“I am everything except a rapper.” That’s a good, honest plea to cop coming from rapper/producer/but mostly awesome curator Travi$ La Flame Scott on the outro to his debut album. It’s also redundant, as the previous 13 and a half tracks have made that perfectly clear. You don’t come to a Travi$ Scott project looking to be blown away lyrically. You come for the unique, gothic sound, the one he helped Kanye West craft on Yeezus and later expanded on in his stellar sophomore mixtape, Days Before Rodeo. You come because even though the guy is far from a show-stopping rapper and doesn’t even always handle production duties, he has a Kanye-level ear for putting the best producers, engineers, and guests together to create one hell of a fresh-sounding song. Ironically, if there’s one person La Flame admires and idolizes more than Ye, it’s Kid Cudi, who similarly helped Kanye build a new sound before going on to create his own debut. What we have in Rodeo then, is an album heavily inspired by both Yeezus (duh) but also, perhaps moreso, Man on the Moon. Is it as successful as either? Welp, not quite.
Rodeo’s been anticipated as a Yeezus sequel of sorts, but at 25 minutes longer, it has no interest in being as light on its feet. Instead it begins and ends much like Cudi’s debut, with T.I. gamely stepping into Common’s narrator role with casual verve and a script that simply must be winking at Tip’s reputation for being unnecessarily verbose. Sometimes the indulgence works: at nearly 8 minutes long “3500” sounds like the year 3500; it's fully engrossing futuristic trap. He’s still great at putting odd choices in surprisingly dope places: 2 Chainz shows flashes of 2012 brilliance; instead of handling hook duty, Justin Bieber goes Peak Biebervelli with a hot 16. But, in a classic case of the precursor mixtape once again being better than the album, too many songs feel inessential and unmemorable i.e., “Wasted” and “I Can Tell.” And after a dozen listens of the album, I still don’t know why the opener is titled “Pornography.” “Nightcrawler” is a noisy near misfire, but the album’s biggest disappointment is “Piss on Your Grave,” which if truly recorded alongside Paul McCartney, is grounds to ban the Beatle from ever setting foot near Ye again. (As a song long rumored to have been borne out of Ye’s So Help Me God/SWISH album sessions, we can only be thankful Travi$ sacrificed himself—there’s still hope SWISH won’t be the unfocused, aimless mess the pessimists fear it’s shaping up to be.)
Instead Rodeo’s standout far and away surprisingly isn't a song likely to incite riots at future La Flame concerts, but rather the introductory "Oh My Dis Side." (It’d be a much better start if, after T.I.’s opener, we cut straight to this instead.) It bangs, but it’s smooth, hinting at a much more thorough and personal album than we ultimately get. Where Cudi poured his story into Man on the Moon, Rodeo is a much thinner auto-biopic. T.I. and Travi$ promise to “tell you about Jacques,” but the man behind the rager and mysterious posturing barely shows up on the album. The only interesting personal aspect I really got from Rodeo is how an album dedicated to the aesthetic and vibes of his hometown is filled with references to the pedestal upon which dude placed L.A. But even when he flourishes in cinematically dramatizing his arrival—try not to see a Michael Mann exterior shot in your head as he croons “finally in L.A.” on “Maria I’m Drunk”—he doesn’t fill it in. Talk of leaving Houston, meeting T.I., Kanye, etc. is fleeting. It’s besides the point to highlight that Travi$ is outshone by his guests on a technical level, from Future to the always in the pocket Juicy J to, shit, Bieber even. But it’s distressing that they outshine him as a presence on his own album.
There’s nothing quite as titanic or urgent as “Don’t Play,” (which also remains the high point of his rap performance as well), but his cinematic scope holds strong. Musically the best moment on the album is the last minute of “Impossible” into the first minute of “Maria I’m Drunk.” Songs with their own little intros and outros is an idea he’s been playing with since Owl Pharaoh (see “Hell of a Night”), and it sounds grander and more lush here. Even better is the way some some songs are actually two-in-one, something various rappers have tried and mostly failed at genuinely pulling off since 2010-era Kanye. But when “Oh My” becomes “Dis Side” or “OK” becomes “Alright” it doesn’t feel forced, but instead the type of natural narrative arc that he’s trying to go for throughout the entire album. Drug-addled turn-ups crash into emo moments of reflection before the drugs kick back in. (“OK Alright” and “Never Catch Me” being relegated to bonuses is the album’s most confusing move. They’re far more personal and entertaining than others that made the main cut.) In less than a week spent with this album, I've been walking around yelling "3500 for the coat!" or crooning "This side this side this side" like I have Tourette's. But the highs just aren't high enough; the album isn't consistent enough and the story not fully realized.
“Will he make it? Was it worth it? Did he win?” T.I asks on "Apple Pie," the album’s closer (which heavily invokes Moon’s closing “Up Up & Away”). Kind of and probably, to answer the last two. Travi$ Scott made an enjoyable album for his fans peppered with undeniable bangers for his detractors. But in a climate where a large portion of the community questions his identity, his purpose, his value (and in some cases, his ethics), this is not quite the validating slam dunk that it should’ve been.