Listening to Astroworld feels very much like you’re wandering through the eccentric theme park depicted on the artwork: voices you recognise leap out from the shadows and melt away again, with Travis Scott himself serving as the clear through-line. The third solo album from the US artist stars an overwhelming number of (uncredited) guest features, producers and co-writers, but, ultimately, it’s his own, most career-defining work to date.
Despite the staggering list of people involved in the making of this record, Astroworld never comes across as over-cluttered. Rather, the features are laid out like an Easter egg hunt to be discovered over time, something which feels purposely done by an artist who is hyper-aware of how limited his audience’s attention span can be.
Featured along with a superb Beastie Boys sample, Frank Ocean’s appearance on “Carousel” is exquisite, blissful even, as his signature, rich-yet-husky voice floats over delicate chords: “Blue bands, blue bands/Get my cash from drive-thru/Boy you’re too flash, too flash/Keep the flash minimal/Bitch I’m too cold, too cold/See my breath visible.”
Drake, who guests on a remarkably low-key chorus on “Sicko Mode”, sounds more important on this record than he did at any point on his own recent release, Scorpion, with a ballsy, confident flow over haunted house synths and Scott’s supportive murmur at his back. On the slow-sprawling “Stop Trying To Be God” – the longest track on the record at 5.38 minutes, serial crooner James Blake takes centre stage with his hymn-like verse, makes way for Scott to trade melodies with Kid Cudi... only until a resplendent and dexterous harmonica solo, reportedly performed by none other than Stevie Wonder, bursts into life.
After the vibrant “No Bystanders”, the record drifts on “Skeletons”, which features The Weeknd and Pharrell – despite its short length the listener may notice their attention wandering during the former’s low moans. “Wake Up”, which follows immediately after, does what it says on the tin: that gutsy twang on the acoustic guitar forms a beautiful, D’Angelo-influenced contrast to The Weeknd’s lustful demands. All of the producers on Astroworld have perfectly understood Scott’s wish for a chopped up and pieced back together approach, but it’s Sevn Thomas who really nails it with this track: it’s arguably the best on the record. The stuttering back beat, low murmur of the bass, Scott’s seamless takeover from The Weeknd’s verse with a Latin-influenced delivery and the way Thomas loops the guitar hook… it’s a heady mood to be swept up in.
Where an artist like Kendrick Lamar felt revolutionary by bringing live jazz artists into the studio on To Pimp A Butterfly, Scott seems lightyears ahead of his peers simply by incorporating guitar and piano-based instrumentation. “5% Tint” borrows the piano sequence from Goodie Mob’s hip hop classic “Cell Therapy” – re-recording it for a darker, slightly more dignified/less playful version – and also interpolates the hook: “Who’s that creeping through my window/Before you come outside I got the info/Took her to the end zone from The Ends.” Then on “Astrothunder” he uses the guitar hook from “Sold Out Dates” by Gunn ft. Lil Baby, which in turn recalls a track like “Florida Logic”, from Wisconsin’s instrumental post-rock band Cougar.
Closer “Coffee Bean” dives straight into old school hip hop territory with a blissed-out funk guitar. It also offers perhaps Scott’s most personal, insightful performance: he wonders why his in-laws, the Kardashians, dislike him (“Your family told you I’m a bad move/Plus I’m already a black dude”) then offers a light critique of his and girlfriend Kylie Jenner’s respective priorities, as a gorgeous, deep cello ups the theatrics.
Some may argue that Scott’s general lack of blistering social commentary reduces the relevancy of this record. Others may take umbrage at his occasionally eye roll-inducing and regressive tropes where women still feel disposable (“bounce that s**t forever she on both knees/She was talkin’ bout forever got a whole week”).
Yet the record progresses – in every sense of the word – he allows himself to become more vulnerable, more considerate. It’s reflected in the album cover – as you walk in you see a rather bland cast of people around you, yet as you emerge out the other side that world becomes more fantastical, more diverse and consequently more interesting (even without the regrettable absence of trans model Amanda Lepore). And all the while Scott owns an energy that is so ambitious and forward-gazing that Astroworld feels as though it’s from the future, rather than the present. As “Carousel” notes, Travis Scott is a new species of artist altogether.
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