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The Evolution’s Absolute: Travi$ Scott’s Rodeo

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Let me describe to you two different songs.

The first is a dark, intense instrumental that constantly changes direction, cranking up the urgency with each hairpin turn. It starts off on a blissful soul sample, then dives into a swarm of keys and digital synths that then gets cut into by razor sharp synth leads and thrown for a loop by unpredictable shifts in the mix. Put simply, it’s a veritable epic suite condensed down to a mere four-and-a-half minutes, and is one of the most impressive, and frankly, beautiful pieces of music to ever come of the trap genre.

The second is a posse cut wherein five MCs alternate between rapping and singing about sex and drugs as absurdly and crudely as they can. They almost seem to be trying to one-up each other in terms of coming up with the dirtiest punchline as they drop bars like “She a hottie like a bag of Takis” and “Butt naked fuckin’ in Balenciagas / Pussy wet, call it Fiji water.” The track isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but it’s still one of the most tasteless pieces of music you can possibly imagine.

Now get this: I lied to you. These two songs are actually one and the same — the standout cut, “Sloppy Toppy,” from Travi$ Scott’s 2014 mixtape Days Before Rodeo.

The contrast between such incredibly sophisticated music and the base, ridiculous lyrics that accompany it is pretty stark. But it’s also sort of genius. Like it or not, hedonistic party music is going to be made from now until the end of time. But time and again, rapper/singer/producer Travi$ Scott has demonstrated that it’s his mission to elevate this style. Put another way, he wants to have his cake and eat it too, making songs that are not only viscerally fun backdrops for parties and clubs, but cerebral pieces of work that will grab your ear even when you’re sitting alone with your headphones on.

Days Before Rodeo was an extremely good introduction to Travi$ La Flame’s MO, and his commercial follow-up, simply Rodeo, is even better. In fact, what we may have here is one of the most artful, well conceived trap albums there is. Front to back, every song on this project is loaded with an absurd amount of ambition, especially from such a young artist (Scott’s 23). Every track is some sort of impossible leap of faith, but the landing is stuck pretty much perfectly every time.

Scott’s foremost claim to fame is undoubtedly his extremely progressive songwriting sensibilities. At this point, looping samples and patterns are becoming a thing of the past in both rap and electronic music, and La Flame is at the very forefront of developing beatmaking into a more dynamic art form. Every song on Rodeo is possessed of distinct movements. Yes, movements in turn-up trap rap.

This experimental attitude doesn’t just define his instrumentals, but also his singing and rapping. Both note for note and bar for bar, Scott is a master of neither craft. But he’s still really quite good at both. His sung vocals are almost always drenched in effects — autotune, vocoder distortion, flanger, and more (sometimes all at once). Some may cry foul at his lack of technical ability removed from these effects, but if you’re a sane person who likes good sounding music, you probably won’t give a shit. The ways in which he manipulates his voice and arranges his vocal tracks are almost always impressive, if not outright stunning. And though Travi$ has always been weakest as an MC, he steps it up big time on Rodeo, offering both simple, fun party raps and even some surprisingly earnest and poignant lyricism.

There are so many great moments on Rodeo that it’s hard to know where to start. So, for lack of a better idea, I’ll just begin by talking about the record’s worst track, “Flying High.”

It’s a pretty damn good song that marks the second time Scott has collaborated with Toro y Moi frontman Chaz Bundick. In most ways, it still highlights the many strengths of the album. The instrumental is daringly strange, mixing a Neptunes-style beat with a delicate chamber-pop break. And the chemistry the duo exhibit is excellent as they strike a balance between their highly disparate styles. Therein lies the problem, however, as La Flame’s sound is unrelentingly dark; it’s the hip-hop equivalent of a soundtrack from a Michael Mann movie — all nocturnal grit. Chaz, meanwhile, is a master of the bright and breezy. Thus, as solid as “Flying High” is, it’s as disorienting as stepping out into beaming sunlight after hours in pitch blackness.

