Five years is a long time to wait for any album, especially when that album has been as anticipated as Travis Scott’s Utopia, released July 28. As one of the few chart-toppers whose music takes risks, Travis had fans wondering what his new album would even sound like. That’s something extremely rare in a culture where mass appeal and marketability is seen as a badge of honor. But the thing with risks is that you either succeed, or, in Utopia’s case, you fail.
Utopia plays like a facile attempt at creating a darkly “cinematic” album akin to the works of Travis’ idol Kanye West (the album even includes Ye throwaways like “Telekinesis,” previously known as “Future Sounds”). Cliched opener “Hyaena” epitomizes this. The recipe for a modern rap intro is simple: have a guest singer opine the album’s themes a capella (already overdone when Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers did it last year), then nosedive into some frenetic boom-bap drums so everyone knows that things are urgent and serious this time around. If you don’t have any ideas for how to end the track, switch to a synth solo and hope people will compare it to the “Blade Runner” soundtrack. Welcome to Travis Scott’s twisted mind.
What sinks Utopia overall is that it has great ambitions and rarely lives up to them. Most egregious is the album’s misuse of Beyoncé, who hasn’t sounded this out of place since she collaborated with Eminem. On “Delresto (Echoes),” Queen B herself struggles to keep her footing in her dance music era, clinging to ballroom references like a castaway to a lifeboat. Beyoncé’s all-natural vocals and Travis’s intensely autotuned voice go together like oil and water, or like an ill-advised (commercial) mashup. What’s worse is the track’s instrumental. It sounds like someone’s first ever attempt at a house beat, with a completely disjointed sonic palette. Yes, there’s even a cowbell. No better structurally, Travis throws everything at the wall, and nothing sticks.
This clutter spills onto every track. A song like “Circus Maximus” gets bogged down by basic synths, a mediocre vocal performance and a too-long runtime. It lacks the punch of “Black Skinhead,” the Kanye song whose influence is so painfully obvious. Thankfully, Utopia’s mess is often more disorienting than boring, but the former isn’t that much better than the latter: Beat switches and a cavalcade of strange sounds can’t rescue fundamentally misplaced intentions.
All that said, Utopia has moments of brilliance, where dissonant ideas collide to create something perfectly sublime. “Modern Jam” is the apotheosis of this, especially when its plodding, sterile drums crash into Teezo Touchdown’s verse, which drips with mad scientist energy. The simple groundwork laid by these drums (courtesy of Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) allows Travis to wander and experiment without dragging down the song’s energy. Other little things, such as the distortion of “Looove” or the eerie sample on “God’s Country” (another Kanye throwaway), provide momentary interest.
Aside from “Modern Jam,” there are only two other standouts on the 19-track album. “Lost Forever” has an eerie instrumental with melodic flourishes that weave in and out rather than overlap, avoiding the jumble suffered by other songs. Westside Gunn, one of contemporary rap’s most unique voices, delivers an as-usual great verse in the song’s second half.
But Utopia’s true highlight is “My Eyes.” Travis’s autotuned crooning grates on much of the album, but here it makes him sound like a sentimental robot, meshing well with a bed of synthetic chords. In typical Travis Scott fashion, the second half of the track ramps up the energy with a beat switch, which also features one of Travis’s few good flows on Utopia.
Masterfully-produced, risky, controlled chaos — these are words that apply to much of Travis’s catalog, but they describe very little of Utopia. Derivative brooding takes precedence over what could have been a psychedelic masterwork. Perhaps if we lived in an actual utopia, that’s the album we would have gotten.