Travis Scott
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Two Houstons, One Travis Scott And An 'AstroWorld'

Travis Scott's third album 'Astroworld' presents two listening experiences: one for old head Houstonians, and another for fans whose introduction to H-Town is La Flame himself.

Though Houston is his home, Travis Scott never fit into the cookie cutter mold that was “Houston sound.”

In 2013, when Scott dropped his Owl Pharoah debut mixtape, the city was dealing with the concept of “new Houston” (trap-style sound that seemed to borrow and be heavily influenced from other areas) coming for “old Houston” (traditional country rap sound of the South itself). And you had others like Drake, A$AP Rocky, and other “outsiders” biting the city’s sound. Travis’s style and execution wasn’t “chopped & screwed,” he didn’t have styrofoam and grills type content. He was neither “old Houston” nor “new Houston” - he was literally just Travis.

Scott’s difference made it challenging for many Houston rap fans to embrace him initially. He wasn’t shunned in his earlier years, but he also wasn’t getting the energy of acts like Slim Thug, Z-Ro, or even Bun B got, despite being an XXL Freshman. Instead of adjusting his sound, Scott kept doing him. The Days Before Rodeo tape and its successor, his 2015 debut LP Rodeo, expanded Scott’s fanbase, with “Antidote” and “3500” growing into monstrous singles. Those not sold on Travis’s music alone were curious enough to see him in concert and his incredible stage presence made them believers.

Last week, Travis Scott released AstroWorld, his much-awaited third studio album. And while 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight showcased Scott’s growth and ability to assemble a good album, shifting him into an entirely new stratosphere, Astroworld had higher expectations. The LP drew its title from one of the city of Houston’s most beloved landmarks, the former Six Flags AstroWorld amusement park. It’s different in Houston. Some residents got to experience AstroWorld the park prior to its 2005 closing. Other residents never got to experience AstroWorld beyond pictures, documentaries, and other people’s stories.

Travis’ two “theme park” cover artworks suggest he was aware of both groups. One cover shows kids jumping for joy outside, a rocket (Houston “Rockets,” duh) in the background and a family walking toward the entrance. The other is darker both in hues and tone, looking like a trailer-park funhouse with naked models in the foreground and a bonfire ablaze in the background. The former cover is for the AstroWorld crowd, the ones who showed up every summer Season Pass in hand once school was out. The latter caters to the fan base who knows “La Flame,” whom he encouraged to “Piss On [A] Grave” and who humored his suggestion that “Drugs You Should Try It.” Both fanbases get the same album in the end, but they won’t listen to it in the same way.

For AstroWorld O.G.’s, getting to the park early was necessary to beat the lines, find parking and, of course, be the first to ride the rides. But you still had to wait for the park to open. Astroworld’s intro track, “Stargazing,” calls that feeling to mind - that anticipation, that calm before the storm before you rush into the park. At the 2:44 mark, the orchestra flourishes fade out and are replaced by a rapid, more upbeat instrumental. The park gates are open and the anticipation is replaced with a new energy: a hypeness for the adventure to come.

The homages to Houston are many on AstroWorld, far more than any of Scott’s previous releases. When Scott raps “put 84s on lanes I robbed, how you think of the spokes” on “Carousel,” Houstonians know the “spokes” Travis is speaking of are “swangers” poking out from the wheels beneath a candy-painted Caddy. To say nothing of how Dallas’s own Big Tuck introduces the record by way of a sample from “Not A Stain On Me.” “R.I.P. Screw” is an obvious tribute to the late Robert Earl Davis AKA DJ Screw, but it tucks an additional reference to Screw’s lasting influence and “screw culture” in general by having Scott tag “like maan!” at the end of the song’s hook (a nod to belated Houston rapper Big Moe’s breakout single “Maan!”).

“Can’t Say” bears an interpolation of Trae’s “Swang (Remix)” – slowed down, of course. And “Sicko Mode,” which is well in line to become Astroworld’s second single off the strength of a Drake appearance, has Swae Lee dapping up the ghost of another belated Houston legend, Big H.A.W.K., on the hook. These references are for the older generation of Houstonians to catch, with the expectation that Scott’s younger fans will do the research and familiarize themselves with the culture they may not know.

