Astroworld arrives in a summer chock-full of momentous releases. The spiritual successor to Travis Scott’s debut, Rodeo, the album is as much a victim as it is a beneficiary of the endless hype cycle of today’s music industry. Any other artist would have been written off after two middling projects. Instead, Scott faced sky-high expectations from fans for his latest album. That’s thanks in part to his constant presence in the public eye via social media, his association with the Kardashian-Jenner clan and his army of rabid fans. And somehow, with Astroworld, the rapper delivers a delicious piece of psychedelic rap that handily exceeds the bar.
Astroworld builds on the aesthetic of crippling loneliness that filled Rodeo. Through production tricks and pitch-perfect sample choices, Scott builds an immersive fantasy world of hedonism and decadence. Is it a space Western? A space opera? Either way, Scott nails the “astro” in Astroworld, even if he never quite commits to the amusement park theme to which the title alludes.
Though lyrics aren’t the focus, Scott nevertheless concocts some striking images with his verses and hooks. He constantly references the sky, whether a never-ending flight on “No Bystanders” or stargazing on opener “Stargazing.” Often, it’s as if Scott is watching from the heavens the sins he paints. Lyrics about crazy concerts that would otherwise be expected from a pop rapper take on the air of foreboding omens — when Scott raps that he “got them stage-diving from the nosebleeds,” the picture is morbid and apocalyptic.
Compared to the God complex defining much of the rest of the album, standout track “Stop Trying To Be God” focuses on the human. Listeners would be forgiven for thinking the song title is a swipe at Scott’s mentor, Kanye West. Rather, the song is a reminder to stay grounded. Scott cautions to “never leave your people behind.” It’s a comforting ode to knowing one’s own limits, and a welcome break from the energy of the rest of the album.
“Stop Trying To Be God” stands out for its features, too. Of the all-star feature list Scott assembled for his album, four artists make an appearance on this song. James Blake, on the bridge, sounds angelic while reinforcing the core themes of the song. Kid Cudi and Philip Bailey are on the titular refrain, with Cudi’s contribution being only his heavenly hums. Cudi’s hums are beautiful in their brokenness — the artist always sounds a little uncertain, and that fallibility is what brings humanness to this song. Co-producer Mike Dean, whose name pops up on the greatest hits of many GOOD Music affiliates, is undoubtedly the glue that holds the track together. But the MVP here is Stevie Wonder on the harmonica. His riffs are the song’s most distinctive element by far.
Like Rodeo, Astroworld upgrades trap sounds with maximalist production. The same orchestral, psychedelic bombast from Scott’s previous work appears here, but with new twists. Songs such as “Skeletons” have guitar riffs that feel like an update on Britpop.
But like Scott’s previous work, some of the production is clumsy. Zany vocal samples, though well-chosen, come in and out noisily. Transitions are by and large too abrupt, making individual sections of songs feel underdeveloped. “Sicko Mode” suffers in particular: Drake’s intro is fantastic, and the choice to cut him off in the middle of a verse is a funny punchline. But the transition between the second and third sections of the song sounds more like a mistake than an artistic choice.
Overall, though, Astroworld lives up to its hype. There are enough details packed into this project to make it a delightful listen, even on its fifth or tenth play. Astroworld is liable to make even Scott’s haters reconsider his earlier work. Simply put, it’s lit.