This is the third (and most negative) installment in a series of four posts on the same topic. This was originally intended to be the last, but I wrote more than I expected, and I wanted to end on a more positive note. View the first post here the second one here, and expect one more wrap-up coming soon.
The New Scott
Before I fully dive into Travis Scott, I feel like it’s important to give some personal context. I can’t decide if that’s because I think memories are important, or because I’m retroactively embarrassed at my own fandom given recent developments, but either way, here’s a quick rundown:
As previously discussed, Trav has released some of my favorite hip-hop albums of the past few years. His 2015 debut Rodeo is one of my all-time favorites, and one of the handful of albums released that year that made me “believe” in hip-hop as a genre. That’s a powerful notion. And even if the album has some wack bars, it’s production, aesthetic, and sonic approach are all so impeccable that I’m willing to overlook a handful of goofy lyrics.
As great as Rodeo is, it (and Travis Scott as an entity) are prime examples of style over substance. And don’t get me wrong, there are some legitimately great songs on this album, but as a whole, Rodeo undeniably relies on textures and production to make up for its lyrical shortcomings. I’ve already made it clear that I don’t think lyrics are music’s end all be all (even for hip-hop), but I can totally see how someone approaching this album from a traditional rap mindset could leave Rodeo disappointed if they came in looking for clever writing.
But this is all me preemptively addressing valid criticism. I personally think that every track on Rodeo is great for one reason or another, and my positive memories associated with the album are more powerful than any objectivity I can ever offer up. In fact, I loved Rodeo so much that the next summer I ventured further back into Scott’s discography and found myself spinning his prior release Days Before Rodeo. I listened to the mixtape more times than I ever would have expected, and it ended up becoming my second-most played album of 2016 and currently sits at my 7th most played album of all time on last.fm. So yeah. I like that album quite a bit too.
Many of the same criticisms of Rodeo could also be applied to Days Before, but (again) I’m willing to overlook those shortcomings for the overall experience of the tape. So as I ravenously devoured these two albums I found myself rapidly advancing up the next step of my obsessive fandom staircase. I collected everything Travis-related that I could get my hands on. From tracking his features to obsessively compiling my own B-sides album it was safe to say I was in full-on hype mode.
Now is when crushing reality sets in. I’ve already linked to this reddit comment detailing the history of Travis’ broken promises in the lead-up to his second album, but I think it bears repeating. Delays and false release dates are nothing new for Travis, but this timeline highlights the absurdity of this particular album’s cycle. As someone following Travis very closely at this time, it was disheartening to have nearly weekly promises that ended up broken and eclipsed by yet another revised “announcement” the following week.
Things began to look up in June of 2016 when Travis dropped the Young Thug and Quavo-infused “Pick up The Phone.” Already a known quantity for months at that point, and fraught with last-minute legal troubles, it was a relief simply to have a fresh Travis song. I won’t get too deep into it here, but PUTP was one of my favorite songs last year and more recently has gone on to become my most listened to track of all time on last.fm within a year. It’s a breezy, ad lib-riddled summer banger. The syrupy bass line filled with intermittent 808 taps and distorted steel drums combines into a drugged-out soundscape that serves as the perfect backdrop for the three artists sharing the track.
“Pick up the Phone” felt like a positive sign to me. I couldn’t stop playing it, and it became my summer anthem within a matter of weeks. If this is the type of stuff Travis had in store for us on his next album, then maybe all the delays will have been worth it. And according to Travis, all his singles and loosies up to this point weren’t even on the album, because he wanted to give listeners a ‘fresh experience’ on their first listen. So if “Pick Up The Phone” wasn’t even good enough to make the cut, then I was officially hyped.
Travis followed that single up weeks later with a small feature on G.O.O.D. Music’s “Champions” another summer anthem that celebrates the return of Gucci Mane and showcased a rotating cast of hip-hop’s current stars and up-and-comers. Champions specifically brings to mind memories of my graduation which happened around the time of its release. In fact, my nostalgia for this track is so strong that I’ve even downloaded the version ripped from the radio because the drops evoke waves of nostalgia in me. I still remember sitting underneath Portland’s Moda Center in a cap and gown surrounded by friends and checking my phone in between conversations to see the explicit version of the track had been officially released. This comment thread specifically made me laugh so much that I still have the screencap of it saved in my phone.
