Oh my, I've been gone for a long time.
Since we last spoke, I've had the opportunity to visit a place that was cherished by the kids, only to be taken from them. It's dark, bizarre, and an absolute thrill to wander. You easily find yourself lost here, caught in a gaze at the otherworldly attractions which envelope you in an apocalyptic wasteland of excess. This place is not just a park, but a breathing entity that presents a challenge those who enter. You cannot come to this place and leave all the same. Chances are, you will leave and it will follow you, seducing you into scheduling a revisit. And then another.
Of course, I'm speaking of ASTROWORLD, the third studio album by Travis Scott. It is an album that coalesces the meteoric rise of La Flame, rap's biggest rock star, with Houston's former beloved amusement park that was demolished in 2005. The result is an experience that rivals that of a roller coaster, complete with unexpected turns, beautiful sights, the anxieties of a slow build-ups and the euphoric, adrenaline spiking drops which follow. This album truly sounds like the deconstruction of an amusement park and the nostalgia Jacques Webster associates with it. Let's take a walk.
Travis Scott is master at creating introductions to projects. He is the king of setting the vibe, whether it's T.I.'s narration during "Pornography" on Rodeo, the haunting organs on "The Prayer", the panicked flow of André 3000 on "the ends" or the violent banging and screaming of "Meadow Creek".
ASTROWORLD entices visitors right off the bat with a slow, haunting melody. It's like a finger beckoning the listener to come closer, as they find themselves standing in the empty parking lot in unbearable anticipation. The night sky is glistening, adorned with swirling colors and flashing lights - the first half of this song is utterly psychedelic, taking listeners on a blissful trip as they prepare to roll through the entrance to this park. The vocals weave as Travis uses his vocal range and auto-tune as an instrument, just as much as his drums and synths. Scott's high-pitched lamentations about Kylie are absolutely otherworldly, even to those accustomed to his catalog. There is an unsettling chill in the air as an icy breeze ebbs and flows around you like a river. You shuffle your way through some litter and tumble weed, still enthralled with the vivid sights above. As you get closer to the intimidating entryway - a massive bust of a demonic fire breathing Travis - you feel the warmth of an invitation inside.
You start spinning. Your orientation and scale in the universe shrinks as you begin your free falling descent into ASTROWORLD. You are no longer confined to the restrictions of gravity as you plummet through time and space. The beat switches to urgent and anxious, transitioning viewers from the mystery of the outside world into the throttled and thrashing land of ASTROWORLD. Travis lays some serious bars here, gloating and flaunting of his affirmed spot at the top. No longer is this the kid from Houston pining for the top spot. He's here with "new enemies", but with that at the top is the "amenities": The fortunes and burdens of success.
Enjoy the ride.
After a thrilling entrance, the album lets up for a second to breathe with a cosign from Big Tuck, a rapper based in Dallas. Travis truly represents his roots throughout this project whether it's samples, features or entire track devotions. The voicemail endorses the park and hypes listeners for a journey they are totally unprepared for: ASTROWORLD is now in session.
This track is appropriately titled as the beat bobs up and down, moving in a loop just like a carousel, mashing a sample of intense vocals with the distorted tune of a merry-go-round. Travis continues to flex his ability to rap, which persists throughout the album. His decision to ditch listing his features on the track titles pays off, as listeners are greeted early-on with an incredible (and unsuspecting) hook and verse from Frank Ocean, who demonstrates his range in both singing and rapping. There are surprises and thrills around every corner at ASTROWORLD, taking listeners hostage. If I could describe this track in one word, it would be hypnotic. Like riding a carousel, it's dizzying. You try to focus on the vocals, but the production makes it difficult to avoid falling into a trance.
Travis Scott might be the main event of this festival, but he has come prepared with an entire sideshow of performers eager to perform. Frank is just the beginning.
Who didn't expect this track to be the most popular attraction? When you combine the most influential trap artist right now, the immense popularity of Drake and his undeniable ability to create viral sensations from his lyrics ("half a xan", "like a light") with one of the hottest producers in Tay Keith, whose instantly recognizable beats and tag are everywhere in rap at the moment, you have a mega-hit on your hands. This rap is a true thrill ride, a roller coaster between not one but two beat switches. Travis seems to have an affinity for throwing curve balls at listeners, and he one-upped himself on this anthem.
