The hip-hop Holy Trinity of Kanye West, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar succeeded in the unlikely task of following up stellar mixtapes with even more exciting major label debuts. Their oft-referenced leaps from underground hype to radio and critical dominance have so invaded the zeitgeist (thanks in part to the rappers’ own mythologizing) that one can easily forget that many immensely talented rappers follow the opposite path. This is unfortunately the case with Travis Scott’s “Rodeo,” the album that has blossomed out of his exceptional tapes “Owl Pharaoh” and “Days Before Rodeo.”
Whereas in his earlier offerings Scott seemed content to offer an opaque, often-nihilistic lyrical landscape, “Rodeo” often drowns in the dissonance between Scott’s ostensibly lofty biographical elements and his continued ambiguity. As usual, Scott falls hard, smokes heavy, pops pills, and is brutally aware of the destructive elements of his existence. On “Pornography,” a surprisingly detailed intro, Scott identifies as “a young rebel against the system / unable to conform or comply to the ways of authority.” Instead of a coherent list of grievances, however, or even a detailed list of the ways in which Scott paves a dissident path (just the drugs?), the next hour consists primarily of the same vague retellings of blurry nights. And the endless cavalcade of star features—Kanye, Young Thug, Future, 2 Chainz, a believable Young Thug-imitating Justin Bieber, and the Weeknd—primarily serve to mask Scott’s inability or unwillingness to tell stories about himself.
It’s not uncommon for rappers to get caught up in the gravitas of an intro and to suggest a higher degree of political engagement or self-awareness than the overall album eventually delivers. This isn’t a new disparity for Scott; he raps and sings uniquely about his intoxicated and intoxicating lifestyle, and that has been enough to catapult him to stardom. Much of the album’s hype is tied up in “Antidote” and “3500,” two exhilarating singles (the former wasn’t initially on the album but received so much positive feedback that it was included) that are by no means anthems of particular lyrical depth. The singles succeed because they expertly advertise what Scott is best at, which turns out to be an almost hilariously cliché and even archaic attribute: matching a mantra to a catchy hook and repeating it over and over.
Where “Rodeo” struggles, then, has just as much to do with somewhat stale production as it does with Scott’s empty proclamations of depth. “Nightcrawler,” featuring Chief Keef and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee—two of the only figures in rap who have carved out as intriguingly weird niches between raw aggression and melodic intricacy—ends up over-synthesized and sounding more like the Weeknd crooning about glitzy drinking than the wacky quasi-tonality one would expect of such a heady meeting of the minds. Scott’s song with the actual Weeknd, “Pray 4 Love,” also suffers from clumsy production, over-employing Scott’s autotune and causing his voice to clash with the Weeknd’s crystal-clear tenor. Both “90210” and “Apple Pie,” the disappointing and shallow finale, sound like outtakes from “808s & Heartbreak”—the first half of “90210” is almost plagiaristic in its similarity to Kanye’s “RoboCop.” Scott, who produced several of the songs on the album along with his close-knit, mostly in-house team, doesn’t seem like he’s focused enough on instrumentally complementing his obvious lyrical potential.
Despite the inherent limitations of Scott’s subject matter and production, there are moments of true inspiration on “Rodeo.” For one, West appears to bring out Scott’s political side—“Piss On Your Grave” is a truly weird and wonderful track. West and Scott, who also co-produced the song, employ Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” as a hypnotic backing to a polemic on police and haters at large. “Us niggas, we can’t behave / We mobbed on the pave / Got treated like slaves / Young niggas treated like slaves,” screams Scott over the noise. While other tracks on “Rodeo” are certainly threatening, the anger never feels as especially directed as it does here. A late song, “Flying High,” comes close, with a repeated refrain of “We don’t fuck with cops.” When Scott has a target for his aggression, he’s simply better.
Travis Scott and his production team have a sound that can be unlike anything even the most seasoned rap listeners have heard before; there are several uses of guitar outside of “Piss on Your Grave” that are mind-blowing; the singles are some of the best songs of the year; and scattered verses on “Impossible” and “Wasted” are incredibly focused. If Scott can better present his story and remember to keep valuing the weird in his production, he has no limit to what he can do. If not, he’s little more than confused pastiche.
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