This is the fourth, final, and most speculative in a series of four posts on the combative relationship between artistic pursuits and commercial achievements. View the first post here, the second one here, and the third here.
Features Aplenty, Featuring Apathy
Unlike Drake, Travis Scott has yet to release an album in 2017. As a result, the final entry in this four-part series will now shift from a post-mortem into (admittedly) premature evaluation. While Drake isn’t quite out of the woods yet, he’s it at least trending upwards artistically. Meanwhile, Travis Scott has been trending upwards in terms of sales and popularity, but I feel like I’ve seen the inverse in his music. And because he hasn’t released a full project yet, all we can do at this point is look at some of the features and individual songs that Travis has worked on since the release of Birds.
Most recently, Trav dropped a trio of loosies on his SoundCloud: “Butterfly Effect,” “A Man,” and “Green & Purple.” Truth be told, none of these songs did anything for me, and for the most part, they feel just as devoid of life as Birds. Reading shitty comments online is what originally prompted me to think about this intersection between artistic purity and commercial success, but this recent drop of songs really inspired me to start getting my thoughts out on paper. If these songs are indicative of what Trav has in store for us on his 2017 album, I’m genuinely concerned.
But the bigger topic here is “what comes first: art or success?” I think most people would say the first one, and then those creations go on to achieve success (however you define that). However, once you reach a certain point, I think you can start creating from the other end of the spectrum and just let the money be your guiding light for creation. That’s the battle.
But maybe this is all just Travis Scott Fatigue at this point, so let’s look beyond the man’s own tracks at some of his 2017 features. If there’s anything that sparks inspiration, it’s working with other artists and jumping into some more varied sounds, right?
Even without an album drop, 2017 has been a banner year for Trav. With guest appearances on everything from Major Lazer to SZA and everything in between, it seems you can’t officially be a part of the music scene in 2017 without a feature from Travis Scott. One of the weirder tracks is the collaborative effort “Go Off” from the Fate of the Furious Soundtrack. Sure, it’s generic as fuck, but it’s hard to judge anything based off a watered-down lowest-common-denominator platform like Fast and Furious.
Even still, the most offensive Travis Scott feature (and quite frankly my tipping point) was his appearance on Migo’s CULTURE at the beginning of the year… but before breaking that down, I’d like to give some additional context on ad libs.
Get Hyped or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ad Lib
For those unfamiliar, ad libs in hip-hop are distinct phrases that rappers interject within individual lines of their own lyrics. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an ad lib-loving hypebeast (you have to be to start a Desiigner subreddit.) It’s nearly a facet of my personality at this point. Ad libs just get me fired up, and I love how much rappers have been utilizing them lately.
Adlibs are typically used to emphasize a point, excite the audience, or flex after a particularly impressive rhyme. Some artists like Migos use adlibs after nearly every line just to add context and extra texture to their bars. Meanwhile, other people like Chance The Rapper have developed their own repertoire of noises that act as a calling card.
As explained by Pigeons and Planes, ad libs at worst represent “a space-filler, a moment that allows for a word to be repeated, emphasized, or followed by an “uh-huh” or some other bland affirmation.” and at best act as “an opportunity for unique self-expression, a brief moment outside of the lyrics themselves to show character, expand the meaning of the song.”
One of my favorite examples of ad-libbing is Young Thug’s “Halftime” in which he drops a lung-collapsing 12-second “SKRR” forty-four seconds into the track. The prolonged cry lies relatively quietly beneath Thug’s yelped rhymes and just above Kip Hilson’s booming bass-drenched beat. After that, Thug goes on to discuss his eccentric fashion choices and throws off his own rhyming couplet by dragging out the syllables of “recycles” to which he laughs. He’s keeping the listener on their toes. Immediately after that subversion, Thug “winds up” into an increasingly-speedier set of overtly-sexual bars, each of which is punctuated by a series of escalating ad-libbed interjections which Thug himself then interrupts with a reserved “no” right at the rhyme’s climax. The fact that this is all happening in between rapped lines makes the track a treat to listen to and rewards repeated listens. Thug is literally his own backing track. On top of that, this barrage of ad-libs is surrounded by hilariously over-the-top lyrics like “suck my dick like Beavis no, Butthead” and “I just want that neck like a giraffe.” It’s an intoxicating display and one that all happens within the space of a minute on a single verse. Blink and you’ll miss it, but “Halftime” is an absolutely flawless example of ad libs flirting with (and improving) a song as a whole.
I’ve always been a fan of Travis Scott’s adlibs. From the hype-building Straight Up! and It’s Lit! to his trademarked La Flame! He’s made a career (and a name for himself) out of expertly-deployed soundbites. So imagine my surprise when I found myself listening to Migo’s world-conquering CULTURE at the beginning of the year and made it all the way to the album’s penultimate track “Kelly Price” which featured Travis Scott.
