This summer of hip-hop releases was so loaded that it probably deserves its own Grammy category — and Travis Scott was the biggest winner. Sure, Pusha’s Daytona is my go-to project, and there’s no denying that Drake’s Scorpion was mammothly successful, but neither of those artists achieved as big of a net gain in cultural standing. Pusha is still the same universally respected, “never had a wack verse” legend of Jadakiss’ ilk, and Drake needed Scorpion just to wash the stench of “The Story Of Adidon” off. Astroworld took Travis from a polarizing star with a cult fan base into the top tier of hip-hop artists along with Drake, Kendrick, and J. Cole.
What else can you call an artist who went no. 1 on Billboard for two weeks straight (outselling Nicki Minaj’s Queen in its second week) and is selling out arenas in LA and New York City so fast that he needs to add additional dates? Stevie Wonder isn’t popping out for just anyone, but he played the harmonica on Scott’s “Stop Trying To Be God.” Frazier Tharpe of Complex deemed Rodeo, Scott’s 2015 project, “an enjoyable album for his fans peppered with undeniable bangers for his detractors.” Astroworld isn’t just peppered with undeniability, it’s inundated with it. Scott’s A&R Sickamore told Rolling Stone that after his 2016 Birds In The Trap Sing Mcknight failed to earn a Grammy nomination, they wanted to create an “undeniable” project.
From a new entry into the cultural lexicon with “Stop Trying To Be God,” to bangers like “Sicko Mode,” “Coffee Bean,” and “Stargazing,” they achieved that. Travis’ success isn’t merely a victory for him, but for all the trap artists who have been trying to navigate criticism that they’re “killing hip-hop” with their genre-bending exploits. Astroworld might as well have been called For Trap Artists Who Were Told They Weren’t Artists. Earlier this summer I pondered if trap music was on its way out. I asked, “will more artists follow Travis Scott’s model of putting greater care into his polished production?” Astroworld makes that question even more pressing.
Hopefully, producers and artists like Migos, Murda Beatz, Future, Lil Uzi Vert, and other trap royalty will heed his formula and deliver the strongest music that they’re capable of with their next work. The reason that the ‘90s boom bap sound earns its spot as the golden era of hip-hop is because from roughly ‘92-’97, nearly every new act was swinging for the fences with their releases. From A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang’s first two albums, to Nas’ Illmatic, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Biggie’s Ready To Die, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, CNN’s The War Report and so many other beloved projects, New York artists compelled each other to come with nothing less than their best. Prodigy has said that Illmatic made he and Mobb Deep partner Havoc want to switch their whole format for The Infamous. Jay-Z rhymed, “thought we was all dead” when he heard Illmatic.
Today’s trap artists parallel the camaraderie of that era, but not the same desire to create timeless work. Trap music runs the world, but there seems to be a dearth of canonical albums that point to why. There are plenty of beloved songs, lines, and verses, but the genre is lacking in the albums department. While Cardi B, Future, and Playboi Carti had strong offerings, there were too many projects that felt bogged down in an uninspired haze and didn’t present anything new. But Astroworld is a well-crafted project that serves as a new gold standard for the genre.
One of the major criticisms levied against trap artists is that they’re too prone to formulaic releases that belie a self-defeating carelessness. Migos’ process for their disappointing Culture II album was revealed to be focused more on supply than precision, with each song done on average in “20-to-45 minutes.” Astroworld upended that process with a painstaking attention to detail. It’s been in creation for over two years, with some songs taking as many as fifty sessions to refine according to Sickamore.