Should you find yourself in control of the music at a public pool or a shopping mall or an airport in the near future, there’s a new DJ Khaled song that couldn’t possibly offend anyone. “No Brainer” is in essence eternal weekend; a stock photo of a Perfect Day wherein the sun is yellow and off to the corner of the paper, and the headwind coming off the windshield catches your mullet just so. It’s also the exact same song as last summer’s “I’m the One,” except instead of Lil Wayne, Khaled’s newest summer blockbuster features even more Justin Bieber, once again singing to the girl of his dreams, who, according to his Instagram, is Hailey Baldwin.
Related: Should you have a Lyft Line to yourself long after the last place that will sell you alcohol has closed, there’s an ideal song for that too. “Stargazing” is pretty blatantly Travis Scott; a goopy, iridescent mess of hi-hats, shitpost images, and alternately pitchy or spooky vocals collapsing into one giant megahook about popping pills and looking at the night sky. Nearly three minutes in, the languid, spacey song corkscrews into something more dire. At least it sounds that way, since he’s rapping faster; he still says “she keep my dick jumpin’ up, I feel like I’m Moby.” Which, sure. It’s one of many groaners on Astroworld, his third studio album. But coming to the 26-year-old for lyrical proficiency, at this point, is a sort of personal failing.
“Stargazing,” then, is an ultra-fitting invitation to Astroworld, which arrived this past Friday, two years since he first mentioned it and only a few days after large, gold, inflatable Easter Travis heads began popping up all over the country. It is projected to do event album numbers.
Despite Astroworld’s short runway, he still managed to create an album-cover controversy through carelessness, at best. David LaChapelle posted a version of his design to Instagram that included trans model Amanda Lepore; Travis posted a different version that was Lepore-less. Amid backlash he released a rambling statement that gleefully said … not much of anything. He comes off as a bit of a jackass, and you might suspect, after all this time, that he takes some pride in that.
The album—which gets its name from a Six Flags theme park in Houston that was shuttered in 2005 to make way for more apartment space—is good. Good in that Travis Scott corralled his many ideas and influences into the first fully realized project of his six-year career. To cram in so many textures and creative indulgences can skew a project’s vision toward Look! I’m eclectic—take A$AP Rocky’s Testing earlier this year; or Scott’s promising 2013 mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, which was full of abrupt recombinations of the grimiest parts of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Atlanta trap, and songs you might hear over the radio growing up in Missouri City. Astroworld, however, sounds like AstroWorld, and bares Travis’s Houston roots: Big Tuck, Big Hawk, Fat Pat, and Big Moe all appear in one way or another. There’s a drippingly sweet R&B duet with Swae Lee called “R.I.P. Screw.” This is, of course, to say nothing of the appearances of Three 6 Mafia, Tame Impala, the Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, John Mayer, Thundercat, and many more. Scott does the absolute most, and by and large it works for him.
Travis Scott rose to prominence by contributing the groundwork to Kanye West’s spare, menacing Yeezus, and to the most ominous parts of Cruel Summer; he didn’t really lend his voice to either. In his own music, which comes out under T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint, Scott has taken a similarly collaborative approach. He keeps a rotating cast of people who are more talented than he is at things like melody, rapping, and certain kinds of production—think Birds in the Trap’s best song, “Pick Up the Phone,” which is actually a Young Thug song, produced by Vinylz and Frank Dukes. Quavo probably has the best verse. Situations like these often gives rise to questions like: What is it, exactly, that Travis Scott does? Who, exactly, is he cribbing from? What, exactly, is he doing?
It’s been three years since his debut, Rodeo, which established his Kanye West–indebted maximalist ethos and his penchant for building giant haunted houses that may or may not be hiding a handful of pop-rap superstars. He too threw Justin Bieber on a song. No one was reasonably upset about the Biebs showing up on “Maria I’m Drunk”—somehow still missing from every digital streaming platform—but considering the original version with just Young Thug was already perfect, Bieber’s inclusion seemed like another layer for another layer’s sake. (Scott returned the favor, to great effect, on Bieber’s 2015 album, Purpose.) “Another layer for another layer’s sake,” an emphasis on moments and headlines without a coherent vision, and mostly forgettable contributions to your own project is the stuff of Khaled compilation albums, hence the comparisons.
If you simplify a lot, functionally, Khaled and Travis are both A&Rs that get top billing, and not in the way that, you know, all artists are. The thing is, Khaled couldn’t have quarterbacked a song like “Stop Trying to Be God.” And perhaps not Cudi, or Kanye, or any of Travis’s predecessors or contemporaries either. Any one of them might have thought to put James Blake, Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey on a record together, but how many might have executed the idea as beautifully? For starters, aside from the closer, “Coffee Bean,” “Stop Trying to Be God” is as contemplative as Scott gets on an album that wants nothing more than to have fun and cause a little property damage:
Stop tryna be God Almighty
Fuck the money, never leave your people behind, yeah
It’s never love, no matter what you try
Still can see it comin’ down your eyes
Before you can give too much thought to what those words mean and who they could be for, Wonder’s harmonica and Blake’s falsetto show up and begin loudly pouring their hearts out to one another, and you forget Scott was ever there. It’s a song so good that not even a cockamamie music video can ruin it. Travis baptizes white people who rise from the water with box braids; he rides Falkor; his babymother Kylie Jenner is cast in gold like Jill Masterson in Goldfinger.
Don’t let this distract you. Travis Scott’s curatorial powers have leveled up. He is still tew much, but in a way that’s measured for the most part, and more intentional. Over Astroworld’s 17 songs—which is a few too many—strange sounds and images fly at you from every angle, and some of them you remember ... (forced metaphor incoming) sort of like a real theme park! Frank Ocean ushers you onto the “Carousel”; 21 Savage turns you away from the big-kid rides on “NC-17”; and, depending upon whom you ask about what they saw, it was either Lil Keke or Goodie Mob in the fun-house mirrors on “5% Tint.”
If Astroworld is a run-down theme park or a state fair, “Sicko Mode,” its third track, most closely resembles a roller coaster and is likely the album’s biggest attraction. It clicks up the track on Drake ad-libs, then dips and swerves through an energetic Scott verse before speeding over the humps of a Tay Keith beat while Drake tries his best to throw you from your seat. Swae Lee flutters around in the margins throughout. “Who put this shit together, I’m the glue,” Travis says.
Four beat changes over the course of five minutes and 12 seconds is, categorically speaking, a lot. The most, as Travis customarily does, which would ordinarily be too much. And yet, it works; each new sound brings the feeling of cresting before a death drop, each thrill bigger and more ridiculous than the last. You may even want to get back in line.