A cheery interlude might’ve been fitting if the record’s tone became overbearing, but Rodeo’s brand of dark experimentalism is enthralling. That much is clear from the record’s first track, “Pornography,” which switches from a spaced out ballad to a Big Rube-esque spoken word piece, and finally to a booming banger all in less than four minutes. And all the while Scott’s lyrics set the tone for the album to come; “Pornography’s surrounding me,” he sings on the hook, before inviting listeners to “Get high with me / Then come down with me.”


The next couple of tracks are just as busy, but feature longer running times that allow for more breathing room. “Oh My Dis Side” starts off with some ice cold autotune crooning underscored by a plodding, distorted clav melody. It sounds like cut from 808s & Heartbreak, if Yeezy’s electronic pop opus had more heft to it. But about halfway through, that haunting clav fades away and the lethargic instrumental morphs into an uptempo banger propelled by huge stabs of bass and grand piano, along with some lovely swirling synth leads. The switch-up goes over with unbelievable smoothness when, by any right, it shouldn’t. But, as it turns out, that’s a consistent theme across Rodeo. And featured MC, Quavo (one of La Flame’s partners in crime on “Sloppy Toppy), plays a very interesting role in the proceedings. He simply contributes ad-libs to Travi$’s parts until the last bit of the six-minute track, when he finally breaks out with a hyped verse of his own. Features that have good chemistry with Scott and contribute meaningfully and unexpectedly to the tracks they’re on — another one of Rodeo’s consistent keys to success.

“3500” is next. The track served as Travi$’s lead-in single despite the fact that it stretches out to nearly eight minutes. First off, I’m going to guess that there are maybe three trap rappers who’ve ever made an eight-minute epic. Second, who except Travi$ Scott would make such a track their first single? He probably won a grand total of zero new fans thanks to that move, but I wouldn’t expect anything less audacious from him at this point. I wrote about the track when it came out a few months back, and I like it as much now as I did then. The EDM-inflected double-time chorus is a particular highlight, along with Future’s floating verse, delivered in such warbled and muted fashion that he sounds like he’s talking underwater in a sea of Actavis.

The subject matter on these first few tracks (and indeed, most of Rodeo) is sheer indulgence: women, cars, money, weed, pills, and potions — you know the drill. As always, my thinking when it comes to lyricism across any style of music is that it’s not what you say that matters, but how you say it. And though Scott spends 90% of Rodeo dwelling on topics that every other rapper does, his lyrics and delivery are unfailingly catchy. As he and Swae Lee go back and forth singing on “Nightcrawler,” every last phrase sticks so well that it’s hard to tell where the chorus ends and the verses begin; the whole track feels like one extended, sing-along hook. The cascading synth arrangements that lay the foundation for it all keep building and building until, in the words of Future, that shit gets colossal. Most radio and club tracks are built around an ebb-and-flow between restraint and catharsis. But not “Nightcrawler.” This thing is at its peak from the get-go and only gets grander from there.

But, never missing an opportunity to pull the rug out from under any and everyone, Scott gets surprisingly serious on a number of tracks. “90210” is another nearly six-minute piece that possesses two distinct movements. The first is a fantastic duet between La Flame and GOOD Music signee, Kacy Hill. Scott comes through with some aggressive distorted vocals before (digitally) raising into a falsetto that Hill underscores with some beautiful ethereal melodies. The instrumental is another mindblower, featuring sub-bass and synths that leap back and forth on a dime between a heavenly haze and murky filth. Lyrically, Scott delves into themes of addiction, first through the eyes of a woman whose Hollywood dreams devolve into porn shoots and looking through alleys for dealers, then, more surprisingly, revealing himself to search those same seedy spots. The narrative then shifts from disquieting to triumphant as the beat switches to a dense, soulful boom-bap beat that recalls The Alchemist or perhaps early Yeezy. With this shift, Travi$ embarks on a great thirty-two bar verse expounding on the joy he feels in having proven himself a worthy artist not to general audiences, but to his own family. Aw.


