The 2010s brought many genre-altering changes to hip-hop, but the reinvention of rage was one of the most salient.
It’s arguable that hip-hop was born from a state of rage; in fact, it’s pretty much undeniable. It’s also undeniable that rock-and-roll is deeply embedded in the DNA of hip-hop.
Rock-and-roll energy in hip-hop music subsided for a number of years, but was boldly brought back this past decade by an artist known as Travis Scott.
The Houston born-and-bred talent has been a “by the youth, for the youth” artist since his earliest days - a philosophy perfectly in tandem with rock culture. His discography and live performances embody raw emotion and free creative expression at their finest. Referring to his fans as “ragers” and his unscathed concert-goers as survivors of “the rodeo”, a Travis Scott performance is closer to Metallica than Migos. His music, however, straddles the line between those two extremes.
While there is a definite rock-fueled spirit behind his art, he is one of the most notable and versatile rappers in the industry. He can spit and sing, incorporating elements of alternative, electronic, R&B, and pop into his craft when seen fit. He also hits all of the bases of contemporary hip-hop, even conscious rap at times. While many might try to box him in as simply a “mumble” or “pop” rapper, he is truly one of hip hop’s most unique, creative, and refreshing talents. Every project that Travis releases shatters genre and artistic confinements in a different way than the last, likely explaining why very few listeners seem to get tired of the multifaceted Texan.
For hip hop’s most drastic decade of evolution, Travis Scott was one of the most fitting leaders we could have asked for.
Fellow rager Ralph Compiano and I have decided to honor Mr. Scott as the November Genius of the Month. As usual, we will tell his incredible life story and break down the highlights of his career and his contributions to contemporary music.
Travis Scott was born Jacques Berman Webster II on April 30, 1992 in Houston, TX. He spent most of the first six years of his life living with his grandmother in the South Park neighborhood - one of the city’s most violent areas. However, he later went on to claim that the neighborhood’s tough environment made him into who he is. He eventually moved back in with his parents in Missouri City, a middle-class city bordering Houston. His mom worked for Apple (big flex) and his dad was an entrepreneur. Travis comes from a line of musicians; his dad was once a soul musician and his grandpa was a jazz composer.
His earliest musical endeavor was with a group that he formed with close friend Chris Holloway in 2008 called The Graduates. Their first EP was untitled, released exclusively to Myspace. Following the short-lived stint of The Graduates, Travis and artist OG Chess formed the group The Classmates (real creative). However, it’s fitting that Travis and OG Chess were actually classmates. The Classmates had more success than The Graduates, releasing two projects - Buddy Rich (2009) & Cruis’n USA (2010). On both of their projects, Travis handled the majority of the production. The Classmates broke up in 2012 following personal disputes.
Travis graduated from Elkins High School in Missouri City and went on to attend the University of Texas San Antonio. However, Travis’ college days were numbered; he dropped out during his sophomore year in order to put 100% of his attention and effort into his music career. This move was a huge leap of faith for Trav; his parents cut him off financially and he had very few options to fall back on. In fact, he practically had nothing. Following his decision to drop out, he relocated from Texas to the Big Apple, briefly residing in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Travis spent four months in New York, sleeping on floors and spending hours upon hours in the studio. After his short time in New York drove him to frustration, he moved to LA to try his luck there.
Similar to many others that have pursued a career in show business, LA proved to be cruel and unfruitful for Travis upon his arrival. He banked on living with a friend who offered to provide him a place to stay. However, that “friend” essentially abandoned Travis and left him with nowhere to go. Following this backstab, Travis returned home to Houston where his parents eventually kicked him out. With no other option, he returned to LA for the second time.
Travis’ second move to LA panned out much better than the first. He found a place to stay - a friend’s couch at the University of Southern California. A full-fledged producer around this time, Travis eventually managed to get some of his beats into the hands of T.I., a trap music music legend. Travis was invited to attend a studio meeting while T.I. happened to be in LA. At that meeting, Tip freestyled over one of Travis’ beats entitled “Animal”. Following this fateful encounter, Travis became a part of Grand Hustle - T.I.’s label.
