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