Some of the songs on AstroWorld feel like rides and attractions, as well. “Sicko Mode,” with its double beat switch, feels like Mayan Mindbender, an AstroWorld attraction that relied on theatrics to set up riders for a dip into an indoor roller-coaster ride in the dark. “No Bystanders” and its sinister instrumentation, coupled with the catchy-aggressive chant of “Fuck the club up!” on its hook, recalls that feeling of being on edge during Fright Night, AstroWorld’s Halloween theme night where one never knew if they might be snuck up on and scared at any given moment. “Wake Up” and its acoustic guitar sound like summer: the beat literally washes over the listener the same way the water would splash on the riders during former AstroWorld ride Tidal Wave.

But Astroworld doesn’t “sound” like Houston. Despite being named “R.I.P. Screw,” the song itself flirts with EDM as its synths and horns go to work. “Skeletons” is something you’d expect to hear The Weeknd have on his own album, not on a so-called rap album. “Coffee Bean,” AstroWorld’s curveball of an outro, is the literal opposite of every song before it. Scott’s self-consciousness (“bought the mansion on foreclose/ no matter how many tickets your tour sold, you feel this deep in your torso”) and reflections on his relationship with Kylie Jenner rest comfortably under Nineteen85’s smooth production. Album standout “Stop Trying to Be God” conducts church by way of James Blake, Stevie Wonder, and horns to rival the one Gabriel blew on judgment day. The only moments where it sounds “like Houston” beyond its culture homages are “5% Tint” and “No Bystanders.”

That’s where Travis’s younger Houston fanbase comes in. They’re not thrown off by the beat changes mid-song because they know Scott’s trademark is switching up the energy on records. They don’t need the nostalgia of old heroes when their current favorites like 21 Savage, Juice WRLD, and Quavo and Takeoff are present. The inflated Travis Scott heads in the city (that will likely surface again on tour) make up for the wonder they may not have gotten in the actual park.

On “Houstonfornication,” Travis Scott raps, “If it rise in the East, land in the West/ We gon’ make that sh*t pop, bust it for a check.” He’s embraced his role as Houston’s ambassador, confident that his Houston sound can “pop” on any given coast. But for Houstonians especially, Astroworld positions Travis Scott as a bridge between two fanbases: the ones who got the real AstroWorld and the ones who have to rely on Travis’s imagination to take them there. Astroworld proves he can be trusted to do it justice both ways.

Bradford J. Howard is a freelance writer from Missouri City, Texas. A Staff Writer for Day and a Dream, he is also a contributor to The Music Panel cultural collective.

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Mac Miller's 'Circles' Mirrors What Many Millennials Are Facing

Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which  Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.

Circles embarks where Swimming ends with more exploration of self-discovery, seeking understanding, and working towards becoming a better person. Both records mirror what many millennials are currently facing when it comes to their mental health. Mac Miller was gripping with his desolation, battling his vices and dark thoughts, but pursuing peace and refusing to apologize for his mistakes. Despite knowing how his personal story ends, his honesty and vulnerability prompt you to root for him to make it to the other side. His confusion and frustration, like many millennials, are reflective of feeling defeated by waves of emotions with the understanding of the world as well as ourselves. According to a report released in 2019 by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline faster than Generation X as they age. The report showed that depression found in American millennials increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017. However, unlike previous generations, adults between the ages of 23 to 38 have become open about their struggles with mental health. Mac Miller died at age 26, and Circles showcases his willingness to share his battles.

In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money –  but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.

The somber tone of Circles blends the jazz-hop of Divine Feminine (“Hand Me Down,” “Good News”), the lo-fi of Swimming (“Woods,” “Once a Day”) and indie rock vibes (“Everybody,” “That’s On Me”), similar to his Tiny Desk performance. “Blue World” and “Surf” are the only songs where you’ll hear Mac rapping, whereas the rest of the album shows his vocal range that sets the mood of his emotions. While the musicality certainly deserves some attribution to producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who also worked on Swimming, it’s also a testament to Mac’s own artistic progression over the last ten years. He learned to use a variety of tools by the time of his death, and that was on display here.

The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.

Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.

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Kevin Mazur

Eminem Reignites His Rage With 'Music to Be Murdered By'

It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.

What better backdrop for Eminem’s refocused angst than that which is invoked by the shoveled-dirt sounds and an eerie drop—announcing the album’s macabre title—by a Hitchcockian narrator on the intro? From jump, it’s a way of keeping things fresh and thematically consistent for a potentially daunting 20-song stretch. Suddenly those lazy strays by far too many on Rap Twitter at his supposedly lame “skippity be bop de boo” rhyme patterns seem moot when the 8 Mile representative comes off newly enlivened in his grown-man vent, with one of the best openers since Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Over woofer-caving bass and a dramatic organ, he spits, “They said that they hated the awake me/I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” It’s thrilling to hear him sounding this focused—no funny voices or childish slurs—while defending the humorous and reflective aspects of his legacy and persona.