RALPH COMPIANO ON OWL PHARAOH
Fuck. I genuinely don’t know where to begin here. I could talk about how Owl Pharaoh introduced me to one of my three favorite artists of this century. I could talk about how the project filled me with so much adrenaline and teen angst that I started to think Tyler, the Creator’s Bastard was actually my second favorite debut mixtape. Instead, I think it’s important to start here: Owl Pharaoh is the most cathartic piece of music that Travis has ever created.
“Meadow Creek” is good and fine and all of that. It’s a decent introduction, probably my least favorite out of the five intros in his discography. But the second track? Well, that’s a whole different discussion.
“Bad Mood / Shit On You” was and still is the epitome of Travis Scott. The first half of the track “Bad Mood” is filled with innate rage against the world and society, intense anxiety, and rambunctious verses that disregard the typical hip-hop convention of “everything must rhyme OR ELSE”.
Notice that I said all of that is contained within the first half alone. That’s one of the keys to Travis’s genius, much like many other artists, you can’t have a first half without the second.
The second half, “Shit On You”, is the song you turn to after you’ve been dumped by the girl of your teenage dreams and are in desperate need of a pick-me-up in order to inspire some motivation to grow. At least that’s how I interpreted it. Travis could be delivering it in an entirely different context, like how he wants to shit on the rest of the industry for not having recognized his talent until this point in his young career. The track that came next was the one that would change Travis’s career and life. “Upper Echelon” featuring T.I. and 2 Chainz (the artist formerly known as Tity Boi) is the first result that comes up when you type in the word “banger” on Google. Trav still performs the anthem at concerts, and I can testify as a first hand witness that to this day it still goes hard as hell. “Chaz Interlude” serves as a groovy little interlude that features the now legendary alternative artist Toro y Moi. Travis and Toro later collaborated on “Flying High” on Rodeo. However, the bond was initially built here. Okay, now that we got the mood-altering interlude out of the way, let’s talk about bangers some more; which is what Travis is known for at the end of the day. I vividly remember involuntarily having a permanent stank face the first time I heard “Uptown” featuring A$AP Ferg. It made me feel like I was on zooming on a motorcycle in the middle of downtown NYC in an all black outfit with leather on my back and spikes at the bottoms of my kicks. I’m like 80% positive that this was actually my first introduction to Ferg, so it holds a special place in my heart for that reason as well. And the last 45 seconds or so of the song was definitely my first introduction to EDM, so I guess that meant something to me too although I’m still definitely not what one would consider a “bass head”.
YES! We made it! My personal favorite song on the mixtape. “Hell of a Night” is the only song on this mixtape that’s guaranteed to make your mama get out of her chair and start grooving. I honestly don’t believe that my language can do this song justice, so just do me a favor one time and listen to this song right now. You can thank me later.
Damn, I just realized that I’m quite literally doing a track-by-track breakdown of Owl Pharaoh. If I were to stick to this style then we might be here awhile because I think I could type an entire essay on the remaining tracks, “Blocka La Flame,” “Naked,” “Dance On The Moon,” “MIA,” “Drive,” “Quintana,” and “Bandz”. So, for the sake of space and each of our own sanities, I’m just going to construct a list instead. A simple straight forward ranking of my favorite songs on the mixtape with a few blurbs about the ones I haven’t discussed in length yet. Simple enough? Bet. Let’s ride.
My Favorite Songs on Owl Pharaoh in order:
“Hell of a Night”
“Bad Mood / Shit On You”
“Quintana” featuring Wale - I shit you not, I get chills every time that I listen to this song. Yes, it’s better than Part II (just barely though) and it might have been the first time I ever wanted to put my head through a wall while listening to a song. This track stands the test of time, and still inspires everyone in the crowd to do some evil activities when it comes on at his concerts.
