Looking Back: Does “Astroworld” Have Staying Power?

Travis Scott’s Astroworld was released in the summer of 2018 to critical acclaim, lifting the star to elite status in the rap game and providing one of the biggest hit singles of the year, “Sicko Mode.” 

Sitting at 17 tracks and just under an hour of runtime, Astroworld immediately comes off as an album that was created to be a grand masterpiece, portraying the heart and soul of a theme park that was stolen away from its city.

On the project, Travis lifts his beloved Houston sound to new limits; while his rapping isn’t great on this record, his intense production keeps every track gripping. You’ll hardly find yourself zoning out while listening to this album, as his signature beat-switches are as fresh as ever.

The album opens with “Stargazing,” a track defined by its booming bass and rumbling vocals. Travis combines the feeling of awe and inspiration of stargazing while under the influence of psychoactive drugs, the crazy energy of his live shows, and the feeling of riding the actual roller coasters from the famous park: AstroWorld. “Whatever I’m downin’ got me goin’ crazy / Psychedelics got me goin’ crazy.”

The second half features a compelling verse about the meaning of AstroWorld to Travis: “’99, took AstroWorld, it had to relocate / Told the dogs I’d bring it back it was a seal of faith.” He always promised the people close to him that he would bring AstroWorld back, and this album is the fulfillment of that promise. Sounds of screaming roller coaster riders are an effective artistic touch.

After the monster of an opener, “Carousel,” continues his theme park motif, as a Frank Ocean feature supports Travis on a beat that rotates like a carousel, with spinning and circling synthesizers. Frank’s feature isn’t one of his best performances, but he plays into the track with  signature high-pitched vocals.

“Sicko Mode” is the third track and features an intense intro verse from Drake, but the hype doesn’t unfold into much. Drake’s second verse later on the track features several funny references, including one to new Cactus Jack label member Sheck Wes and another to his own use of Xanax; “I did half a Xan, thirteen hours ’til I land / Had me out like a light.” It’s refreshing to see a mainstream rapper using drugs for their prescribed purpose.

A man of his roots, Travis encourages rappers to “Stop Trying To Be God” on the fifth track of the album, featuring Kid Cudi, James Blake, and Stevie Wonder. “Stop tryna be God almighty / Fuck the money, never leave your people behind.” It’s a fitting comment, as his own on-stage persona often takes the form of something superhuman.

A winding, haunting harmonica section from Stevie Wonder keeps this song interesting, as Travis sinks too deeply into the beat during his verse, creating a song slower than necessary. Kid Cudi is acceptable in his role of just humming all over the song, but James Blake brings it home with his strong, clear voice.

Travis’ best rapping performance comes on the next track, “No Bystanders.” His verses are motivated and aggressive and featured rappers Juice WRLD and Sheck Wes do well to handle the chorus and hook. It’s aged well as a trap anthem that might shake the charts better now than it did then. 

(As an aside, Sheck Wes is a fascinating personality — he’s aiming to be the first rapper, model, NBA star, and Nobel Peace Prize winner in history. Check out this feature on him from Pitchfork.)

The Weeknd is featured on the next two tracks, “Skeletons,” and “Wake Up.” Unfortunately, the R&B star doesn’t come through on either of his features, leaving much to be desired. His performances are tedious and unimaginative, and Travis can’t do much to salvage either track.

“Yosemite,” was an early fan favorite, featuring an entrancing first verse from Gunna. But memes about Nav’s remarkably soft verse, and the impact of the poor mixing of the track make it forgettable. 

“Coffee Bean,” is a succinct and concluding outro track to the grand album. It’s a dark and brooding track, as Travis gets deep in his emotions about his relationship with his former girlfriend Kylie. He reveals tension in their relationship, touching on familial disapproval, accidental pregnancy, and overall miscommunication. The song provides a personal touch to an otherwise over-the-top album.

Although this album as a concept is clearly very personal to Travis, the project is largely defined by its features. Scott’s vocal ability isn’t enough to carry the hour-long album, and featured artists take away from the hometown meaning of the project.

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