But I’m getting horrifically off-topic. All signs were pointing towards a great release as Trav continued to promote his upcoming album. As mentioned above, the lead up to Birds was essentially a weekly string of broken promises and unfulfilled blue balls. And I get that it’s selfish to “expect” an album, but when you repeatedly say ‘my album is coming out in X days’ or “tonight” I’ll start to get pissed after the third or fourth time.
In early August Trav ended up droppings two loosies on his Apple Radio show: “The Hooch” and “Black Mass” they were both cool… but I was glad they were just loosies he was tossing off on his radio show. Weeks later, September 2nd he finally dropped his sophomore album Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight.
I remember I was on vacation at the time and without a music streaming service. It agonized me that I couldn’t listen to the album until I got home. All I could do was enjoy my vacation *shudders* and read comments online.
They were exceedingly negative.
How could this be? I’d seen this happen before. In some ways I was glad. Whenever the internet mob preemptively lowers my expectations like this, I’d come out the other side enjoying what they were bitching about far more than I would have otherwise (see: Mass Effect 3, and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book.) But I saw the bright side. I knew that when I did get back home and sit down to listen to the album, I should lower my expectations. If your expectations are low enough anything can exceed them, right?
The Problem With Birds
Birds In the Trap feels like drab, dark, and lifeless background music. That’s not to say I don’t like dark albums, there’s a time and place for them… but it just feels so incomplete and half-hearted here. Birds is devoid of life. It is (intentionally?) poorly mixed, lacking of substance, and the album art looks like an edgy Myspace background circa 2006. Look. I’m not saying Rodeo was high art or that it even had anything new to say, but it’s far more substantive than Birds ever tries to be. What Rodeo brought to the table was a metric fuckton of different ideas and sounds that were all produced impeccably. It commands attention and each track sounds different from the last. We ended up with the polar opposite on Birds.
As a person that talks about music, it feels like a cop-out to just link to someone else’s review, but The Needle Drop’s dissection of Birds is a pretty spot-on breakdown of what feels wrong with the album. Going back to the idea of an album’s substance, Birds feels like the album equivalent of an item off the McDonald’s Value Menu. It’s about the lowest of the low (even for fast food) but it still qualifies as “food” on a technical level.
At the risk of making a horrific pivot (or just to take a break from negativity), check out this video about True Detective. If you can’t watch all eleven minutes skip straight to 2:40 and watch the section on Rogue One. I can’t tell if this is a hyper-specific example, a universal one, or just something that I’m trying to crowbar in because I’m in the mood to rewatch True Detective, but this video felt oddly poignant. Specifically, the line “when the plot is motivated by a writer or director’s aesthetic needs instead of character motivation, something just inevitably feels missing.” To me, this describes Birds to a tee.
As mentioned ad nauseam, I do not go to Travis Scott for hyper-lyrical bars, so I didn’t expect that from Birds. What I did expect was thick production, varied textures, and (at the very least) some competent song structure. I ended up receiving very little of anything. It felt like Travis was chasing some aesthetic desire and forwent anything else that made his work interesting previously. And don’t get me wrong, I like some songs off of Birds, but in the year since its release, I’ve realized that it has become symbolic of him not trying.
The single standout from Birds is “Goosebumps” a Kendrick Lamar-collab with a drowsy bloop-filled beat accompanied by one of the most infectious hooks I’ve heard since “Pick up the Phone.” And speaking of “Pick up the Phone” the song ended up on the album. This is after Trav promised that Birds would be “all new material.” After he had already released the song three months prior in June. After it had already been included on Young Thug’s JEFFERY as a bonus track in August. Similarly, the sparkly weekend collab “Wonderful” ended up on Birds as the album’s closer after having already been released as a Soundcloud throwaway at the end of 2015. And that was the album’s closing track.
The whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth. Alongside these repurposed tracks were songs like “SDP Interlude” that just come off as half-finished, under-developed scraps of songs that Travis just decided to toss onto the album. It was underwhelming in every sense of the word and didn’t clear my already-low expectations. But maybe this was just a sophomore slump. A byproduct of constant touring combined with the monumental task of following up an excellent predecessor.
This is truly my hope, but with each new piece of music emerging from Travis’ camp, I become less and less hopeful in a return to form anytime soon. I’ll dive deeper into my thoughts on Travis Scott’s current output and future in the fourth and final post coming very soon.