“Dance On The Moon” featuring Theophilus London and Paul Wall - I lied earlier, this is another song that’ll make your mama wanna get up and start grooving. There’s clearly some type of inspiration from the alternative and EDM genres here, and I for one am entirely here for it. And the Paul Wall verse… THE FUCKING PAUL WALL VERSE. Damn. Things used to be so simple.
“Naked” - a beautiful interlude that’s also separated by two different halves. The beginning of it that preaches, “I JUST WANNA SPREAD MY WINGS!” is quite possibly my favorite and the most cathartic moment on the project.
“Drive” featuring James Fauntleroy - the most experimental track on Owl Pharaoh. The context of the song is directly in the title. It’s as if you’re sitting shotgun in Scott’s whip and he’s spastically changing the channels in order to find the right-- excuse my basic word choice here-- vibe.
“Upper Echelon” featuring T.I. and 2 Chainz - I know. It’s probably sacreligious to rank this genre-defining anthem so low on my list, but Owl Pharaoh is like really fucking good people. There are too many options, and I personally have always loved the alternative version of Travis just a tiny bit more than the Bang Your Head Until You Have a Concussion version. Don’t get me wrong though, circumstances always prevail.
“MIA” - The bars on this track… I don’t even gotta say much more honestly. This song will bang forever and it flows back and forth effortlessly between the slowed-down chorus to the nearly schizophrenic verses.
“Blocka La Flame” - There’s just something about the tint of a Jamaican accent on this specific track that sends chills down my spine. I wish Travis would experiment with this vocal tone a little bit more.
“Naked” - Like I said, I just wanna spread my wings!
“Uptown” featuring A$AP Ferg
“Chaz Interlude” featuring Toro y Moi
“Meadow Creek” - There isn’t a bad song on the mixtape. There really isn’t. But if there were to be a worst song on the project, then it would be this one. It just doesn’t operate as a song, it’s designed to be an introduction and nothing but. It’s more like spoken word poetry over a distorted beat than anything else, and that’s perfectly okay.
EVAN LINDEN ON DBR & RODEO
Travis Scott’s second full-length project came in the form of Days Before Rodeo, a mixtape heralded as one of the decade’s best. After all, Travis announced before DBR’s release that it was meant to be taken as an album rather than a mixtape. While technically released as a mixtape, DBR truly encapsulated album-quality production from start to finish.
Featuring production from Metro Boomin, Southside, Mike Dean, Wondagurl, Vinylz, Lex Luger, FKi, DJ Dahi, and Allen Ritter on top of executive production from Travis himself, DBR was truly a spectacle of top-tier production. This stacked squad of producers helped Travis precisely craft DBR’s majestic sound and imagery, ultimately creating a project fit to withstand the test of hip hop’s constantly changing times.
DBR’s features were just as diverse as its producers - The 1975, Big Sean, Migos, Young Thug, Peewee Longway, and Rich Homie Quan lent their talents to the project. Considering the wide range of those guests, the features are a part of what made DBR so enticing. Travis knew exactly which song to enlist each artist on; none of DBR’s features feel forced or misplaced.
While Owl Pharoah may have been his true solo debut, DBR was the first project that painted Travis Scott as the face of a generation.
After establishing himself as a dominant underground force full of energy and mystique, Travis was ready to release his debut studio album to the world in 2015. Rodeo was a major statement for Travis; Rodeo was the piece to prove that he was more than ready to break through the underground and take the industry by storm. Alluding to the “rodeo” concept in his art for quite some time, Travis described the inspiration as his life being a rodeo as he tries to stay on a bucking animal. In an interview with the CR Fashion Book, he described the album as such:
“It's like a Beyoncé concert. The carnival, the livestock, and the show are all parts of the event. I feel like that's how my life is. The carnival is like my imagination—it's the drive behind my vision. Even though I don't feel like I'm at a point where my shit is at an all time high, we're working to get there... The livestock show is the road to get to where I'm going. At this point, I'm riding a bull for just eight seconds and it's hard as fuck. But we made it.”
