“Sure, go ahead and ask him about the leak if you wanna get punched in the face,” is the general warning I’ve received from Travis Scott’s entourage. I haven’t actually met Travis yet, but one thing is already abundantly clear: He’s not happy about Rodeo, his debut album, surreptitiously making its way online for free exactly a week before its intended release. Being the big, loud idiot that I am, I’d still like to hear this from the horse’s mouth. Thankfully for my face, I never get the chance to do this because—and this is the next observation that becomes abundantly clear—the 23-year-old rapper who calls himself “La Flame” doesn’t stop.
EPIC FEST, L.A. | Aug. 29, 2 p.m.
At the inaugural Epic Fest, the “Epic” is not so much a descriptor as it is a plain reminder that we’re here, at the behest of label CEO L.A. Reid, to watch Epic Records’ current roster of acts. This list includes Jidenna, Big Grams, Future, Ozzy Osbourne, and—the artist I’ve been assigned to track down—Travis Scott. I’ll later read online that the event is also serving as some sort of litmus test for plans to bring Epic Fest to a city near you—because, although they no longer buy music, people still love festivals.
Today Epic Fest is still for the label, by the label, with its parent company’s (Sony Pictures Studios) lot in Culver City serving as the backdrop. It’s a beautiful day in California, and the crowd is buzzing off of free Budweiser and Patrón. The vibe reads casual corporate block party, much like the L.A. imagined in every working New Yorker’s West Coast fantasy. Epic Fest’s lineup is ordered by seniority, with artists getting between one and three songs to impress the roughly 100 people who aren’t too cool to rush the stage. Travis Scott is slated to perform sometime after Jidenna—evidently, Kanye West production credits are worth more than a radio hit. But Travis is MIA, so after “Classic Man” comes Big Grams, and then Epic Fest’s one truly FOMO-inducing moment: when Future and DJ Esco take the stage. A mass of bodies hurries forward, and what can be best described as a religious experience ensues, with Future buoyed by the kind of confidence that only comes when you’re having the best year of your entire life.
And then, some two hours after his listed set time, Travis Scott blows into Epic Fest like a hurricane of weed smoke. Wearing a Goyard purse and a dad cap that reads “Beastin,” he frantically weaves about the studio lot, his 10-person entourage trying desperately to predict his next move—the head of a snake governed by a primordial instinct leading a winding body behind. The dust only settles once Travis finds the appropriate VIP backstage area where he can presumably smoke more weed. This is my first taste of the Travis Scott orbit. You may know where he is or even see him, as I can now, but you cannot reach him.
Everybody is always chasing Travis. And I mean this in the most literal way possible. I have never seen a faster walker in my life—just pure, lean, kinetic energy, propelling itself forward. In fact, he’s not so much walking as he is bouncing laterally, hunched and gangly. During my four days (spread out over the course of four weeks) around Travis, nobody once breaches his immediate radius, as if there is some type of invisible force field surrounding him the second he decides to move.
With the aforementioned warning in place, Travis’ crew explains to me that now is probably not the best time to introduce myself as the writer for his cover story. He’s fucking pissed. In fact, Travis is apparently so consumed with the unfortunate events of the day that I’m not sure he’s aware that this story—or I—even exists, something that will soon become painfully clear.
FOOL’S GOLD DAY OFF, L.A. | 8 P.M.
Whatever pent-up energy and aggression Travis has left over from skipping his Epic showcase, he spends (and overdrafts) at Fool’s Gold Day Off later that night. I’m posted up stage left, behind the boards, watching a coronation. While the sea of people here to see Travis headline what is easily the biggest party I’ve been to in my entire life is beyond impressive, the VIP section is no slouch, either. I’m flanked by Kanye’s Donda brain trust—Virgil Abloh, Ibn Jasper, Jerry Lorenzo, and Heron Preston—some of whom are tangentially involved with Travis’ creative, and Kylie Jenner, who’s wearing a pair of jorts so tattered that I’m not sure they can legally be defined as clothing.
Everything you’ve ever heard or read about a Travis Scott show is true. By sheer force of will he conjures the gods of rage and chaos—not surprisingly two of his favorite buzzwords—as the crowd manically tries to keep up with its leader. Pits open, swallowing fans and spitting a lucky few on stage who must, as required by law, stage dive back into the abyss. While he begins the night kitted out, Travis soon achieves his final form, thrashing until he emerges a shirtless, sweaty blur, skinny jeans sagging off his ass.
Unlike earlier, tonight is going exceedingly well. Or, as Travis tells the crowd, “the best motherfucking show I’ve ever done in my motherfucking life” and “the best experience of all time.” In the absence of a real smash record, both mixtape standbys like “Upper Echelon” and recent bangers like “3500” ring off equally. By the time Travis goes into “Antidote”—his first time performing the song in his new home of L.A. and his first real shot at the kind of anthem on which hip-hop stars build legacies—everybody is experiencing a full-blown exorcism. Travis is mobbed on stage by his boys while Kylie and company migrate into the audience to dance. In the midst of pandemonium, I’m able to catch a fleeting glimpse of both a somber Trinidad James and a gleeful Theophilus London, the former casually and the latter actively watching the ascension of rap’s new star. The two help frame the evening in a metaphorical sense—the ghost of what could have been and the ghost of what may still be.
Post-show, the ghost of the present bolts from the stage and maneuvers deftly through the parking lot en route to the backstage area housed in an adjacent structure. Tonight’s battle cry: “I don’t need no label!” I’m swept up in the wake, jogging in unison with the entourage as we make our way up flights of stairs and down corridors in pursuit. Being a writer who has not yet earned the trust of his subject, much less introduced himself, I am firmly instructed not to enter the dressing room.
Through a door that gets opened for roughly every single person in the immediate vicinity besides myself, I’m able to briefly watch the ensuing turn-up as if it were a flipbook. My last-ditch hopes of witnessing what appears akin to a championship locker-room celebration are dashed when Kylie shows up. Much like a vampire has to be invited to enter a human’s home, a journalist cannot cross the threshold of any room containing a partying Kardashian-Jenner unless explicitly asked.
Ubers are called and Travis heads to dinner at L.A. cool-guy Italian spot the Nice Guy with the chosen few. Not being even remotely worthy, I hang back and eventually catch a black SUV with two members of Travis’ inner circle: Randall “Sickamore” Medford—vice president, A&R, and creative director at Epic Records—and Fifty, one of Travis’ friends. I take the car ride as an opportunity to get some stats on Travis—he’s a “nerd,” “Young Brian Wilson”—and soak up some general game, like how rap crews can only have one white guy because as soon as another is introduced the two will inevitably fight for hood-pass status and ruin the group dynamic.
After a detour to Sickamore’s house—which can best be described as something out of a Michael Mann-helmed film adaptation of Grand Theft Auto—a few drinks, and an impromptu meeting with Fat Trel (who’s watching The Wire for the first time, in his pajamas), I get dropped off at my hotel. Sickamore heads back out into the night, possibly to meet Travis, and undoubtedly to have a much better time than the guy consoling himself with room service on the company bill.
MTV VMAs, L.A. | Aug. 30, 8 p.m.
The red carpet for the 2015 MTV VMAs is my first chance to see Travis be a superstar, or at least a budding one, somewhere other than onstage. It’s his first big public appearance leading up to the official release of Rodeo, and if there ever was a time and place to arrive, it would surely be here. For somebody who so clearly lives in the moment as Travis, I’m not sure he’s as acutely aware of this fact as I am, but when Travis arrives at the VIP entrance of the Microsoft Theater he’s wearing a black Libertine shirt with the phrases “Golden Child” and “Golden Boy” bedazzled on the back. For the first time all weekend I see him flash the kind of wide smile that can blind you if you look directly at his grills. And just like that, the young colt is through the gate. The race is on.
After what feels like a lifetime of step-and-repeat fuckery and wild goose chases on the red carpet, Travis and those with tickets (i.e., not me) make their way to their seats. At my hotel I watch the VMAs on television like everybody else. After 48 hours “with” Travis Scott in L.A., I’m no closer to pinning him down than when I arrived. Existential dread begins to creep in. Before heading to the airport, I look out my hotel window and see a cat across the street mindlessly licking itself. There has never been a more fitting metaphor for my entire existence.
UP & DOWN, NYC | SEPT. 4, 11 p.m.
At Up & Down, the club/bar on 14th St., Travis is throwing a typically raucous party to celebrate Rodeo’s midnight release. Through the madness the audience learns small nuggets of information about the record: Travis “worked on [Rodeo] for eight months with [his] closest fucking friends” and “90210” is his favorite song on the album and, as such, we should “pay attention to this shit.” His one explicit thank-you is to Sickamore, my onetime L.A. spirit guide, whom Travis refers to as a “bald-headed motherfucker.”
I still can’t pin Travis down, as he is utterly consumed with what’s happening right now: toasting to the greatest accomplishment of his life thus far. I get it. While Travis rages—the next day he will let his 700K-plus Instagram followers know he threw up—I find myself almost uncomfortably close to Lyor Cohen as Rodeo booms around us.
The industry icon and 300 Entertainment CEO is seated at a table (liquor completely untouched) with his new fiancée, the Chinese model-turned-art consultant Xin Li, casually taking in a scene where he is easily the calmest, oldest, and most important guy in the room. One imagines he’s been in this exact same position many times before, feting the aspiring rap star of the moment at some “hot” nightclub. Cohen’s exact professional relationship with Travis is a murky one that I never end up fully understanding. Travis isn’t signed to 300, but Cohen is involved with some aspects of management—bringing Travis’ manager count to something around three—and the two are close.
Whatever the case, Cohen calls Rodeo “amazing,” “punk rock,” and, extremely diplomatically, adds that “hip-hop needs all flavors.” I share my issues in securing some time alone with Travis, as if Cohen has any concern for my troubles. “Does he have an address?” Cohen muses to me above the din. “I don’t even know where to send the mail.” Sometime later, the free D’USSÉ catches up to me and I unceremoniously make my exit. Another opportunity to speak with Travis is gone and, more important, so is the chance to see Justin Bieber rap in person. Bieberveli himself shows up after my departure to perform his cameo from Rodeo, on the incredibly titled “Maria I’m Drunk.”
EDITION HOTEL, NYC | SEPT. 11, 4:30 p.m.
I’m finally going to interview Travis upstairs in his room in roughly a half hour. Mike, Travis’ bodyguard, tells me that he will be right back down to get me.
My ambivalence toward “rapper time” has given way to solid annoyance. Mike finds me again, but it’s only to tell me that Travis needs more time.
With my situation reaching levels of near universal empathy, the truth is finally revealed: Travis is unavailable because he’s holed up with Rihanna, his recently rumored love interest/girlfriend/friend-with-benefit. What exactly they’re doing upstairs (smoking, fucking, working, playing charades) I have no idea, but it’s more important than any interview—and I don’t necessarily disagree. Who wouldn’t blow off somebody, anybody, for RiRi? And it’s not just me he’s ducking. Nobody in Travis’ camp can get a hold of him either. Understandably, he’s gone completely dark.
10 p.m. All involved agree that I should just call it. Tonight is a fucking wrap. My Friday night has ended before it even started.
NOHO SOMO HOTEL, NYC | SEPT. 13, 5 p.m.
Finally. I meet Travis in a hotel room, and he is sitting on the couch in an olive Stone Island sweatsuit, surrounded by piles of clothing that would make any self-respecting hypebeast shit his pants. Futurama plays silently on the television while a housekeeper dutifully cleans around us. Later we will be joined by Corey Damon Black—who’s more or less the Virgil Abloh to Travis’ Kanye, and whose LinkedIn bills him as a “director/art director/designer”—and then by Travis’ NYC plug, who arrives with premade Fanta bottles of lean and ice-filled Big Gulp cups. But now Travis and I begin a lucid and insightful two-hour conversation about all the controversy, criticism, and rumors surrounding his every move.
And Rihanna. Travis avoids directly putting a label on his budding relationship, laughing and imploring me to not “do [me] like that, man” when I ask about it as delicately as possible. I am, however, able to get him to describe her in three words: “creative,” “inspiring,” and, after a long pause (and some assistance from Corey), “muse.”
