Rodeo, Travis Scott
Ah, the controversial, but oh-so-popular, subgenre of hip-hop known as trap. Sprouting from the South, it’s ignorant, it’s wild and it’s primal, but it’s quite possibly what we cultured, suburban bandwagoners need. Every genre of music has had its version of trap. The classical purists were appalled when they started hearing cats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane improvise frantically over changes that flew by at breakneck speed, this new thing called “jazz.” Rock heads scoffed at the aggressive but elementary power chords and dissonant vocals of metal. And now there’s trap, with its blistering hi-hats, throbbing 808s and ignorant, materialistic lyrics. With the rise of trap has naturally come its fair share of critics – people who think that soulful, introspective ’90s hip-hop was so much better than synthetic, braggadocious hip-hop today, that we need more rappers like Kendrick Lamar who rap about things that matter.
Amidst the saturated trap scene, there resides a diamond in the rough, Kanye protégé Travis Scott. Scott’s latest record, Rodeo, is an uncompromising answer to critics of this subgenre. The Houston rapper breathes new life into trap, incorporating elements of his mentor’s maximalism and distorted vocal effects throughout the album to create a lush, heavily layered aesthetic. Scott’s heavy, auto-tuned vocals are tied down to the warm, electronic instrumentation on tracks like “Impossible,” making his voice a cog in the gears of each song, rather than its own distinct layer. And this comes as no surprise because like Kanye, Scott is a producer at heart, a musician with an ear for strong melodies, banging drum loops and tight sound engineering.
Travis Scott turns the usual themes of trap (money, women and clothes) into narratives worth listening to. He recruited trap’s usual suspects Future and 2 Chainz for “3500,” an epic banger with razor-sharp synths and keys courtesy of resident hip-hop engineer Mike Dean, as well as Quavo of Migos for “Oh My Dis Side,” a track that starts off as a thumping slow-burner and transitions into a Southern-influenced contemplative song on which Scott croons about his hometown and success story. Similarly, “90210” is a two-part song, starting off slow with beautiful, airy vocals from Kacy Hill on top of a pulsating synth lead but transitioning quickly into a piano-laden, upbeat coda with Scott rapping or singing (it’s honestly impossible to characterize his delivery on these tracks) about topics unconventional to trap: “My granny called, she said ‘Travie, you work too hard, I’m worried you’ll forget about me.’”
It’s this sincerity that makes Travis Scott sound less like a rip-off of other burgeoning artists and more like himself. Scott isn’t a particularly gifted rapper in any sense, but he makes up for that with his musicality and collaboration with other artists. Yet at times, his shape-shifting tendencies get the best of him. While the beat on “Antidote” is one of the best of 2015, a menacing, relentless banger courtesy of Wondagirl, Scott sounds almost exactly like Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd, who later appears on “Nightcrawler,” with his high-pitched, nasal drone. Meanwhile, “Piss on Your Grave,” featuring Kanye West himself, sounds like a Yeezus throwaway and feels out of place on the record, despite its hilariously absurd chorus (“I use your grave as a urinal, then do the same at your funeral”). And throughout Rodeo, Scott’s delivery and wordplay are sometimes clunky and forced, eerily reminiscent of a young Kanye – all the ambition in the world, but still a rapper trying to find his style.
Rodeo’s flaws make it all the more representative of trap, though. Trap doesn’t have to be perfect; it isn’t supposed to be perfect. I didn’t go into this record expecting the socially conscious narrative of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly or the verbal dexterity of Run the Jewels’s Run The Jewels 2. What I expected was blatantly ignorant, brutally honest bars over banging beats, and that’s what I got.