I remember when the carnival used to come to my city. It was the Hampton Coliseum Carnival, appearing hastily put together and ramshackle. In the daytime it was a serene, cherubic destination for the family looking for something to make the torrid scorch of summer dissipate under the shade of gigantic rides; at night, it was a destination for teenagers to mingle and undertake in increasingly stupid ways to impress each other. I can count on my hands how many times I actually went — once with this group of friends, once with the next, then again with a couple of girls. I walked around in endless circles, looking at the rides, too scared to get on them. The atmosphere is something I’ll never forget. The carnival closed for good at the end May of 2013 after five teenagers were shot — one died.
That energy, its unpredictable aura, and just a general air of insanity, is what I get from hearing ASTROWORLD. Travis Scott’s new album is, loud, for one. Angry, brash, comprised of statements with three exclamation marks at the end, full of surprises, there’s next to no feasible way to bottle up the emotions it elicits in anything other than a gigantic run-on sentence. Travis dropped two promotional covers for ASTROWORLD; one of a family entering into the park through his gigantic statue head at noon, and another with vixens ominously, and sexily, standing at the entrance after dusk. The album’s named after the now defunct Six Flags Astroworld park in Houston, TX that closed in 2005. It was instrumental in the formation of the wild spirit that inhibits La Flame, so with him delving this deep into his personal life, it must be something serious. ASTROWORLD is a violently loud ode to an amusement park lost in time, stuffed with surprises, shocking turns, and rickety experiences. You’ll enjoy your time, even if you’re overwhelmed by the end of it.
Heed my warning: Do NOT listen to ASTROWORLD with the volume on your device of choice at the maximum. From the get-go, it establishes itself as an eardrum buster, cracking decibel levels with tremendous ease. Each song’s title is in all caps. When tweeting about how hype he was for the album, Travis frequently used all caps. That should tell you that this effort is garish enough to take extra precaution when consuming it. “STARGAZING” is the brutally loud opener that is the alien attraction at the amusement park; it’s grainy, synth textures enabling Travis’ vocals to blend into the back. His rap’s never the star of the show (purposefully) and that doesn’t change here. The production flips here to something more inviting, in a sci-fi movie channel sort of way.
Lyricism, from the get go, holds next to little importance. As I sit here, I can’t recall any kind of punchlines or witty wordplay that Travis worked into his rhymes. I don’t think Travis could either. It’s why when Drake comes in on “SICKO MODE,” Travis isolates Drake’s vocals and steps clear away. We get one of Drizzy best verses since “Duppy (Freestyle), then Travis comes back in with his autotuned, shaky emission that, to the untrained ear, could be read as a mess. But Travis’ music is composed of the idea of an experience instead of lyrical supremacy; other rappers can create lyrically top-heavy work, he’s going to focus on the entire picture. Travis frequents the kind of embellishment raps that sound like, in these instances, the shoot dance if it was done on the moon, and they work for him so he sticks with it.
His muted approach to vocals works to his benefit on multiple occasions. “R.I.P. SCREW” is the kind of spacey boon that pays homage to the H-Town paragon with slowed-down sounds indicative of the rap delicacy he created in the early 90s. Travis hides behind so many voice effects that it can be initially off-putting. But he doesn’t stay for long, punching in and out like a bipolar coworker trying to decide which personality has to work. “SKELETONS” is the rare occasion where Travis steps into his rapper bag, handing over his muted mumble duties to serial whisperist The Weeknd. Kevin Parker of psychedelic rock group Tame Impala emits the kind of creepy rock production that accompanies trips to the food truck in the pursuit of rapidly spun cones of cotton candy.
The back half of ASTROWORLD is the kind of slow, bubbly Travis that creates sluggers. “5% TINT” moves at a snail’s pace and sounds starkly different from the obnoxiously loud hits before it. The song interpolates the chorus of Goodie Mob’s 1995 hit “Cell Therapy” for thrilling effect — it sounds so damn sexy that you can’t help but be entranced by its audacity. “YOSEMITE” is similarly intimate — its deep prodding 808s violating the innards of your ear canals as Gunna and Nav (whose vocals sound extremely soft) offer some different shades of “I’ve made it” chants. Both are equally captivating — the Gunna hype is starting to make much more sense — and lend to what may be the album’s quiet standout. From there, the last stretch’s beats are bombastically bright, yet much quieter aesthetically than what came before it. There’s no overabundance of instruments that made the first half a challenge to listen to in one sitting. ASTROWORLD ends with “COFFEE BEAN,” a smooth cut unlike anything we’ve known Travis for recently. It immediately reminds me of the neo-soul, Common 2003-era production that the Chicago mainstay frequently made his own. It’s nostalgic, for what it’s worth.
Stylistically, ASTROWORLD draws from damn near everything, yet no two songs are remotely similar. It’s like really going to an amusement park or carnival and checking out the random collection of rides that have no cohesiveness. Like carnival rides, you can sometimes see the perforated cut outs where the songs come together; it feels like, at certain points, Travis had finished songs that didn’t feel like “enough,” so he threw heaps of effects on top of them to artificially sound unique. It shows. From the surprise features of artists such as Frank Ocean and Swae Lee, to the sheer wildness of it all, it’s just a lot to take in.
Beneath all of the amusement park charades, there’s a project with a tremendous amount of heart — and balls. ASTROWORLD is Travis’ best work to date; it’s also the loudest. Whether you like that or not, comes down to what kind of music you prefer. Quiet new age hits or rambunctious melodic rap with a litany of extra instruments?
ASTROWORLD let me reminisce on the adolescent wonder that accompanied me on every trip to the carnival. I was frequently amazed with how many experiences were packaged into one trip, and I find myself echoing this same sentiment when speaking of ASTROWORLD. While certainly loud, and sometimes bordering on too much, ASTROWORLD frequently surprises — in a good way — and invites you back with the promise of new experiences each time.