I entered hesitantly, given how fresh in my mind Birds was, but I remained optimistic since Travis and Quavo have had a near-impeccable track record up until that point. The song starts with a haunting beat and a hook that finds Quavo running down the typical Migos list of favorite things: Cars. Money. Drugs. Women. Pretty standard stuff so far. Then Travis Scott comes in.
He lazily floats the track by sputtering two words: Flash. Dash. and then drops a “straight-up” adlib. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe I shouldn’t be as offended at this as I am, but I was amazed that this dude just hopped on a track, said two words that barely rhymed and then dropped an ad lib as if he’d just spit some world-shattering bars. It called to mind “Biebs in the Trap” off of Birds in the Trap where Trav opened a verse in an almost identical, but even lazier way. The verse in question reads more like an unrelated grocery list of things that kind of rhyme but just sound cool when thrown together over a particular beat.
As mentioned before, I don’t go to Travis Scott for lyrical bars. So it feels weird to criticize him for verses like the two above… but at the same time, they’re just so far below his already-low bar for lyricism. I’m mainly surprised that he seems to be regressing towards such a simplistic style. One in which he relies almost entirely on production and v i b e s to carry him and his lack of personality or technical skill.
It’s also disappointing because I loved Days Before Rodeo and Rodeo so indescribably, yet I haven’t fully enjoyed anything that he’s put out since 2015. This all ties back to the first post in the series, because right now I’m just bitching that I don’t like the direction an artist is taking.
I Guess That’s It
I guess if there’s any theme to this series, it’s been about expectations, disappointments, and hope. I was expecting a lot from both Drake and Trav in 2016, and they both let me down in different ways. Since then Drake has really bounced back in my eyes, but Travis seems to be continuing down a different path. I know I started this series complaining about people online wanting to dictate artists art… so I won’t do that. All I can do is hope. Hope that he has something grander and more experimental in stock for us.
I believe that Travis has it in him to create more albums on par (and better than) Rodeo, but he could also continue down the “easier” path that’s already laid before him. And I realize it’s a shitty thing for a fan to just say “their old stuff was better.” You can’t expect an artist to just keep remaking an album forever. To do so is to wish stasis and artistic malaise on someone that you’re supposedly a fan of. It’s also hard when Rodeo and DBR are tied to such positive memories in my past, and Birds has no comparable equivalent, but it’s unfair of me to judge an album based on something external to itself.
Earlier this year I actually saw Travis Scott live at Portland’s Moda Center. It was a pretty great show (even if I wasn’t able to snag floor tickets) and oddly relevant to this topic since Drake made a surprise appearance at that show. It was a wild show, but the difference between Travis’ old and new material was night and day. It’s odd because he wanted Birds to get “straight to the meat.” The album was created with stadium tours in mind. According to Scott he quickly learned what songs from Rodeo did and didn’t work live, and that influenced his creative process while making Birds. Maybe I just like the more “intimate” feeling of Rodeo as opposed to the “broad” nature of Birds in the Trap.
Never Taking a Break
Even more recently, Travis Scott did an interview with SHOWstudio. HotNewHipHop had an interesting take on the interview, positing that he would “take a break” from music after the release of his upcoming third album. Travis Scott personally replied to the speculation on Twitter claiming “Nigga I’m never taking a break.”
Reading this exchange filled me with different emotions. First, honestly, a pang of sadness. Despite the recent perceived decline in quality, I would have been extraordinarily sad to see Travis take a break from touring or new material. At the same time, the more I thought about it, maybe a break is just what he needs. I mean, he’s released an album every year since 2013 with one (technically) scheduled for 2017 as well. On top of persistent touring and features, that output has to take a toll on even the most prolific of artists.
Working so tirelessly can be draining. I’ll be a fan of Travis till the end. The man can put on a hell of a show, and he’s released two albums that are absolute classics in my eyes. A true fan is along for the ride no matter what. The albums may vary in wildly in quality, but sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. Even Weezer still has fans, and in 2016 they released their best album since Pinkerton. I’m not saying Travis is scheduled for a 20-year stretch of disappointment, but I’m just hoping he carves out a niche that inspires.
And when I say “inspires” I’m talking about both himself and fans.
I could just be “aging out” of his music, but I hope not because even through the darkness and malaise of Birds he still dropped “Pick up the Phone” and “Goosebumps” which were some of my favorite tracks of the past year and ones I still spin on a near-daily basis.
I’m a fan. I want the best for Travis. Both commercially and artistically. The hard part is maintaining both without losing yourself.