Houston Music

Travi$ Scott's 'Rodeo': A Circus Missing Its Main Star

Fans have a considerable love/hate relationship with Travis Scott.

Here’s the love part. Scott currently occupies space in the same galaxy to where he calls T.I. a label boss and could brush shoulders with mentor Kanye West on a daily basis. He's one of the influences on Kanye’s post-punk synth monster that was Yeezus. He’s from Missouri City, the small enclave outside of Houston that may have more talent within its city limits than some states. That is a victory in itself. Scott's live performances focus on him being a physical hurricane, limbs flailing and thrashing around as a hearty ode to punk rock. He doesn’t "rap" very often, instead opting to play master of ceremonies while the crowd joins him in a contest to see who can be more engaged.

Scott also went against his mom’s wishes, took the money given to him for books and tuition and used it to buy equipment and hone his craft. Andre 3000(!) randomly showed up at his last Houston performance at House of Blues. That bears repeating again — André Benjamin, of OutKast, made a random stop in Houston to take in a Travi$ Scott show, and nobody still knows the reason why. The sounds he happens to create with the helping hands of a ton of industry co-conspirators run inside moments of Mad Max meets a bando in Atlanta. There’s clobbering, massive drums and synth notes. He’s a quick study. Travi$ Scott’s art, if you will, is to lead like-minded people into a vortex of temporary nihilism and shouting matches over gothic trap soundscapes.

The hate? There’s scuttlebutt and rumor around Scott that he doesn’t actually produce a lot of his tracks, that he’s navigated his way to the top via theft and some shady practices. That he’s closer to a figure in the room offering reaction points as opposed to notes or sounds or fresh ideas in terms of “production." That he may be the poster boy for the term “industry plant,” and may create vapid, insular music sans any actual substance. He's one of the influences in Kanye West’s post-punk synth monster that was Yeezus. That at those same shows where he’s a theatrical wizard of command and energy, he can turn into an unappreciative louse. A few of his known crimes include kicking out photographers during his set at HOT 97’s Summer Jam in June; stopping performances to demand his respect as an “artist"; fighting fans (on more than one occasion) and demanding a crowd to rush a barricade. The last stunt got him arrested less than five minutes into his Lollapalooza set in Chicago last month.

For every moment Scott finds himself on the cusp of something larger (2013’s massive “Upper Echelon”), there’s something nearby that always makes the entire process seem artificial. As rappers from outside of Houston are doing syrupy, low-eyed Houston-style music, Scott has already drifted far away from that, operating in a head space that demands low moods and a quicker fuse to turn shit into a battlefield. Travi$ Scott represents Houston new, thought some don’t exactly feel that regardless of how often he makes references to home. Then again, anytime you openly refer to yourself as an “artist” as a form of third-person fellatio when few may agree with your “art," you open yourself up to being immediately called an asshole.

Now, the “rodeo” that is Scott’s live show is asked to contort itself into a 70-minute album, one where T.I. can offer street wisdom like Big Rube but instead come off as an antebellum-trap Morgan Freeman. On paper, Rodeo, Scott’s official Grand Hustle debut after Days Before Rodeo and Owl Pharaoh, should feel like an event. Here stands the youngest protégé of Kanye West with an album that features West, Toro Y Moi, The Weeknd, Quavo of Migos, Future, 2 Chainz, Swae Lee, Young Thug and Justin Bieber, to name a few. The production is chaotic, sometimes morose and right in line with early Days Before Rodeo tracks like “Mamacita” sauntered out with. Even though he’s officially credited with producing only two cuts, Scott has got a gang of hands in the pot. Big names there too: Mike Dean, Metro Boomin, Southside, TM88, Sonny Digital, Zaytoven, West, Wondagurl, DJ Dahi, Allen Ritter, Pharrell, etc. What it ends up being is a constantly loud and furious album that ultimately signifies nothing for its creator and understated awareness from all of its guests.

Of those guests, nobody comes off better than Young Thug and Bieber, who not only sings but raps on “Maria I’m Drunk,” pulling off a Young Thug facsimile that is endearing and actually memorable. Yes, Kanye does appear for the relatively short “Piss On Your Grave” to get more frank about using the human body as a receptacle; his open calls are far more relative to his “Speech About Nothing” from the VMAs than anything else on Rodeo. Juicy J pops in to declare the power his liver has to withstand damn near anything on “Wasted"; and 2015 MVP Future and 2012 MVP 2 Chainz jump inside the massive rap sojourn that is “3500,” commanding everything in sight — even the additional 2-minutes of runoff.

In a way, when The Weeknd shows up for “Pray 4 Love,” he’s continuing to sing about drugs and sex (his daughter will never meet a dude like him, FYI) but is far more urgent and longing for it, as if he finally missed a batch along some synth-heavy Collins-esque apocalyptic production. “Pray 4 Love” also offers a middle finger towards Fox News and CNN for their representation of blacks in the media and how Travi$ is telling his crew that they’re far away from their Elkins High School days but that’s as far as you get into knowing his back story here. He enjoys having slices of anonymity pad around his musical output and one of the closest quotables you’ll get about his past is short and sweet.

“Shit, high school was on some sports shit. I was always running around doing dumb shit,” he told Grantland’s Amos Barshad exactly a year ago. “Hyper activities. I was always into music, so I did that. I was smart. I fucked with school. I fuck with education. But I always had an urgency to do something awesome. When you young, you looking at niggas like Lil Bow Wow and shit like, balling.”

Short, propped-up sentences. The Grantland profile offers a bit of history, how he’s friends with D’Angelo Harrison and how the story of Harrison’s brother Dre is another moment of a lost soul from Mo City, but nothing on his old group The Classmates or OG Che$$ or his days recording music in a dorm room at the University of Texas San-Antonio. Rodeo doesn’t want to find itself via the history of its creator. Instead it wants to square-dance and thrash around, decree “we don’t fuck with cops” (“Flying High”) or shout about drugs with glee (album favorite “Antidote”). Those are where the solo highs exist on Rodeo, and the lows often deal with how repetitive Scott can be, in chorus and with his clan of producers.

Maybe the action figure cover of Scott standing atop a monster truck is a symbol of something. Figures are whatever you make them out to be. The body and definitions may never change, but the idea of a figure is constantly changing. Rodeo doesn’t offer much in terms of change in regards to the “idea” of Travi$ Scott. He’s chasing art without necessarily creating engaging art. Maybe that’s where we stood with Owl Pharaoh and Days Before Rodeo, dealing with Travi$ attempting to escape the collating of his influences. To some, Travi$ Scott is a KiD CuDi action figure coated with a little bit of Chicago’s drill scene and The Weeknd’s exasperated sexuality, all hit with the magic wand of Kanye West. To others, he’s an artist finding his way while finding his name next to some interesting moments in current rap.

But his name is all over a Kanye album, and that’ll never change. Rodeo is an adventure, an odyssey that is supposed to get us somewhere in regards to control. The sirens, however, just lead us nowhere.

Travi$ Scott performs Friday night at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell