MusicWeekend

Travis Scott’s Ambience

There’s a paradox at the heart of this music: constructing a simulation of hedonism takes extraordinary discipline.

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Those searching for the true sound of unadulterated decadence should check out the new Travis Scott album. Any name rapper can hire a cadre of otiose guest producers and/or vocalists to weigh down their project; few can sound this weighed down, stunned, out of it, in the grain of the voice as well as the beats, what with all the hypnotic synth trickle and insinuatingly eerie keyboards and drippy, druggy hazy daze. Play it on the dancefloor and people will slow to a crawl, frozen in place by the surge of dopamine suddenly oozing into the bloodstream. It’s addictive, too; good luck turning off this music when the cherry/mint/codeine buzz starts tasting unhealthy, which is the whole attraction.

Scott’s been a Houston trap-rap fixture for years, but his breakthrough came last year with his major label debut, Rodeo, and his infamous Rodeo Tour, which earned him a reputation for energetic cathartic fierceness that hardly applies to his recorded music. If Rodeo isn’t quite focused enough for its blurry vision to come through, too upbeat for the trip to kick in, the terrific single and radio behemoth “Antidote” sums up Scott’s ethos: no hook, really, not even a looped beat, just squishy synth atmosphere and low bass jitter floating about as Scott murmurs childishly pretty boasts about “the night show.” It was weird hearing a song this antisocial, this straight-up avant-garde, on the radio, but pretty soon his anonymous vocal garble begins to stick in the mind’s ear, and his new Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (what a title!), out since September, plays like “Antidote” stretched to nearly an hour. Last year, Future’s DS2 was widely declared the quintessential miserable drug-rap manifesto, but there substance overload was the theme, not the form. While sharp and bitter and sui generis though the album’s skittering drums and colorful electroloops were, they moved with the elegance typical of formalized, chart-friendly hip-hop, with extra cognitive dissonance courtesy of Future’s mechanized astroboy vocals jolting the music into the realm of sci-fi surrealism and hence suggesting a level of repressed pain left implicit. Declining such tight craft, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight doesn’t imply or depict anything. It’s just a gross, sweaty, seductive, drug-addled environment in itself, the world Future crawls out from every now and then to write a song. Practically formless, densely splattery, glowing and mesmerizing and totally immersive, the album isn’t a response to hedonism but rather aims to replicate your brain on ditto.

Messy doesn’t mean unlistenable. Unlike whatever style of ambient tickles your fancy, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight crackles with sonic filth, gauzy aural detail, weird ugly noises to listen to. Slow, unobtrusive (although sometimes quite crunchy) drum clicks and spare, heavy basslines frame a whizzing, impressionistic blur including but not limited to minimal splashes of keyboard loop and maximal blocks of keyboard gloss, grimy or whooshy or clinically antiseptic electronic texture as the case may be, and the disembodied ghost of Auto-Tune floating through the digital soundscape in search of a larynx to burrow into. Lacking one distinctive vocal signature, Scott raps in several voices, sometimes at once, usually content with his midrange drone but frequently overdubbing higher shrieks and squeals into the background, or building a song around a chanted chorus lower than the norm. So do song structures depart from convention, and for every rap/chorus/rap hook machine there’s a through-composed vocoded rant-confession over sedative beats at halftime, or a song that swerves in the middle and never returns to where it started, or a skewed fragment of a song glinting at the edges where it broke off from something larger — as when “Through the Late Night” rides a shiny, glimmering trancebeat that inspires much inarticulate, electronically filtered moaning while perpetually circling back to the same rousing chant (“Sleep today then we play/all through the late night/uh uh uh uh uh uh/all through the late night”), or when “Sdp Interlude” builds three minutes of impossible poetry from nothing but glittering synthesizer and the repeated command “Smoke some drink some pop one,” at once oddly meditative and oddly catchy. A hauntingly surreal dream of excess half-remembered in tranquility, with those cascading keyboards and digital sputters playing faintly in the back of your head as a nagging reminder, the album squishes over song boundaries like overflowing bathwater; songs drip into each other and seep onto the floor.

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Scott has been criticized for nabbing other rappers’ styles (often his adlibs recall Young Thug’s, often his choruses recall Kid Cudi’s — although that’s Cudi himself on “Way Back” and “Through the Late Night”), but that’s not how I hear it. His vocal flights indicate a self-effacing cipher whose technique on the microphone is ancillary to the way he constructs an echoing hall of rap voices that vary in type and personality. Plus, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight shares with Rodeo a recognizable musical formula darker and heavier than standard radio fare: It’s a formula Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight dismembers past the point of waking artistic consciousness. I suppose this was an inevitable development in the history of hedonism — that hip-hop representation would eventually turn from referential to simulatory. So-called storytellers, even in their gestures toward realism, taint their theme simply by acknowledging their own centered identity as the performer telling the story. Scott doesn’t do this. His deconstructed music isn’t sentient enough for anything beyond straightforward presentation, and where Future hides emotion under form, Scott achieves a substantially creepier deadpan; he’s removed his own subjective reaction to the lifestyle from the equation. The album’s hardly a more objective take on decadence than those of his contemporaries, as if such a thing were possible, but by dunking his head in a bubbling swamp of textured sound until any vestige of received songform evaporates, he dodges the convention of identifiable/relatable performative subjectivity. What’s left, beyond a bubbling swamp of textured sound, is an apathetically direct portrait of Decadence in its slimy essence. It’s not an illusion that comes naturally; if Scott were as zonked as he sounds, the album wouldn’t exist. Every little detail is calculated to thwock and diddle your id. Is it a wonder the album’s so irresistible?

There’s a paradox at the heart of this music: constructing a simulation of hedonism takes extraordinary discipline. Music doesn’t just rise up from the unconscious on its own, after all. To recognize and produce the hallmarks of stupefied pleasure overload, to present them with as little contextual framing as the album format allows, and, finally, to actively work at removing what one might call the objective musical correlatives to subjectivity — all this implies that the artist who created this music couldn’t possibly live in the music’s world. It’s a detached representation, that’s all, and in its detachment Scott’s hedonism admits the limits of its own escape. What this means for the average consumer, as well as anybody with reservations about hip-hop hedonism, is that Scott will neither nauseate nor lead children into sin. Free to immerse in sonic luxury, we needn’t trouble ourselves with ethical distractions in this particular instance. Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight is an escape that won’t leave you feeling burned upon returning to reality. It acknowledges its own way of life as an extreme, rendered for our pleasure and convenience.

Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (2016) and Rodeo (2015) are available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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