New Houston Rap

Travis Scott Is Now Rap's New Director of Vibes

Travis Scott irks a lot of people.

That’s the calmest, least offensive statement you can make about him. The far more streamlined and accusatory points? Those can be pointed back to his upbringing, people not exactly having the cleanest of origin stories on him. Or that he may have stolen a song or two (or several) on his way to getting to where he is. Or that he circumnavigated the typical Houston rap route — busting your ass at venues like Warehouse Live and Alley Kat, releasing mixtapes, etc. — in order to become the “hottest” rapper the city has at the moment.

He spent the past few years as a man in the room; a hovering constant at Kanye West’s creative Think Tank and a creator of memorable music. He’ll admit that his debut album, last September’s Rodeo, worked in the minutiae of picking things from his heroes. That it wasn’t cohesive and operated within a world where being everything but himself truly won. The knock on Rodeo, and to an extension Travis Scott, was that it played to the strengths of his idols, not necessarily his own. Scott's playground is chaos, the pure and unbridled variety that some have tried to emulate live but have ultimately settled for second place.

Travis Scott is beloved by a lot of people.

The beloved factor of Travis Scott is in full display on Birds In the Trap Sing McKnight, his sophomore album, which landed, after numerous delays, last Friday. After it was originally lined up against Frank Ocean’s Blond, Scott and producer Mike Dean pulled the album back into the kitchen. It needed fine-tuning; none of the guests could be revealed or even teased. In order for proper shock value to take effect, it had to be premiered on .WAV Radio, Scott’s Beats 1 show with OG Chase B. Travis Scott wants to create progressive space-rap, sounds and art that resemble riding down 288 heading toward a Third Ward hole-in-the-wall club. The sword of chaos he was responsible for on Kanye's Yeezus and even segments of Rodeo are all but gone. In its place? Sounds that feel like Travis Scott’s spin on current rap.

Birds In the Trap Sing McKnight immediately swings into a kaleidoscope of early Kanye singing meets lithe, airy trap melodies on “the ends” before André 3000 appears to crush every single thing in the world. Any time that guy shows up on your album, it’s a big deal. Scott has employed these massive guest moments before (see Justin Bieber and Young Thug owning “Maria, I’m Drunk”) in order to mask his shortcomings as a rapper. But André 3000 discussing growing up during Atlanta’s child murders in the 1980s eradicates any idea you may have had about his being washed up. He, not Jay Electronica, is rap’s best recluse and God we need more of him. Birds, unlike Rodeo, capitalizes on big-name shock value du jour. There’s KiD CuDi humming his way through the jungle while Scott does something any kid who grew up inspired by Cudi has wanted to do: flip “Day ’N Nite” into something all his own. Cassie comes in to add soothing, hypnotic vocals on top of “sdp,” which is perfect for a brief interlude about drugs. But, much like Rodeo, the end result seems far more worth discussing than the path that got us there.

There are outright fun solo Scott moments on Birds. There’s “sweet sweet,” the most scaled-down Travis creation to date thanks to frequent producer WondaGurl, CuBeatz and Murda. It’s a twist down Toronto’s Caribbean influence, and what the world is currently shifting toward in regards to island pop music. “way back” is all the Houston you need as Travis riffs on being from here; plus James Harden punchlines just to spite Steph Curry, souped-up drums from Hit-Boy, and more. Yet what has constantly bugged me and others is how you can extract some of Scott’s guests for their own moments and they absolutely shine. Take Kendrick Lamar, who in a matter of a minute immediately makes “goosebumps” his own record; it feels like Scott should have just been on the hook. Lamar already professed on a rigid Southern rap album last week that he felt like he’s been the best rapper since he was 25. He’s 29 now, and on “goosebumps” sings about putting the pussy on a pedestal like Maxwell. Kendrick and André obviously own the best two verses on the album but, like anything Travis Scott, there’s also a lingering feeling that something is amiss.

“coordinate” feels like an outright ape job of Future’s “Inside the Mattress” from January’s Purple Reign, right down to the chorus. There’s been rumor of how Scott jacked BITTSM’s lead single in “pick up the phone” from Young Thug and a Delaware singer named Starrah. Of how Scott merely added his voice atop her vocals and left Thug’s feature on the record. The incident infuriated 300 Entertainment boss Lyor Cohen to the point where his artist, Young Thug, never promoted the single. It was originally billed as a Young Thug record featuring Scott & Quavo of Migos, and it’s a definite banger. There’s also “guidance,” in which Scott jumps head first into soca/dancehall vibes, but it's merely a dry remix of featured guest K. Forest’s original.

Even if Scott has declared Kid Cudi to be one of his primary idols, it’s clear he’s far more in the Kanye West class of curation than anything else. The chaos of rumble that defined Yeezus and Rodeo is all but absent on Birds. Bryson Tiller and The Weeknd show up with able singing features, and Atlanta’s 21 Savage sheds far more grimy personality than ever before. What Scott attempts to pull off on Birds is establishing a region-less sound. He’s one of the ambassadors of Houston’s newer class not adhering to old rules or swampy bass lines, or even the West Coast funk that is its spine.  In its stead are rubbery bass lines, snare drums that slide up and down the scale, and grandiose horns. What Birds ultimately solves is the conundrum of Travis Scott.

He’s a greater director of vibes than most give him credit for.

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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