Travis is a master at utilizing his features. Drake might have more clout on this recording, but the strongest feature is Swae Lee, with his subtle two-line bar: "someone said". His smooth vocals and a dip in the aggressive production provide a refreshing breather from Travis' gravely vocals and the heavy hitting drums of the beat. Swae Lee's entrancing vocal interweave with a sample of Big Hawk, whose vocal feature sounds like the menacing boss villain in a video game. The production present on the middle portion is incredible because it bangs like crazy, but it’s incredibly alien, unique, and fascinating. it truly feels extraterrestrial, and it’s here to abduct everything you knew about engineering trap beats before. It lurks and thumps and sounds absolutely evil, if not demonic, especially as it breaks down and distorts while transitioning into the next section, like a blown out speaker from hell.
Then it switches AGAIN, to the section of this track that has gained it so much popularity across the mainstream. The beat and Tay Keit’s tag are familiar and hot, ushering the success of tracks like Blocboy JB’s “Look Alive” and Drake’s “Nonstop”: Heavy bass and icy beat cadences. Drake is soft and he knows it, end of story. But he loves it and the viral fortunes that come with it. There is no way he (or whoever) wrote that lyric about xanax and didn't expect it to go viral in the same vein as "kiki". This is the weakest portion of the song. It's hype as hell but the production is relatively generic when compared to the alien middle portion of the song, and Drake just does what he’s used to. The highlight of this portion is when Drake and Travis switch off rapping "like a light", resembling two rap Avengers taking turn punching the listener with unbridled aggression.
Three rides into ASTROWORLD and viewers are exhausted. Until now it's been uptempo and in your face - a fitting entrance for a raging Travis project. As Travis laments on this track, "rest in peace to Screw tonight we take it slowly". After riding carousels and roller coasters, visitors get to relax on a bench sitting under a dim streetlight, watching other ghostly visitors float by. The sky is tinted purple and casts a haze upon the park. Swae Lee is back, his voice echoing throughout the track and unites with the airy production to create a wavy and drippy atmosphere paying homage to legendary DJ Screw. The vocals mesh with the production seamlessly, with the voices of Travis and Swae contributing to the instrumentation just as much as the drums or synths. As the track slowly fades, listeners ponder what's next, and muster the energy to stand up and continue their trek through this otherworldly place.
STOP TRYING TO BE GOD
Every Travis Scott album has a ballad. "90210". "through the late night". The Cudi hums are back, and as viewers stroll through the park, they enter a house of mirrors adorned with intimate reflection of Travis' ascension to god-like status in the hip hop world.
This song is the ultimate proof that Travis Scott may be the most skilled artist when it comes to using his features in ways that are unique, contribute to the overall production of a song, and truly highlight their individual strengths. He doesn't slap on arbitrary verses or hooks, but deliberately dissects and arranges the tools an artist has to offer. James Blake provides the vocals on a beautiful outro, serving as my personal highlight on ASTROWORLD, but the aforementioned Cudi hums and Stevie Wonder (the most lit feature on this whole enchilada, no debate here) playing the harmonica. This is a song that demands to be admired as a masterpiece and more than the sum of its parts. It’s vulnerable, and it’s an incredible contrast to his earlier works such as Rodeo where he was an up-and-coming, certainly not a God . This song is a proclamation of his position at the top, but unlike G.O.O.D. mentor Kanye’s affirmation that he is a God, Travis reminds himself to be humble in the wake of his super-stardom. It’s the centerpiece of Travis’ first project that sees him in a position of such influence and power in hip-hop, and it’s a fat middle finger to anyone who doubted his ability to create poignant deep cuts after the reception to Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho. This song is cinematic, sounding more like composition from a soundtrack or score to an epic film than a cut from a trap album.
If “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” was the ballad of this album, this is the banger. Underrated? Maybe. “SICKO MODE” is more popular after all, but this song is an true Travis rager refined to a tee. It begins with a serene subtlety, with the crooning of Juice WRLD melodic voice lulling listeners, only to have La Flame light the stage on fire, screaming “SPENT 10 HOURS ON THIS FLIGHT MAN!". The production boasts Travis chanting like the crowd at a Rockets game and a serpentine-like baseline blowing your speaker. Another new kid on the block, the prodigal Sheck Wes, contributes the highlight of this track: the unforgivingly simple, repetitive, and absolutely throttling “FUCK THE CLUB UP (BITCH!!!)”. The energy on this track is unmatched anywhere else at ASTROWORLD, as the rock is tossed back and forth between the aggressive hook and the most impressive flows from Travis on the album, as he rhymes with unrelenting urgency and panic. This track is a testament to the sound that ascended Travis beyond his peers. It’s the sound of crowd surfing, jumping from the nosebleeds, rowdy tour buses and throwing up outside the venue. It’s a song that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a reminder - especially after the previous track - we are still here to rage.
