A version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
Last summer, Travi$ Scott released Days Before Rodeo, a free mixtape that wouldn’t just serve as the unofficial countdown for his debut album, but give listeners a sense of what the rapper/producer is working with sonically. Pounding, acerbic drums, thick, hazy atmospheres, and a confrontational predisposition would establish Scott as a fearless rising star in rap music. And although the tape was a welcome shift from the amateurish shlock that plagued his debut tape Owl Pharaoh, it also did very little to invite the listener into Scott’s world. Even if Scott had trouble lining up his greatest attributes, his talent was certainly evident. His production choices, which have been carefully excavated from the post-808s & Heartbreak musical landscape and Atlanta’s grab-bag of innovations, can be intriguing, and his rebellious posturing certainly strikes a chord with an angsty personality type. Those rare moments where he finds the right balance—”Basement Freestyle” is perhaps the best example —can add up to something quite uncanny. With the clock no longer ticking, Scott returns with Rodeo, an album that looks to position the 23-year-old as a curator of supreme taste, as well as darken his already moody blues. At fourteen tracks, the album presents blockbuster names (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd), noteworthy rap talent (Chief Keef, Future, Swae Lee, Quavo, Young Thug), and in-demand producers (Metro Boomin, Southside, TM88, Zaytoven, FKi, WondaGurl). And indie blog darling, Toro y Moi, too. But all of it adds up to is a show that isn’t worth the price of admission.
Sadly, Scott doesn’t put up much of a fight on Rodeo, despite leading an edgy campaign on the offensive end (fighting security, fighting a fan, threatening a female concertgoer, humiliating a photographer, “inciting a riot” at Lollapalooza), which were all fittingly caught on camera and helped generate content. He also has a penchant for jumping into the crowd. Where Scott’s name gets carelessly thrown around with Kanye, Kid Cudi, and even (mistakenly) Young Thug, his act is mostly reminiscent of Odd Future, a group equally notorious for their juvenile antics. Even T.I.—with shades of Dungeon Family’s Big Rube—drops off an over-the-top introduction to a thin narrative about a young rebel, all while gloating ad nauseam about Scott’s supposed nonconformity and inflammatory attitude (“We find ourself consumed and utterly mesmerized/ With a story of a young rebel against the system/ Refusing to conform or comply to the ways of authority/ He chose the mood of “fuck this shit”). It’s not a terrible idea overall and one we’ve surely seen work in the past, but the execution here is a complete misfire and the result—especially after repeated listening—is entirely too awkward. And I’m not sure that, after listening to Rodeo, T.I.’s words hold much weight. Throughout the hour-plus run time, Scott does little to convince the listener to join his purported “stampede of lost souls” and it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when mostly every line on the album—tail-end of “90210” notwithstanding—is either rapped or sung in a flatline delivery from Scott. And rarely does Rodeo surpass these Good Charlotte levels of mall-punk rebellion.
Still, there’s no denying Travi$ Scott as a personality. Here’s the sort of culturally abstruse, rap-obsessed college student that is as much a part of today’s culture as entertainers endorsing $1500 hoverboards or those rolling 808s your grandmother is sick of hearing. But that’s where it ends. Although Scott admittedly did not grow up in the rougher parts of Houston—the same neighborhoods that cultivated legends out of DJ Screw, the Geto Boys, and Z-Ro, to name a few—he did pay his dues, albeit alternatively: Bumming for studio time, couch surfing with strangers, and even being afflicted with homelessness. With this exciting underdog story in place, coupled with a domesticated middle class backdrop (fighting with parents, doing poorly in school, getting kicked out), Scott lends himself as an ideal blank canvas for many young music fans looking to get their first kicks in rap. “What happened now?/ My daddy happy, mama called me up/ That money coming and she love me, I done made it now,” Scott raps over auburn piano, live drums and Robert Fripp-style guitar licks that suddenly imbue the closing minutes on “90210”. This is one of Rodeo’s few uncanny moments—a moment that’s both exciting and plaintive—where Scott is able to fluidly translate his life story into music.
