Music Reviews

ASTROWORLD Review: Taking a ride on La Flame’s psychedelic rollercoaster

7/10 - ASTROWORLD has intoxicating highs and disappointing lows, but it's one helluva ride.

I’ve made it no secret that I’m a huge Travis Scott fan. I gave ASTROWORLD every single benefit of the doubt. I wanted it to be good, I needed it to be good. 2 years after Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (BITTSM) proved to be a slight step backward creatively from Rodeo, I was anxious to see Travis take two steps forward. BITTSM felt like an attempt to be more commercially appealing, and while it was addictively melodic at times and had a lot of replay value at parties (Sweet Sweet, pick up the phone, goosebumps), it wasn’t nearly as unpredictable or electrifying as most of the cuts on Rodeo. I don’t hate on him going commercial to boost his star power and bank account, but I knew he was capable of much, much more.

Thankfully, ASTROWORLD is mostly a return to form. The beat switches and spaced out, psychedelic vibes are dripping all over this record, and although there are definite flaws, the ambition is evident. Going back to his roots, so to speak, Travis seems energized creatively by his hometown of Houston. It’s a stark change from the robotic, passionless BITTSM and the sonic influence of H-Town is much more relevant than in his past releases. It adds a much-needed heartbeat that pumps through the veins of this project.

That wild unpredictability that Travis is known for is back, the instrumentals are inspired and sounds are innovative. It tosses around a lot of strange, art house ideas including the random, sometimes jarring beat switch ups, unlisted, surprise guest features that aren’t contained to one song (Swae Lee floats over the record whenever Travis needs a harmony), and a kaleidoscope of sounds that feel like controlled chaos.

I just wish there were even more chances taken, every time the record gets really weird it has to pull it back for some standard Travis psychedelic trap music. The first 3rd of the record is borderline perfect. STARGAZING sets the tone of the record right off the bat with a spacey, trippy beat and some highly distorted Travis vocals. CAROUSEL features some echoing samples and shimmering keys alongside a BOOMING distorted bass line and breaks up the Travis trap rapping with a beautiful Frank Ocean verse and chorus. The juxtaposition of the two artists is mesmerizing. Drake gives the listening audience blue balls on SICKO MODE as the beat settles before shifting gears at a breakneck pace and delivering a much darker, stripped-down beat that could’ve been found on an old Mike Jones mixtape. The beat then switches yet again for the third act which is Drake’s full verse. This insanity with the production is what I love. This is Travis at his most creative and indulging his impulses which usually lead to great things.

RIP SCREW is a ballad to the city of Houston that sounds dipped in promethazine with the echoing vocal effects, snaps and a falsetto Swae Lee hook. STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, is borderline the best song Travis has ever recorded. Stevie Wonder lays down a spine-chilling harmonica melody that brings out the dark beauty in the track and Travis actually has a message (humility) and his flows compliment the jaw-dropping instrumental.

Unfortunately, after the first 5 songs, the record loses some steam. There are plenty of bright spots, but the “lightning in a bottle” creativity and spontaneity is followed, for the most part, by some standard template psychedelic trap and misguided features.

NC-17 is one of the high points that features one of the better guest verses 21 Savage has ever done. “I nutted on her cheek, her new nickname is babyface” will always make me laugh. WAKE UP is also a standout, getting The Weeknd back in his House of Balloons vibes for a sex-charged drug ballad that works on every level. 5% TINT is a dark, moody, paranoid track with ambient pig noises and a piano sample that would be at home in a horror movie. I meant that in the best way possible. It’s a dope song.

YOSEMITE is also (mostly) outstanding. Gunna and Trav flow back and forth like old sparring partners over a country-twanged guitar sample. Then NAV, singing from what sounds like the bottom of a well, shits out a useless, passionless, pointless verse on the outro. There’s no thought behind it, just throw NAV on there regardless of how out of place or inconsistent he is with the rest of the record. Confusing, but it doesn’t ruin 99% of the song.

But then we get things like SKELETONS, the weaker of the two Weeknd features and an unnecessary addition, especially when WAKE UP is so good. BUTTERFLY EFFECT which is a year old single that wasn’t that impressive to begin with. WHO? WHAT!, the most underwhelming song that exists solely for the Migos feature. I’m still waiting for Quavo and Trav to match the brilliance they captured on “Oh my dis side” or “Pick up the Phone” and keep getting disappointed. There’s also HOUSTONFORNICATION and ASTROTHUNDER, skippable tracks that mimic the Houston chopped and screwed vibes but fail to do anything new or exciting with it, and COFFEE BEAN which departs from the overall vibe of the record and has a boom-bap beat along with Travis dropping verses sans auto-tune. It’s like Kanye’s “30 Hours”, an introspective, slow song that does little to add to the project.

Altogether, ASTROWORLD almost sticks the landing and mostly returns to what made Travis Scott so exciting in the first place. My biggest critique is that the project doesn’t take enough chances. I understand that the Travis Scott brand is massive now. He took Kanye’s advice and impregnated a Kardashian, and his star power has been skyrocketing since 2016. With all that fame comes a responsibility to make a commercially appealing record to please the fans and stay in the limelight. But I think it’s restrained him creatively. Rodeo was him at his most fearless, and even though the best stuff on ASTROWORLD is better than the highs of Rodeo, it panders to the masses much more than his early stuff does. I don’t think he can recapture the energy since that was him on his meteoric rise, but I do think he could be much bolder with his creative decisions.

That being said, this is the best Travis Scott project to date. The features are much more inspired and integrated than they were on BITTSM (I’m not typing the full album name ever again, it’s too long), the production is much more polished and the mixing is much better than his previous releases. It’s not perfect, but it’s both listenable and trippy enough to satisfy both Travis stans and snobby music assholes like me. I just hope that in the future, La Flame takes the fork in the road of being more creative and less corporate.

 

 

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