The former aspect is on display on “Unaccommodating,” his link-up with Young M.A, the first of several well-placed features here. Em’s lighthearted lines—in all their hacked-algorithm complexity—about “getting head like a Pillow Pet” blend unusually well with the Brooklynite’s loose, languid flow. And far from the workmanlike thud of past Slim Shady beats, the song’s hypnotic, bells-driven melody adds some much-needed verve and bounce, helping modernize and stabilize a beloved MC whose verbiage tends toward rigid and caffeinated.

“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a

— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020

But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.

But what about those well-crafted bars? Not only does Music to Be Murdered By possess them in spades, it also astoundingly manages to bring the ever-illusive third verse back to the forefront. Its inclusion on “Yah Yah” is obvious, if not expected alongside such heavyweight spitters as Black Thought and, again, Royce da 5’9,” though Em makes it indelible: “And I'm like a spider crawlin' up your spinal column/I'm climbin' all up the sides of the asylum wall/And dive in a pile of Tylenol, you're like a vagina problem/To a diabolical gynecologist tryna ball a fist.” More surprising, however, is “Lock It Up,” a hit waiting to happen, which features Anderson .Paak and a third verse whose heading-spinning quatrain (“Get a whiff of the doctor's medicine/Like sedatives you'll get popped, Excedrin/'Cause you can get it like over the counter/Like I just left the damn concession stand”) seems all the more outstanding amid Dr. Dre’s lucid and infectious guitar stabs.

Less a radio-ready earworm than a morbid monologue, “Darkness” is a tragic narrative in the tradition of “Stan.” In under six minutes, Eminem embodies a deranged shooter, self-medicating backstage with Valium and alcohol before opening fire on his audience then killing himself. The song ends, significantly, with Eminem highlighting gun debate loopholes and playing news clips from the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas as well as the 2019 shooting in Daytona, Ohio among others. This is social commentary with the subtle implication that white male privilege in this country far too often hides an unchecked anxiety, along with the observation that these mass shooters aren't as far from us as we may think. It may fall flat with some listeners since just several songs earlier he makes a punchline out of the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, but for an artist who has previously likened himself to the Columbine shooters, the song is growth.

A more suitable conduit is the punk-rock-like Stepdad,” where Marshall blows up on his guardian for abusing him and and his mom to the point where “I’m startin’ to think I’m psychotic.” What would otherwise serve as a welcome reprieve, “Those Kinda Nights,” a saccharine ode to hitting up the strip club, with Ed Sheeran on the hook, falls flat. It’s not that we don’t want to hear Shady at his ease; it’s just that with such a formulaic setup (not to mention a clunky line about D12 member Bizarre and a lap dance—something no one really ever needs to visualize, no disrespect), it dissipates some of the album’s bullet-point intensity.

That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”

But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Prince’s Unstoppable Creative Process On Display In '1999' Reissue

Upstart Minneapolis musician Prince Rogers Nelson released an album per year after his 1978 debut, For You, each more sophisticated than the last. But 1999 made Prince a star and solidified his place in music history. After its release in October 1982, the album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and became the fifth-best-selling album of the following year. Singles “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” peaked in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, and their videos were some of the first by a Black artist to be shown on MTV. Prince’s classic has now been reissued by Warner Bros., with a remaster of the original album and hours of previously unreleased material.

The good news is that the record still sounds as fantastic as it did the first time you heard it. The title track’s synth fanfare heralds your entrance into a new world of grinding machinery and pulsing libido. It’s like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, but everything’s gone from black and white to shades of purple. Across 11 tracks and 70 minutes, Prince uses dance beats, slow jams, ballads, call and response funk, rock guitar solos, all toward one spiritual purpose: sex. It’s not all crude either. He will pretend to be married if you prefer the illusion of propriety, and he uses “Free” to give thanks for a society that allows him to pump out albums worth of filth and funk.

Like the narrator making dedications in bed on “Lady Cab Driver,” each moment on the album points toward a predecessor in pop and funk: James Brown’s yelp, Larry Graham’s slap, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar heroics. Prince threw in the now-iconic sounds he wrung out of a manipulated Linn Drum Computer and pushed American popular music into the future. The warped drum programming was deeply influential on the emerging sounds of Detroit techno and Chicago house, and it’s stayed relevant into the present where the likes of Billie Eilish and FKA twigs top charts and critics’ polls singing over brittle beats.