Travis and RiRi first met at an Opening Ceremony fashion show before his second mixtape, 2014’s Days Before Rodeo, and have since worked together on “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which Travis co-wrote. More visibly, the two appear beside each other in a black-and-white photo for Rihanna’s upcoming Puma collection. The campaign drops right in the middle of our talk, and as Travis peruses the #travisscott hashtag on Instagram on his MacBook Air, he comes across a version of the ad with him cropped out and zoomed in on Rihanna. He’s not bothered by this, and in fact, he finds it funny. It’s then that he has arguably his most unguarded moment during the time we spend together, kissing his right index and middle finger and then touching the low-res image of Rihanna’s face, caressing the screen, and glowing with pride. It’s honest and touching and fucking adorable.
“I be tripping when I see people commenting like, ‘This nigga an asshole,’” he says some time later. I bring up the time he kicked a cameraman off his Summer Jam stage and called him a “nerd”—a moment that’s kind of hilarious now, but at the time was actually quite mean. He’s addressed this on “Antidote” (“I don’t like how he snappin’ my angles”) but elaborates to me in much more detail: “One, I’m a nerd. All my niggas is nerds. A nerd can call another nerd a nerd. Like, if we’re in the computer lab and you don’t know how to code your HTML, you out of here, my nigga.”
On a roll now, Travis says: “It’s because I’m black and I wear certain kind of things and rap about certain things—niggas just look at Instagram and think one thing, but they don’t know. Fuck all that. I’d say the same shit to anybody, my security, my staff.
“This stage is sacred. It’s the only time we get to speak and niggas listen. That’s when I’m at peace. All the critics and everyone who don’t like you go away. That’s where you got 2,000 of your people. You go out to your village and stand up on top of a house and you like, ‘WE ABOUT TO CHANGE THE WORLD!’ I love my fans more than anything. I’d give my kidney up [for them].”
While Rodeo has been well-received professionally, there are detractors who accuse him of biting or simply being a bad rapper. “When my album dropped I deleted Twitter off my phone just so I could be at peace,” he says. “I saw some shit where on ‘Oh My Dis Side’ [somebody said] I got the melody from Future’s ‘Rich $ex,’ which is so weak and lame. That’s one of my favorite songs, but my album was made before the Future album came out. Metro [Boomin] stayed at my crib for, like, nine months and made mad beats that made it onto Future’s album. I’m like, damn if only they knew.”
As far as jibes at his actual rapping, Travis has a predictable response: “My music isn’t rappity-rap-rap-rap. I base my music off of lifestyle and emotion—that’s why my music has a lot of chords, even if it’s a hard-ass joint. I consider myself an artist, which is, like, the most played term, but I believe it.” He quickly adds: “Don’t get it twisted, I’m no bitch, nigga got bars. But I’m not, like, super conscious. I don’t write, I just go in the booth. I’m attached to the beat. The beat speaks words. I love music.”
Maybe the biggest issue critics have with Rodeo is its lack of personal storytelling. To many Travis is an enigma, someone who appeared fully formed and branded. The question, then: Who the fuck is this dude exactly? “My whole story is straight mythical. It’s tangible, but it’s also what life could be,” he says, clarifying nothing. “It’s possibility.”
Thinking about the Travis action figure that he planned to roll out with his album (and is now selling for $150 on his website), I mention how he’s like a real-life avatar for today’s young hip-hop fans—a playable character in their own fantasies of fame, riches, and influence. Travis interrupts: “Fame’s not important.” He agrees with the general thesis though, preferring the term “big brother.” “There’s about to be so many kids on their quest,” he says. He was once one of them, looking for someone to take him away from Missouri City, Texas. “Kid Cudi was my guy,” says Travis. “If I had no weed, he was my drug.”
Travis describes his hometown this way: “Mo City is, like, well-off or whatever, you can get an education, you can grow up and have kids, but it’s hard for that little motherfucker to make it to some big-time shit.” So Travis tried school, “the Texas college thing” as he calls it, attending the University of Texas at San Antonio before moving on to UT—but really just going through the motions. “I wasn’t studying shit. I was making up majors. I thought I wanted to do international business,” he says. He admits societal pressures and his parents influenced him to pursue higher education for a couple of years. His father, after all, has a master’s and is “super educated.” I ask Travis if he’s paid off his student loans and he laughs. “Probably not. I have to talk to my business manager.”
