Rollie Pemberton is rapper and producer Cadence Weapon. His albums Breaking Kayfabe and Hope in Dirt City were both shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. He served as Poet Laureate of Edmonton from 2009 to 2011. Find him on Twitter here.
(photo credit: Coey Kerr)
Travis Scott is a rapper for the Internet generation. The Texas artist makes music that feels in line with today’s social media landscape, in which memes often get more attention and “Likes” than original content does. After releasing two well-received mixtapes, the T.I.- and Kanye West-co-signed MC and producer has dropped his debut album, Rodeo, a record that embraces the trends of today’s rap world without adding any originality or personality to the mix — the elements that make it such a weird and wonderful time to be a rap fan.
For many rappers, the transition from mixtape to album means putting out a record boasting more producers and features — familiar voices that make a work more accessible to the mainstream. That’s also the case on Rodeo, which features twelve guest vocalists and several outside producers on its deluxe edition. Unfortunately, Rodeo feels more like a compilation record than a solo album — and it’s a showcase for everyone except Scott. While Kanye West, for example, uses different artists and styles to weave together songs that only serve to emphasize his personality (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “So Appalled,” featuring the likes of Jay Z, RZA and Pusha T, comes to mind), Scott is regularly overwhelmed by the guests on Rodeo.
“Piss on Your Grave,” featuring a sneering West, was previously rumored to be a track from ’Ye’s upcoming album, and it sounds like it: Scott barely appears on the song. Future and 2 Chainz bring the bloated “3500” to life, each rapper expertly navigating the ghostly beat in his own inimitable way. The Weeknd’s guest rap on “Pray 4 Love” is one of the best moments on the album — it’s a confident verse that comes off like a victory lap after the massive success of Beauty Behind the Madness.
Justin Bieber unexpectedly delivers a stunning rap performance on “Maria I’m Drunk,” a collaboration with Young Thug. The colorful, twisted “Nightcrawler” is a case for a solo album from Rae Sremmurd’s effervescent Swae Lee. That track also boasts a hypnotic, cocky verse by Chicago’s Chief Keef. There are some exciting moments sprinkled across this album, but few showcase Scott, who disappears into the background on collaborations and grates on solo cuts.
Auto-Tune appears so prominently on Rodeo that it could be another featured artist — and, as with most technology, it’s only as good as whoever is using it. Kanye famously used the tool as an emotional additive on 808s & Heartbreak. Young Thug, Future and Chief Keef treat Auto-Tune like the alien Symbiote suits used by Venom and Carnage in the Spider-Man comics. They wrap themselves up in it and turn into monsters.
Travis Scott uses Auto-Tune to add energy to his tracks, not as a particularly creative instrument. He shifts his voice so much over the course of Rodeo that his primary rapping register can become hard to ascertain, yet he still manages to come off as insouciant and flat with whichever voice he chooses to use.
He has a knack for hooks (“Antidote” is a serious earworm), but his verses don’t inspire attention; they failed to stay with me unless they included gross anatomical references (one woman in “3500” is a “young ’Yoncé with an Iggy on her,” while another, in “Pray 4 Love,” wants to know if Scott’s “dick longer than a Pringle box”). He also studs the album with trap world clichés (drug dealing, excess) that fall flat, lacking the gravitas lent by contemporaries such as Future.
Scott seems to rely heavily on the aesthetic when it comes to making music — from his Owl Pharaoh mixtape to Rodeo. His style feels like an outfit cobbled together from different brands. It appears that he took his catchphrase and nickname (“Straight up” and “La Flame”) from Future (who wrote the song “Straight Up”) and Gucci Mane (whose nickname is the very similar “La Flare”). In an interview with MTV News, he admitted that “there would not be a Travis Scott if it wasn’t for [Kid Cudi],” a similarly moody and eccentric rapper and singer.
And, as a debut record, Rodeo feels familiar but never distinctive. “Antidote” has Scott yelping so much like Rae Sremmurd that I had to check the credits to see if they were featured on that track. They weren’t. T.I. plays the role of omniscient narrator throughout the record, recalling Big Rube’s spoken word monologues on the Outkast albums. “Pornography” has similar drum programming to Da Honorable C.N.O.T.E.’s beat for A$AP Rocky’s “M’$.”
The closing track on the album is “Apple Pie,” an anthem about how Scott wants to build his own legacy — an anthem that also features a very similar beat to the one KeY Wane made for Meek Mill’s “Amen.” In “Apple Pie,” Scott says, “I am everything except a rapper,” and he might be right. He is a great curator of talent and a stylistic sponge. But after listening to the hour-plus-long Rodeo, I still have no better idea of who Travis Scott is as a person than I did before.