After the shot of adrenaline that was “NO BYSTANDERS”, "“SKELETONS” is a necessary palate cleanser. This song is an driven by the dream-pop production of the legendary Kevin Parker, otherwise known as Tame Impala. Therefore, it is no surprise this track is incredibly complex with the amount of layers swirling together to create an experience which imitates floating through the clouds in a sunset, drifting through the sky weightless and free, unrestricted from the confines of the rest of ASTROWORLD. The chemistry is incredible between Parker and Scott, both artists who have wielded major influence on their respective genres in a way that has bridged the gap between them. It makes sense why many in the hip-hop community identify with or actively listen to Tame Impala projects as well. These artists are ahead of their time, and the sound present here cannot be shoehorned into one corner, but rather is a myriad of colors sailing over a canvas. The subtle vocal contributions of The Weeknd and Pharrell Williams complete the all-star lineup, and like any fantastic movie, every time you revisit this track you’ll notice something wonderful you missed before.
The electric guitar riffs of Rodeo have been replaced by acoustic strings on ASTROWORLD. This track is comfort food: A smooth R&B track with a low-key beat allowing the Weeknd’s natural falsetto complementing Travis’ gravelly vocals - until, of course, that incredibly satisfying high-pitched permutation of La Flame takes over the chorus, affirming T-Pain’s infamous proclamation that Travis is the best to have ever done auto-tune. This is a love song, but this is Travis’ amusement park, so of course it’s fitting the lyrics of the chorus describe thee “pussy so good/And her pussy so sweet”.
Every great amusement park has a haunted house, and this utterly spooky track is just that. “Who’s that creeping through my window?” is the perfect hook for this track, as the booming and snarling bass line accompanied by the spooky piano keys echoing throughout this track is absolutely captivating and unsettling, with the sounds of creatures growling in the background reminding listeners they really don’t know what’s lurking in the dark. Travis sounds like the Crypt Keeper, his vocals noticeably distant on this track as he narrates your nightmare through this ghastly attraction. Only the worthy are permitted to peer into the lair of rap’s fire breathing super-star. The floor boards beneath you creek as you tiptoe through the cobwebs and around pitch black corners, always kept on edge about what is to come next…
“Me and my bitch I swear we like the same sex/Fuck with all my chains on, let’s have chain-sex”. ASTROWORLD isn’t just for the kids. There’s an attraction here for adults. It’s a place of excess and sex, distant from the roller coasters and carousels. ASTROWORLD in its entirety removed from the outside world. Everything here is darker, grander, and inspired by the hyperbole of ordinary life. Whereas your typical night shows on the Vegas strip would be a burlesque or exotic striptease, ASTROWORLD raises the bar and allows visitors to enter a world of taboo sex and indulgences in sexual deviance. The jingling chimes complemented by the eerie, whisper-like vocals of Travis paint a picture of smoky rooms, neon lights, shining poles and private rooms furnished with red velvet and black leather. Oh yeah, and legendary lyrics from 21 Savage: “nutter on her face/Her new nickname Baby Face”. The addition of the infamous “murder rap” star lends to the unrated aesthetic of this song. This is the VHS tape they lock in the back stock of the store.
This is an intermission. This is an interlude to the album and a break during your visit to ASTROWORLD. It’s standing in line for a concession, disoriented by the series of fantastic events that have transpired since you entered this incredible place. You’re still riding the high, quietly pondering your own existence and how your life moving forward cannot and will not be the same. The colors are still shifting, the walls are still moving, and the flashing lights are still raining down from the stars above. You look up to see comets streaking across the galactic night sky. To make things weirder, this was written by John Mayer. Trippy.
