Travis Scott – “Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight” (Album Review)

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Travis Scott’s latest effort fails to deliver the same depth as its predecessor.

If there’s any figure in rap music that can uphold the self-proclamation of a rockstar, it’s Travis Scott. From his ignorant, unkempt style and heads-down approach to a public eye that perceives him as perpetually off-kilter and woozy, to his incredibly free-spirited and explosive live performances, kicking cameramen off his stages and performing in fucking trees, he encapsulates all the against-the-grain attitude and rampant abrasiveness that you’d expect from a modern punk rocker.

It’s an attitude that has always translated well into his music; on his rough-hewn debut mixtape Owl Pharaoh, we were introduced to the monstrous and glossily futuristic sound that would continue to grow and define Scott’s career as a musician, through his influence on Kanye West’s Yeezus and his own follow-up releases, Days Before Rodeo, Rodeo and now with his latest effort, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight.

Unfortunately, it’s a shame that on Birds, Travis sounds more caged and restrained as ever, playing it safe within the boundaries of the tried-and-true formula for success that he established with smash-hit  Antidote last year.

Following the gritty, gothic sounds of Days Before Rodeo and the maximalist compositions of Rodeo, the stripped-back, accessible production on Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight actually serves to detriment Scott’s artistic value, as the variety of aesthetic amalgamations and blends that cleverly plastered the soundscapes of his earliest work are simplified and less imaginative than ever, seeming less like the procuration of a fan-turned-superstar wearing his idols on his figurative musical sleeve (ala Tyler, the Creator’s love for Pharrell and Amy Winehouse) and more like five-piece jigsaw puzzles of the sounds of his contemporaries.

Birds opens to the woozy bassline of the ends, which, after some glorious Kanye-influenced vocalisation, becomes steadily propelled by the familiar murky mixture of clattering percussion and bells that went big-time with winning production from the hits of last years If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. While not as stage-setting and enthralling as The Prayer or Pornography, it’s a strong opener that is hallmarked with a frenetic, skittering verse from none other than the enigmatic Andre 3000 himself – the first of many feature appearances on the record.

On dystopian, nocturnal banger through the late night, a standout on the album, Travis even gets to rap the iconic lines of his idol Kid Cudi, alongside the ‘Chosen One’ himself – the artist Trav claims is responsible for him even making music at all – and spit a few Day ’n’ Nite throwback bars that were surely as much an indulgent wet dream for Scott to record as it was for fans to hear.

While Rodeo seemed more like he was reeling the featured artists into the haze of the album’s luxuriously evil sounds, and it worked, on Birds it too often feels like the guests appear on songs they comfortably belonged on – Tiller on first take, Kid Cudi on through the late night, Nav on beibs in the trap. The production on these cuts seem to lend too much to the sounds of their guests and not enough to the gritty textures and atmospheres that Scott’s music is renowned for.

It’s a shame that on Birds, Travis sounds more caged and restrained as ever

It’s an album that’s ultimately cursed with a lack of innovation; as Travis conforms to the accessibility of his biggest hit thus far, Antidote, his creativity recesses and he relies on third-party musicians as launching pads, using his popularity as both a platform for listener-attention and safety net should any controversy become public. pick up the phone was initially a Young Thug song (it even appeared as a bonus track on JEFFERY), wonderful was an unreleased Tinashe cut, guidance is a K. Forest track, beibs in the trap is essentially a Nav track that Travis latched onto, first take sounds suspiciously like a Bryson Tiller throwaway, and the list goes on (even the album’s title is from a years-old Quavo verse).

As the production on Birds feels significantly less inspired and dense than that on its fantastic predecessors (excluding gorgeous moments like sdp interlude), it exposes Travis’s lyrical shortcomings more than ever. While no reasonable Travis Scott fan ever comes to his music expecting ‘bars’ – his passable lyrics have never truly been the centrepiece of his music – as the beats behind him are reduced, thrusting him to the centre-stage, his spitting prowess becomes less forgivable than it’s been in the past (seriously, ‘stroke my cactus’?). Travis’s hook game is also surprisingly weaker than ever before here, as not only are few of the hooks in the tracklist as infectious as any from Rodeo, but some are downright awful; in particular, album centrepiece sweet sweet, one of the most forgettable tracks on the record (though blessed with an incredible outro), is driven by a frustratingly obnoxious, high-strained drawl of a refrain that is repeated exactly fifteen more times than it ever should’ve been.

While the first 10 tracks are all at the very least enjoyable, it’s in the final four track slog where Birds truly begins to falter, as it becomes derailed by a slew of upbeat filler cuts that all feel atmospherically misplaced within the album’s context.

first take begins with a ghostly, off-kilter and infectiously dreary hook, yet the melodies and inflections introduced in the verses lead it to sounding like a Bryson Tiller track before Tiller even makes an appearance. The track is not without it’s redeemable qualities however – it’s still an enjoyable listen, that includes some truly beautiful harmonies (see: “so say nothin’, nothin’…”) and ratcheting trap drums tethered to a filtered, soulful sample (which come to think of it, is literally the sound that Tiller’s career has been founded on, isn’t it?).

Tropical-trap banger pick up the phone, the months old first offering from Birds, is a standout track that is just as catchy and vibrant as it was when it was initially released (can Trav, Quavo and Thug just become a fucking trio already?) it marks the beginning of the glaring outliers on the record.

The brass and pizzicato-driven lose is a fun track, but it lacks both the songwriting depth and ambition that we’ve come to expect from La Flame and his music, and is almost derailed by some reversed hi-hats that feel almost forcefully included, solely to add an aspect of weirdness to an otherwise very accessible filler track. guidance, a cover/remix of the (admittedly superior) K. Forest track of the same name, is Travis needlessly tossing his hat into the ring of the 2016 dancehall wave sweep; the T-Minus produced wonderful feels incredibly tacked-on to the end of the tracklist, which, while it’s in no means a bad song and has been a club-ready firestarter since it’s release in December of last year, is an underwhelming and unceremonious end to the album.

Despite its obvious flaws, it’s not all doom and gloom on Birds. goosebumps is an incredible track, a hard-hitting, carnivalesque dive into the depths of Scott’s sound that drags Kendrick Lamar along for the ride for a show-stopping guest verse (“that pussy to die for!”). The track is well-crafted, the beat is excellent, the hook is catchy and the verses are strong. The same can be said for ‘murder’ musician 21 Savage-assisted Outside, a banger about selling drugs outside of clubs that manages to sound both accessible, grimy and watery all it once. The production throughout the album is impressive and cohesive, with no cut in the track-listing sticking out as particularly bad, though a lot of the ideas presented on Birds don’t feel fully fleshed out or worthwhile, as it fails to draw the same depth from the same surface-level themes it shares with its predecessor.

Hopefully, in the same way that Days Before Rodeo served as a sonic palette cleanser and mood-setter for Rodeo, Birds is simply setting the stage for it’s already announced follow-up, Astroworld.

 

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