These themes of family and independence continue later in the album. When Scott sings “I don’t want your apple pie” on the hook of (you guessed it) “Apple Pie,” it’s rather shockingly not a euphemism; he’s quite literally talking about the apple pies his mother made, fashioning the dessert into a metaphor for the safety and security of living at home, telling his mom “I need my own pepper please / My own legacy, my own recipe.” The thunderous, off-kilter grand piano progression laid down by jazz mastermind Terrace Martin provides the sheer jubilance to match Travi$’s pride in how far he’s come.

The song concludes with another spoken word piece from T.I., technically bringing Rodeo to a close. But if you’re at all a fan of what the record offers, you’d be remiss to not check out the two bonus tracks, “Ok Alright” and “Never Catch Me.” Both songs are integrated seamlessly into the flow of the album, building on the climactic urgency of “Apple Pie.”

“Ok Alright,” which features TDE signees Schoolboy Q and SZA, is the best track on the entire project. It’s a seven-minute, multi-part odyssey that starts off with some great interplay between Scott and Q, as they both place their respective trademarks front and center — La Flame does some melodic autotuned oohs and ahs and Q bombards the mix with what sounds like dozens of echoing ad libs. The two then trade verses over an uncharacteristically spare beat. And though La Flame definitely exhibits some greatly improved flows and lyrics throughout Rodeo, Groovy Q rather effortlessly takes the prize for the album’s best verse. When you invite one of the Black Hippy crew to contribute to your record, that’s just the risk you run.

It’s surprisingly not until Q exits the track, however, that “Ok Alright” hits “Runaway” or “Mortal Man” levels of oxygen stealing hip-hop bliss. Sharp hihat hits and a woozy synth lead mark the beginning of a new instrumental anchored by an abyssal bassline out of which stirring swells of keys and bells emerge briefly like flickering flames in the darkness. And within this cavernous instrumental, Scott affects a choked up cadence to describe the difficulties he faced growing up. His first few bars are particularly resonant: “Jacques was born April thirty aye / Doctor said he won’t be home in thirty days / Momma said her son gon’ be a gift / Momma said her son gon’ be the shit / He gon’ be alright.” SZA, meanwhile, delivers a pair of haunting interludes that fit perfectly within the huge, somber soundscape. This track represents hip-hop at its most daring and powerful, and is certainly one of the very best songs to come out this year.

For its part, the final track, “Never Catch Me,” provides the necessary falling action. At less than three minutes, it’s one of the briefest songs on the record, and Travi$ does a nice job of succinctly summarizing Rodeo’s themes while, of course, laying down a beat that’s completely batshit insane.

I’m running into the same problem writing about Rodeo as I did writing about my other favorite rap records of this year, To Pimp A Butterfly and Compton: there are just so many great moments on this project that I could discuss it all day. I haven’t even mentioned the sweeping, opulent “Pray 4 Love,” Scott’s Death Grips-esque team up with Kanye on “Piss On Your Grave,” the incredibly catchy “Antidote,” or “Maria, I’m Drunk,” which features both Young Thug and Justin Bieber and is somehow still great.

So rather than keep writing, I’ll just put it like this: if you’re remotely interested in trap music, or just want to hear popular genre being pushed to its absolute limits, Rodeo is mandatory listening.

For some reason, a lot of artists become obsessed with developing a futuristic sound. Usually the result is unbelievably contrived, as if the artist’s cue for what the future would be like was a Philip K. Dick book from the 60s. The contemporary artists that actually make me feel as though I’m listening to music that’s been beamed back music from the year 2035 — the likes of Death Grips, St. Vincent, or Burial — largely do so without any pretense. With Rodeo, I think Travi$ Scott fully deserves membership to that club. I honestly don’t know what it is that gives the music he and like artists create such a forward-thinking vibe. I don’t think anyone does. I doubt the artists themselves even do. But how happy I am for these glimpses into the future.