La Flame was assisted on Rodeo by names such as Kanye West, Quavo, Future, The Weeknd, Chief Keef, Justin Bieber, Young Thug, Juicy J, Kacy Hill, and Toro y Moi, as well as producers such as Zaytoven, Kanye, Pharrell, Sonny Digital, TM88, Charlie Heat, and Frank Dukes. Travis had his artistic vision fully laid out while making Rodeo; Travis knew how to fuse his sound and his collaborators sounds into one otherworldly experience.
RALPH COMPIANO ON BIRDS IN THE TRAP SING MCKNIGHT
I’m aware that BITTSM is Travis’s least celebrated production, and the least critically acclaimed as well (especially as far as consistency goes), but this album will always hold a solidified place in my heart. That may be because it came out during a very formative time in my life where I was building new bonds, making new friends, trying new things, and meeting new women, but at the core of it all is the actual music itself.
To this day, “The Ends” is my favorite Travis intro. I understand that there are arguments to be made for “Pornography” (the James Harden references make me want to scream at the top of my lungs and get buckets on the entire world simultaneously), “Days Before Rodeo / The Prayer” (the introduction to what I believe is the best mixtape of the decade), and “Stargazing” (the first half puts me in a trance, and the second half pulls me out of that trance and shoves a shot of adrenaline directly into my heart a la Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction). Once again, I feel like there isn’t much that I can say about “The Ends” that’ll contribute to your understanding, interpretation and appreciation of it, but that first verse never ceases to amaze me. It helped me understand that it’s okay to be a little bit crazy, weird and off your rocker in this world. And that sometimes the only answer is to participate in the rebellion and let your most inner passions come outside your body through the act of raging.
You can’t have “The Ends” without playing “Way Back” immediately after. The transition is seamless and beautiful. And you can’t have “Way Back” without going directly into the Blacc Youngsta rant on “Coordinate”. Followed by what I believe may be my favorite three-track run in Travis’s discography (which is up in the air between this trio on BITTSM and the first three tracks-- “Pornography” into “Oh My Dis Side” into “3500” on Rodeo), is the infamous collaboration between Travis and his idol whom he named his celebrity name after, Kid Cudi, on “Through The Late Night”. Then we go directly into “Beibs in the Trap” which features Nav.
QUICK SIDENOTE: the first time I heard this song was when I was listening to its premiere on Travis’s Apple Music Radio station, .wav radio, and I was convinced that the feature was actually Justin Bieber himself. The radio station didn’t list any of the features, so you kind of just had to figure it out for yourself. But by this point in my life, I was neck deep into Nav fandom (I pride myself on being on the first 10,000 people to follow him on SoundCloud, shoutout to my OG, Drell, for putting me on).
Although I’m still not yet positive of which three-song-run is my favorite on Travis’s discography, I am positive that this is my favorite five-song-run. It holds the most genuine memories for me, and the music itself will stick with me for a lifetime.
Okay, thanks for sticking with me through this, Evan and I really appreciate your tenacity for Travis Scott being equivalent to ours. I’m going to make this portion a little easier on your eyes once again and do what I did at the end of the Owl Pharaoh section.
My Favorite Songs on Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight in order:
“Goosebumps” featuring Kendrick Lamar - Remember when this was like the hottest banger in the world? Remember when Travis played it like 620 times in a row at that once concert? Remember when you woke up the next morning after a party and had the worst headache of your life and said to yourself, “I shouldn’t have banged my head to ‘Goosebumps’ so hard last night,”? Me too.
“Wonderful” featuring The Weeknd - If you don’t rock your body to this song when it comes on then I’m convinced that you don’t have a pulse, a heart, a brain, or any rhythm whatsoever, and I’m truly sorry for you and your friends and family for having to deal with your boring ass self.