This is an absolutely beautiful song. Like the park it is named after, the views here are scenic. The guitar and production as a whole are breezy and flow just as freely as the cadence of Travis, Gunna, and NAV. Listening to this track transports visitors of ASTROWORLD to a peak overlooking the park and the surrounding landscape, as you feel on top of the world. Nothing can stop you at ASTROWORLD (“I feel like I’m chosen/I’m covered in gold”). The Yosemite National Park is a thing of awe and beauty, and the inspiration present in nature and the grand feelings of conquering mountains and traversing valleys is conveyed here.
The winding flow and laid-back, chilled sounds of “YOSEMITE” continue. This track flows freely and is not abrasive or rigid, but the airy and hypnotic beat is punctuated by thumping bass, and Travis initiates the track with absolute swagger. His vocals enter low and deep, proceeding to slowly climb higher and higher into the chorus, where his cadence drips with a dramatic level of swagger and confidence, as if he is a preacher leading the gospel in a church of sinners. Then comes in Dan Tolliver, a (now) upcoming star, whose voice is absolutely, incredibly unique and complements the production on this track perfectly. For a track about pulling women and doing drugs, the production, flow of both artists, and their vocal pitches makes the content matter seem more inspiring than what is truly being said.
“Gang too wavy move like Navy SEALs””. Legendary.
This track is just classic and hard as hell. It’s thumping bass, an infectious hook, an ad-libs galore. After the acid trip of the previous three tracks, this song is a refined Huncho Jack collaboration, with a beat that is distinctive enough to separate itself from the pack but familiar enough to lend itself to fans of trap music. It’s nothing particularly inventive, and frankly a kiddy-coaster in comparison to tracks like “SICKO MODE” and “NO BYSTANDERS”, but it’s comfort food: It’s the bread and butter of Travis. The Migos are utilized effectively. After the drawn out, overly long project that was Culture II, they are on this track long enough to have a noticeable impact without becoming a tiring snooze. This isn’t an attraction you come to ASTROWORLD for, but it’s something you can ride while you wait for the lines in other rides to die down a bit.
Similar to “WHO? WHAT?” this song is the established mood of La Flame, especially in the mainstream. Even if you had never heard of ASTROWORLD before and have no intention on visiting, you have probably heard this. It’s like seeing a commercial: You’re getting the abbreviated, watered-down peek of the full experience. The trippy, airy, wavy aesthetic of ASTROWORLD is still present here and accompanied by a catchy chorus and sing-a-long verses (the flow remains consistent and accessible throughout) that the whole family can enjoy.
Also, it literally isn’t explicit. This song was manufactured to be a hit. Similar to a corn dog at a concession stand, you always know what you’re gonna get when you eat this. You just probably won’t be blown away, ever.
As your trip to ASTROWORLD nears an end, it’s fitting to have one last hoo-rah. This song is like revisiting that one awesome thrill ride from earlier in a quick attempt to squeeze as much fun out of this place as possible before you have to leave. This song oozes confidence and high energy. It’s a track that sees Travis with his head held high. It’s the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. After all, you did it! You survived ASTROWORLD, so who can really fuck with you now? “I might need some ventilation/A little vacation/Houstonfornication”. You, like Travis, recognize you are the absolute shit, capable of enduring thrill rides, haunted houses, and a dizzying array of creature features - and you’re badder for it on the other side. Sometimes it’s okay to leave humility at the door and acknowledge that you’ve been popping off, and this song flexes those muscles with no apology.
The sun is rising. You find yourself in the parking lot once more, dragging your feet and hanging your head in utter exhaustion from the night spent at ASTROWORLD. The park fades away behind you in an eerie haze as you stroll back to reality. You fumble around for your keys in your pocket. You unlock the car, put your key in the ignition, hands on the wheel, and look out your windshield to the orange horizon ahead as the sun peaks out over the hills. The credits roll.
This track is unlike anything else on the album. It’s subtle and beautiful in its minimalism. It’s a stream of consciousness. It’s an attempt to organize the life you’re returning to and the road ahead. It’s existential contemplation. It’s an overwhelming array of sobering thoughts in the midst of the fame, the successes, the women the money and the drugs, in everything places like ASTROWORLD offers in abundance. It’s sitting in a small coffee shop in the corner on a rainy day, looking out the window at souls passing by on the sidewalk. This song is the epilogue of this epic adventure, and its the scribbling of Travis in his own diary at the end of the day. It’s the sweetest hangover ever.
I wish I could visit ASTROWORLD for the first time again.
Bold Stars: 5 incredible, beautiful, successful and highly influential solo Travis Scott projects out of 5