In line with the other best updates to classic works, the new remaster is hard to notice. In general, the 2019 version of the album is a little clearer and a lot fuller. It’s the equivalent of watching a favorite movie in HD for the first time. The opening notes of “D.M.S.R.” flit across the sides of the song, rather than sitting in the middle of the stereo mix. Rather than blending together, the layers of bass guitar on “International Lover” now curl in on each other like puffs of smoke. Prince’s vocals, like the coos that become shrieks on “Little Red Corvette”’s bridge, are still kept at a remove through reverb, but the effect doesn’t lessen their power.

The reissue’s second part includes B-sides and alternate edits of album cuts. The majority of these tracks would be inessential even if this was their first time available digitally. A mono single edit of “1999” is an interesting relic of another era in major label promotion, but why opt for the watered-down version? The keepers are the B-sides, including one-take studio wonder “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” and the eight-minute Special Dance Mix of “Little Red Corvette,” which is a dancefloor filler in addition to a historical artifact; Questlove contends it was one of the first times an artist ever remixed their own track.

For casual fans and completists alike, the heart of the 1999 reissue is the nearly two dozen previously unreleased tracks, recorded between November 1981 and January 1983. Prince was in the middle of an incredibly fertile hot streak, writing and recording songs for himself as well as satellite groups The Time and Vanity 6. As his engineer Peggy McCreary pointed out in a recent interview, without the need for a producer or supplementary musicians, the artist was free to spend his recording budget on studio time. “I think he loved being in that environment, because I know, wherever he was, on tour, if they had a day off he would find a studio in that city,” she said. “That's what he loved to do.”

Listeners can now hear some of Prince’s process at work through these unreleased songs. “Feel U Up” is close to a demo, a groove that runs a few minutes too long and a vocal that’s too sheepish to sound coy. The next track, “Irresistible Bitch” from 1981, builds a new song over the same beat with nimble bass, unfurling synths, and new lyrics. Prince goes all out on his vocals, his voice ragged and hoarse like he’s been driven mad with lust. Those vocals give the earlier version the edge over Prince’s more subdued take of the song, recorded and released in 1983 as the B-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” It’s compelling to see what Prince found ready to release at any given time, to hear a seed of an idea grow from a rasp to backing vocals from Wendy & Lisa. The artist would regularly repurpose old tunes, none here more obvious than the would-be generational anthem “Bold Generation” morphing into “New Power Generation” eight years after its initial recording.

Prince lays out his own personal manifesto on “Purple Music” over a spare drum loop. “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules / I just let the purple music tell my body what to do / And I’m high,” he sings, his voice mixed like he’s found an undiscovered altered state. It’s mesmerizing. The song has been widely bootlegged, but the ancestral hiss of copies of copies of cassettes can’t compare to hearing all 11 minutes in high-quality. 1999 was the first time Prince laid claim to the royal color, including reference to his “purple rock” on “D.M.S.R.” and purple stars on “Automatic.” “Purple Music” makes it clear the color was more than an aesthetic affectation, it was ideal to pursue.

Playing with sexual and gender norms was a cornerstone of Prince’s work, and “Vagina” shows that his most transgressive material went unreleased. Prince sings about the titular person teaching him how to dance in a gay bar over gritty guitars. (No drums, but his beatboxing and other vocal rhythmic cues sound a lot like his peer and rival Michael Jackson.) She’s “half boy, half girl, the best of both worlds,” as he sings on the chorus. It’s a simple love story, complicated by a fluidity that still feels novel today.

All the unreleased material sounds fresh, impressive nearly four decades removed from its recording. (“You’re All I Want” is clearly a recycled “Delirious,” but it gets a pass since it was recorded as a birthday gift to longtime engineer McCreary.) “Money Don’t Grow On Trees” is a slice of driving pop-rock with a charmingly anachronistic Fred Astaire reference. On “If It’ll Make U Happy,” hear the artist dabbling in reggae rhythms with a new wave sheen. Released as a single earlier this fall, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” sounds like Prince in his funky prime because that’s basically what it is.

Posthumous releases always occupy a moral gray area, but Prince kept a literal vault anticipating that some of his material would see the light of day. Michael Howe, archivist for Prince’s vault, recently stated his goal is to “shine a light on the entirety of Prince’s creative legacy”, and the 1999 reissue succeeds. The remaster preserves the album’s sound for future generations to draw from. Prince’s unreleased material illuminates the creative process of one of the most important pop musicians in American history. Parties weren’t meant to last, but the deluxe 1999 should keep it going a few hours longer.

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