“Through the Late Night”
“Beibs in the Trap”
“Lose” - I feel like there have been times in my life where I would actually consider putting this track in my top three or four of this album. I sincerely don’t know why, because it’s not super appreciated like a lot of the rest of the songs on this album are, but god damn does it make me happy. “My crib ain’t got syrup / That shit makes me nervous!” And the way he says “coo” is just so unlike anything else Travis has ever done; it’s almost… wait for it… CUTE. I didn’t know Travis had the potential of being cute until I heard this song. Even the people who are hardest on the outside have a little soft spot on the inside, and Trav’s pops up on this track.
“Pick Up The Phone” featuring Quavo and Young Thug - Once again, I know I’m probably ranking this sexy-sex anthem too low like how I did with “Upper Echelon” up above. But I don’t care. This song is awesome. This album is awesome. And I personally think that the songs above it are slightly more awesome. Make your own fucking rankings if you’re upset with mine.
“Sweet Sweet” - Sa pa se? What ya say?
“Outside” featuring 21 Savage - Pretty good 21 verse. Mad decent chorus. But there’s just something lacking here that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Should it have been longer? Shorter? More 21? A little different of a Trav verse? All of the above? None of the above? Is it perfect the way it is and maybe it’s just not that great of a song and is only capable of producing one very specific emotion of animosity? I don’t know. I’ll figure it out at some point.
“SDP Interlude” - There’s an extended version of this song on SoundCloud that is just so much better than the original version. And that doesn’t happen that often in music; typically the refined, mixed and mastered version is better than the leaked one, but in this case, Travis should’ve stuck with including the verses that make the leak so memorable and enticing.
“Guidance” featuring K. Forest - I used to think that this was my least favorite song on the album, but I’ve actually started to come around to it more recently. The beat has grown on me, and the relatively straightforward, yet somehow diluted message has as well.
“First Take” featuring Bryson Tiller - Who else remembers when Bryson Tiller was “the future of R&B/Soul/Pop”? Cause I know I do. And it seems like everything kind of went downhill for him after his feature on this track. This song’s fine and all, but it’s not anything memorable and the potential for it was clearly never met.
EVAN LINDEN ON ASTROWORLD
Summer 2018 received the biggest splash of Travis Scott’s career (thus far, at least). If you thought that Rodeo or Birds made waves, Astroworld dwarfed everything that Travis accomplished prior to the release of his third studio album. Astroworld took the world by storm, officially placing Travis on the same pop culture pantheon as artists such as Kanye, Kendrick, and Drake. Fittingly enough, the latter-mentioned artist was a major factor of the album’s viral success thanks to his contribution to the smash hit “Sicko Mode”.
An artist that has always thrived off collaboration, Astroworld is Travis’s grandest display of collaboration to date. An album with ironically unlisted features, he recruited artists such as Frank Ocean, Swae Lee, James Blake, Kid Cudi, Juice WRLD, Tame Impala, 21 Savage, Gunna, and Don Toliver to create one of 2018’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums. Astroworld has a Metacritic score of 85/100 after receiving perfect ratings from NME and Independent and subsequently made its way onto many of 2018’s end-of-year lists. The album debuted at number one with 537,000 units; all 17 tracks entered the Billboard Hot 100. As of January 2019, Astroworld is certified double platinum.
Fans and critics alike praised Astroworld for its imagery and immersive experience. Described by some as a “wild circus ride”, Astroworld executed the vision that Scott yearned to bring to life. Paying homage to the defunct Six Flags amusement park once in Houston, Astroworld strived to revive and reimagine the spirit of Travis’ childhood amusement park. The well-rounded sound and guest appearances of the album truly take the listener on a ride comparable to a rollercoaster.
While the energy is the same, Travis came a long way from the rodeo.