Though he may not yet have the sort of singles chart history to back it up, there’s no doubt that Travis Scott is a star. His live shows rarely fail to drop jaws with their energy, opulence, and unruliness. He recently had a baby with the Kardashian clan’s most au courant scion. His signature line of Nikes sparked a mob scene when they were released earlier this summer; these days even a scuffed-up used pair will set you back a few hundred dollars. And though there have been numerous delays in the two years since the release of his last solo album, “Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight,” when a giant gold likeness of the rapper’s head appeared atop L.A.’s Amoeba Music last month, no one under the age of 30 was confused about what it meant.
For his third proper solo release, the 26-year-old Texan certainly gets a superstar’s showcase. Even in a summer crowded with more marquee hip-hop releases than any in recent memory, “Astroworld” stands out for its maximalist, spared-no-expense production. Overseen by Scott and Mike Dean, the album is a druggy kaleidoscope of textures and techniques, making room for psychedelic guitars, trap drums, hazy synths, haunted house piano, Enya-esque vocal swells, futuristic baubles and start-stop song suites while remaining surprisingly sonically coherent. The album’s roster of featured artists reads like a Met Gala guest list: Frank Ocean, Drake, the Weeknd, Pharrell, John Mayer, James Blake, Kid Cudi, Tame Impala, one half of Rae Sremmurd, two thirds of Migos, and even Stevie Wonder. (Drake may have splashed the cash on a previously unheard Michael Jackson sample for last June’s “Scorpion,” but coaxing Wonder into the studio to lay down a harmonica solo is quite a Rolodex flex.) “Astroworld” is a late-summer funhouse trip par excellence, and there are at least half a dozen cuts here that will surely still be heard booming from clubs, college parties and Melrose boutiques well into the fall and winter.
So why, for all its moments of magic, does “Astroworld” often feel strangely empty, like a massive summer blockbuster whose plot vanishes from memory as soon as it ends? Maybe it’s the underwritten protagonist. Scott has plenty of charisma and star-wattage, he’s a passable lyricist, and his singsong, AutoTuned delivery is instantly recognizable, but he’s never developed the one thing that every A-list MC needs: a compelling story. Judging by his lyrics, Travis Scott seems like a very wealthy, generally happy young dude with a taste for drugs, sex and luxury goods – but hedonistic contentment isn’t exactly the most dynamic theme, and beyond that he remains a bit of an enigma.
Perhaps that’s intentional. Scott is a onetime protégé of Kanye West, whose own impeccable taste and unerring musical instincts have lately come to be overwhelmed by the growing nastiness and narcissism of the man himself. By comparison, Scott burdens his listeners with remarkably little drama. His one-liners don’t get much more cutting here than “Stacey Dash, most of these girls don’t got a clue.” There are two separate references to Jamba Juice. Album closer “Coffee Bean” offers a glimpse behind the curtain at Scott’s relationship with Kylie Jenner, though otherwise his personal life seems to consist of a never-ending shopping spree interrupted by occasional trysts. (“All three Rollies look alike / After two you get a hookup price” may be a useful tip for the budget-conscious shopper looking to rotate $10,000 watches, but it isn’t much of a lyric.) Materialism in hip-hop is nothing new, but great rappers always find ways to hint at the darkness and triumph behind all the conspicuous consumption – whether it’s Jay-Z itemizing his Basquiat collection, Biggie switching between video game consoles or Cardi B stomping through town in blood-bottomed high-heels, the takeaway isn’t the fancy things they have, but the struggles they had to endure to get them. Without that narrative grounding, Scott’s raps feel more like a listless scroll through Robb Report.
Whatever it may lack in lyrical substance, however, “Astroworld” is tied together somewhat by Scott’s newfound geographic specificity. Named after a defunct Houston amusement park, the album is bursting with call-backs to Southern rap history. The meditative “RIP Screw” is an appropriately molasses-paced tribute to Houston’s chopped-and-screwed innovator DJ Screw; Three 6 Mafia, Big Tuck and 2 Live Crew make cameos, sampled or otherwise; and most obviously, the Slim Thug hat-tip “5% Tint” finds several ways to interpolate Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy,” replacing the original’s dark paranoia with jaded sexual innuendo.
These scattered Southern themes may be a bit too loose to count as a throughline, but musically the album charges forward with a ruthless momentum that rarely comes across as hurried or frantic. The Drake feature “Sicko Mode” sees the guest rapper start to build up a head of steam, only for a beat-switch to cut him off mid-thought, then smash cut into a Scott verse, then start a new Drake verse from scratch, as if the song is editing itself in real time. “Stop Trying to Be God” at first seems a pleasant if by-the-numbers slow-jam, only to rouse itself with a gorgeous coda pairing Blake’s lovesick croon and Wonder’s inimitable harmonica playing. The Thundercat-produced interlude “Astrothunder” is a glorious zero-gravity mess of firework whistles and extraterrestrial bass, with Scott’s plaintive singing orbiting somewhere above. “Who? What!” is a radio hit in the making, easing from Scott’s verse to Migos’ Quavo and Takeoff so smoothly that it’s initially hard to tell where one rapper stops and the other begins.
At 17 tracks, “Astroworld” is not without filler – the 21 Savage feature “NC-17” is tiresomely sophomoric, while “Can’t Say” and “Houstonfornication” never really take shape – but rarely does the album feel lazy or uninspired. In fact, maybe there’s something noble in Scott’s willingness to shrink away from the spotlight; when Frank Ocean is on hand to give you an effortless hook, why stand in his way? “Who put this s—t together? I’m the glue,” he raps early on the record, and his ability to synthesize so many different voices and sounds into such a cohesive, appealing work is nothing to sneeze at. There’s no denying Travis Scott throws one hell of a rager; maybe next time out he’ll take a minute to properly introduce himself.