Coverage of Travi$ Scott’s recent performance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam largely revolved around his shabby treatment of an on-stage photographer. From the initial live tweets from the crowd to the chorus of judgmental clucks that followed online, rap critics and fans alike virtually climbed over one another to weigh in on whether or not it was cool for the Houston-area native to have so brusquely shooed the working shutterbug off the annual event’s Festival Stage. Incredibly, the incident proved to be the closest thing to a traditional "Summer Jam moment" at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. Of course, something far more distressing unfolded not long thereafter.
Though he’s been an occasional guest on some of its programs, you’d be hard pressed to hear one of Scott’s verses on the iconic and still-influential New York hip-hop station, let alone a full song. Yet he’s managed to be the only Summer Jam 2015 act anyone seems interested in talking about now, no small feat given the star-studded lineup. (Then again, when headliner Kendrick Lamar’s idea of a special guest is Welven Da Great, it puts that into perspective.) Last year it was all about the highly anticipated and highly orchestrated G-Unit reunion; this year the spotlight shines on a 23-year-old who still has yet to drop his debut album.
Of course, with his major label debut, Rodeo, on the horizon, Travi$ Scott isn’t just some dime-a-dozen struggle rapper out here trying to make a name for himself. As a teen, he caught T.I.’s ear, and soon thereafter became part of Kanye West’s illustrious circle. Then came his multiple placements on G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer compilation, an XXL Freshman nod, a collaboration with streetwear brand Been Trill, and the release of his own Owl Pharaoh mixtape with features from 2 Chainz and Meek Mill, among others. Yet of all Scott’s accomplishments to date, it’s his role on Mr. West’s radical 2013 album, Yeezus, that matters most. In his capacity as an in-house Very G.O.O.D. Beats producer, he contributed to three of its tracks, including the potent and provocative single “New Slaves.”
While no one producer can take responsibility for a record as transparently collaborative as the meticulously credited Yeezus, Scott seems to be one of its only contributors genuinely and demonstrably interested in furthering its sound in his own work. A maximalist take on pop-R&B, Hudson Mohawke’s new album, Lantern, couldn’t be further from the shadowy minimalism of Yeezus. Arca’s critically acclaimed and boundary-pushing Xen LP veers far further into third world dystopia than Kanye’s dancehall appreciation would’ve permitted.
Conversely, Scott doesn’t seek to deviate from the futurist hip-hop promise of Kanye’s most difficult album. His output since that record has been a testimony to pushing those sounds as a progressive way forward for a genre often perilously tripping over its latest trends. Last year’s sonically deep Days Before Rodeo tape shed the Kid Cudi aping tendencies of Owl Pharaoh and hewed closer to the aesthetics of Yeezus. Its singles “Don’t Play” and “Mamacita” fused unconventional synths and samples with trap-adjacent percussion. Tracks like “Quintana Pt. 2” appropriate the same horror house vocal effects of “Black Skinhead,” while the beats on “Basement Freestyle” or “The Prayer” wouldn’t have been out of place on Kanye’s record.
Nor would the freshly premiered Rodeo lead single, “3500.” A booming epic with elements of prog rock and gospel, it stripped away all pretense with its hedonistic lyrics and nearly eight-minute length, a reflection of Scott’s boldness and ambition. The closest he’s come yet to capturing the essence of Yeezus, the track sounds like something that would work well on Hot 97 if it weren’t so obstinate in its chosen duration. But neither “Black Skinhead” nor “New Slaves” benefited all that much from radio play, their idiosyncratic sonics thriving in the same online world where Scott’s own fanbase has congregated and flourished. If indicative of what’s coming later this year on Rodeo, “3500” positions Scott to pick up the gauntlet Kanye so vigorously threw down.
If indicative of what’s coming later this year on Rodeo, “3500” positions Scott to pick up the gauntlet Kanye so vigorously threw down.
Yet there’s no greater evidence as to why Rodeo stands to be the true Yeezus sequel—one which Kanye’s SWISH won’t be—than Kanye himself. The three original songs Kanye’s given us so far range from the McCartney mush of “Only One” to the Diet “Black Skinhead” jam “All Day.” His Rihanna collaboration “FourFiveSeconds” was so uncharacteristic a single that RiRi promptly followed it up with the more enthusiastically received “Bitch Better Have My Money.” None of these songs have come close to Yeezus, and it’s time his adoring fans start to accept that he’s moved on.
All the molly bender mojo of Yeezus—a record that so brilliantly juxtaposed black nationalism with hypermasculine sexuality—seems to have departed Kanye’s system like so much serotonin. He’s become a dad since that album’s global recording sessions, with a second child on the way. He’s made considerable inroads in the world of fashion, an industry he’s long fought to play a vital and respected role in. With his priorities so evidently shifted, it would be unrealistic if not downright unreasonable of us to expect Kanye to continue raging on record in the same way.
Thankfully, Scott’s taken it upon himself to continue the boombox revolution that Yeezus started. And yes, like it or not, that includes adopting the sort of boorish behavior his G.O.O.D. Music mentor has become famous for. Whether onstage at Summer Jam or in the tiny Chinatown stall where Been Trill sells its wares, Scott’s live performances have been overtly aggressive and energetic, much to the delight of his growing army of devotees.
From the Festival Stage outside MetLife Stadium, he actively encouraged his fans defy venue security and hop the fence. “They can’t stop you,” he warbled through an Auto-Tuned mic. “There’s too many of you.” Perhaps taking his taunts as a challenge, the police would later employ excessive crowd control SWAT tactics like sonic LRAD cannons and tear gas on ticketholders and the unticketed alike. Hip-hop’s audience remains defiant, righteous, and anti-authoritarian, which is why Travi$ Scott is precisely the sort of artist rap needs right now.
Gary Suarez is a writer living in New York. Follow him @noyokono.