The self-described “nerdy, cornball, goofy” kid has always been restless, a quality that still defines his life today. “There was times I was back home in my bedroom in Mo City and I would cry to myself and shit. I feel like I’m always trying to get to the next point, the next day, get to that goal. It’s getting my creativity level up, and just being able to move around how I want to move around.” And to do that, the kid born Jacques Webster had to evolve into Travis Scott, a part of him that he feels has always existed. “To me I’ve always been the same person,” he says. “I ain’t got no multi-personality where I can snap in or snap out.”
The origin of the “Travis Scott” moniker is actually as simple as the name itself, despite the variety of bizarre theories I’ve read online. “My favorite uncle’s name is Travis. That nigga’s just smart and cool. The Scott comes from him, too, that was his nickname. I was, like, man, if I wanted to be a rapper I wanted to be this nigga. He has this ill-ass crib, is fresh as hell, has all this land. Nigga is smooth. Travis is smooth. I’ve always been smooth.”
The rise of Travis Scott from Kid Cudi stan to rap’s next superstar cannot be discussed without mentioning Kanye, Travis’ de facto mentor. Though Travis speaks glowingly of ’Ye (“He took me in super early in my career”), he admits that talking about him in every interview is starting to be “actually very fucking annoying.”
So Travis and I continue to discuss everything else—his Epic Fest tantrum (“I hit ’em like, ‘Yo my album leaked what should we do?’ And the reply text was like, ‘What time you coming to Epic Fest?’ WHAT?!”); his overall relationship with his label (“They just started understanding me maybe like a month ago.”); the 85,000 units sold in Rodeo’s first week, good for No. 3 on Billboard (“We wanted that No. 1 so bad. This an L.”); and how the album rollout differed from his master plan. (“We missed history.”)
On that last point, Travis is especially frustrated: “You was supposed to buy my album with an action figure and a USB. It would have been the illest shit ever. This was the opportunity to raise the bar and set the standard,” he says. “I feel like half the people who didn’t understand Rodeo didn’t because I made Rodeo with this idea of the packaging. That whole packaging was meant to complete my story, but just because I’m young and they didn’t trust the idea this type of shit happens. You gotta be Madonna or somebody for this type of shit to happen. We love [the label], they just need to get down with us faster.”
Listening to this passionate speech about a vision misfired and the sheer determination of an artist who just wants to be heard on his own terms—a bit Kanye-esque, I must say—I find myself for the first time actually feeling sorry for Travis. Having a meticulously arranged, sincere statement not come to fruition like it was imagined is relatable, so much so that I believe Travis when he tells me it’s not (all) about the money. “Yes, money is important. But it’s all about the creative process. Money is something that keeps you alive and healthy and just keeps you focused. It’s the drive. It’s the passion. I’m making songs not for the money but to see motherfuckers’ reaction.”
For someone living moment to moment, speculating about the future proves a difficult exercise. After all, what will happen next has no immediate bearing on the here and now, almost entirely diminishing its importance. But I keep asking until he answers. First, he says, everything will be better, bigger—better videos, better music, better shows (like the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness Tour, which he’ll be on when you read this, and then possibly an even bigger tour, with an even bigger star in February that I’m not at liberty to discuss). Then, it’s on to film, both acting in and scoring the kind of movies he loves—stuff like The Place Beyond the Pines and Only God Forgives (Travis is apparently a huge Ryan Gosling fan) and anything John Hughes.
As the evening sets in, it’s clear to me that my time spent running in place with La Flame is up. I’m equal parts relieved and exhausted. Travis has a flight the next morning, to where exactly I’m not quite sure. Unlike normal people, his decision to move is not made with a destination in mind. Maybe it’s a show or maybe it’s an appearance, not that it matters. Either way, he’ll be on the move again soon, hurling perpetually forward into space. There’s work to be done for the self-proclaimed “bastard from Texas” and a bastard’s work is never done. I’m not sure Travis would have it any other way.