From half-baked ideas to songs simply being mulled over one too many times, the (sonically) ambitious to a fault Rodeo is littered with technical flaws, which are ultimately a disservice to the framework of the beats. And to make myself perfectly clear, that isn’t to say the beats themselves are terrible. Quite the contrary, they’re works of arduous assemblage from rap’s most in-demand and tuneful producers. In addition, those headline-worthy names that prop up on the album’s liner notes—Kanye West, The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams—while star-studded essentially mean shit to Scott other than mere window dressing, for the final product sounds so drowned out that most, if not all, of the artist’s creative input is inevitably lost. If anything, Rodeo is a fine example of what happens when appealing studio experiments (beat switch-ups, jarring electro, spoken word passages) and unnecessary embellishments (random samples, over-processed vocals, dubstep wobbles) make their way onto an album without fine stitching. But regardless if Scott doesn’t have Rick Rubin’s phone number in his pocket like Kanye did when turning in his late career opus Yeezus, he is still an executive producer on Rodeo and received further assistance from Mike Dean, the man who’s worked on every Kanye West project since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Point is, there’s no excuse for the shoddy craftsmanship. The end result in Scott having access to talented producers and unlimited studio time is what it must’ve felt like for Augustus Gloop to consume tasty treats in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
When Travi$ Scott’s voice isn’t helplessly drowning in a sea of studio effects, his rapping gleefully splashes around in shallow waters. The seven minute slug “3500” easily falls under this umbrella of tracks on the album as it just drags along with little to no help from Scott himself—who is billed as an executive producer on the album. While the track’s intended atmosphere—a bit drugged out, a bit braggadocia—is achieved within the first ninety seconds, little else happens for the remainder. The hook, which is inadvertently handled by Scott over featured artist Future, is altogether too jarring here and feels haphazard in both subject matter and overall execution. It doesn’t help when the vocals on the hook are quite literally blanketed with cheap studio trickery and the subject (“Sundays in the city movin’ slow/ 30, 30, 3500 for the coat/ Only real niggas keep you float/ Only trill niggas I know”) is further layered with heavily-programmed drums and sharp EDM stabs. The lyrics for the track pertain a purchase of a $3500 fur coat (get it?) for North West, daughter of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. A purchase Scott didn’t make, by the way. Thankfully “3500” picks up by the final two minute mark with Future delivering a sordid lower register verse over dark synth pads that frequent collaborator Zaytoven tweaked on the overstuffed beat—a beat that apparently required four different producers to complete. Drag and drop a listless 2 Chainz feature in the middle and you’ve got yourself “3500”.
With its meme baiting title and featured artist, Kanye West, at the forefront, “Piss on Your Grave” easily becomes one of Rodeo’s most anticipated tracks. Or dreaded, depending on who you are. Sadly, that’s all the enthusiasm one could possibly muster up. The beat, one of just two credited to Scott on the album—when he’s supposed to be a wunderkind on the boards—is a virtually unbroken heavy psych rock instrumental. That’s it. The raps, penned exclusively by Scott, are an afterthought and feel like leftovers from the Yeezus sessions, which took place like, a thousand years ago. It’s cute, hearing a grown ass man yell out stuff like “I use your face as a urinal/ Then do the same at your funeral” in 2015 or, you know, just randomly belt out expletives at your date. The thing is, unlike Yeezus, the lyrics here are without the subtext that presented his vitriolic outbursts as battle cries. But this shit is practically impossible to listen to without checking if anyone is around you first. Reportedly “Piss on Your Grave” was set to appear on Kanye’s long-gestating SWISH album, but has since been dished off to Scott, who is apparently totally okay with shooting more bricks on Rodeo. It’s doubly disappointing when factoring in Scott’s contributions on Yeezus, which included production and writing credit on “I Am a God,” “Guilt Trip,” and of course “New Slaves”.
However, one of the more intriguing numbers on the album is “Maria I’m Drunk,” a track that finds Justin Bieber and Young Thug paired together. But contrary to whatever “real hip hop heads” would want you to think, this unlikely duo of a pop star and resident rap weirdo comes through with late effort heroics; delivering what might be the most exciting song on Rodeo. Thug and Bieber both make work of Allen Ritter’s spacious and ghastly beat—think The Caretaker’s hauntology oozing onto London on da Track’s bed of snappy drums, if that’s even possible—and a Travi$ Scott verse is suspiciously missing from his album’s best track. It’s a rework of an earlier Scott-Thug collab, “Drunk,” with Bieber sagely swapping out Scott for the second verse. And because of this it’s an infinitely better song. Honestly, the way he can effortlessly weave rapping in-and-out of singing over a shifty piano loop is the most gorgeous pop rap you’ll hear all summer. And although hearing the second most followed person on Twitter rapping on a “rap album” can feel like there’s ulterior motives at hand, this is the same pop star who’s collaborated with Lil Wayne, Chance the Rapper and Future, respectively, on three consecutive singles earlier this year. Plus, he’s rapped before guys, chill out. And in spite of sounding like he’s putting on his best Weezy impersonation, Bieber holds his own on “Maria I’m Drunk,” as he drops off a stellar verse in place of Scott, who by this point in the Rodeo has exhausted his stay.
The word “legacy” is perhaps the last word you’ll hear with Travi$ Scott as the topic of conversation, but on “Apple Pie,” Rodeo’s closing credits, Scott continuously flirts with the concept. But legacies are almost never built in real time and they often accrue many years after the phenomenon has passed, and are often subject to change based on certain cultural shifts. And repeatedly crooning “I need my own remedy, my own legacy” won’t get you there any faster either. Nevertheless, Scott desperately struggles to form even the slightest bit of coherent narrative without falling back on banal rags-to-riches-to-bitches lyrics or a tendency to namedrop—”I came to get it nominated/ From a spot that y’all seen Bun B blow up,” “I just hit a three peat/ Fucked three hoes I met this week (Robert Horry),” etc. There’s a lack of personal narrative or identity on Rodeo, and Scott will often overcompensate for the hollowness of his music. But remember, a polished turd is still a turd. Make no mistake, this year has given us many great rap projects; most of which are from the scene’s younger talents. Conversely, Scott, who’s misleadingly advertised as a star light-years ahead of the curve, is really just three releases deep in ineptitude. And though you would gather the rough patches on Rodeo are from a stampeding pack of wild buffalo or the electricity of a cowboy on horseback, it’s actually a result of chintzy theatrics and little finesse.