Kendrick Lamar project his sonic experimentation feels more cohesive than A$AP Rocky’s TESTING. Every track feels like a labour of love, two years spent in studios with his engineer Mike Dean, poring over details and sweating the small stuff and (for the most part), it pays off.
Attempting to review ASTROWORLD presents me with a dilemma. Yes, it can be messy and flawed, but Travis’ sense of purpose is so strong that to remove or change any track would drastically alter the listening experience. It’s the kind of album that demands to be regarded as a complete work of art, for better or for worse. It’s not the masterpiece that many were expecting but I have little doubt that it will be considered on many Rap Album of the Year lists. Travis really has carved out a lane for himself with little in the way of competition and while his subject matter could do with some maturing (we’re getting the same dose of narcotics, girls and money here as we have on all his projects), compositionally, he’s light-years ahead of his peers.
While he may have loaned his sound out to many other artists, ASTROWORLD is proof that no one makes a Travis Scott project like Travis Scott. It’s hard to compare ASTROWORLD to other releases this year and nearly impossible to reduce to a numbered rating. The album stands as a testament to true artistry in contemporary rap. It’s grand, it’s flawed, it’s bursting with character and musical ideas. Travis Scott accomplished exactly what he set out to do: ASTROWORLD is a theme park that’s worth many revisits.