You reach above your head and pull the lap bar down tightly over your thighs, which have morphed into the concave shape of the hard seat that took some getting used to. Per usual, a park employee comes around to test your work by jostling the lap bar. Tight enough, she decides. You do your best to shove your neck out past the “padded” beams on either side of your head to see if your friend to your right is as excited as you are. He’s shoving his neck out too.
Suddenly, but not surprisingly, the floor your feet were softly planted on drops and your legs dangle. Some guy on the platform presses a button, a weird hissing noise pierces your ears and you jolt forward. The roller coaster has begun; you’re now at the mercy of the powerful machine.
If you’ve ridden a roller coaster before, Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD — an album title derived from a shuttered Houston amusement park of the same name — should be easy to understand. And if you’re a scaredycatlame-o who’s never been on a roller coaster, fret not because ASTROWORLD is a near-perfect encapsulation of such an experience. What makes for a thrilling amusement park ride? Thrashing twists and turns, high highs that drop to low lows that shoot to higher highs, a surprising loop, behind-the-curtains mechanical perfection that makes for a comfortable and safe ride and a smooth ending that allows you to catch your breath and crave another round of the excitement you just experienced.
Scott’s third major label release boasts all of the above. The album’s first three tracks (“STARGAZING,” “CAROUSEL” and “SICKO MODE”) singe you with modern trap heat packed with perfectly placed beat switch-ups that spin your head around without breaking your shoved-out neck. However, the pace changes suddenly but smoothly with “R.I.P. SCREW” and “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” two contemporary hip hop ballads soaked in beautiful bass. Then, just as a roller coaster shoots you from a low to a high in the blink of an eye, Scott dials the hype back up to a fever bitch with “NO BYSTANDERS,” a track featuring Scott’s most skilled rapping to date and a hook that will have you shouting “fuck the club up, bitch!” — something you’ve always wanted to say but never had the chance to.
Travis takes advantage of the trend of hiding artist features on a track list to make for chills-inducing moments of collaboration. Frank Ocean slides in to deliver a sultry hook on “CAROUSEL,” Drake drops catchy bars on “SICKO MODE,” Stevie Wonder and James Blake grace “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” with harmonica and haunting vocals respectively, Tame Impala sprinkles psychedelia over “SKELETONS,” The Weeknd adds soprano sweetness to “WAKE UP,” John Mayer and Thundercat funkify the hazy “ASTROTHUNDER,” 21 Savage does 21 Savage on “NC-17” and Quavo and Takeoff enhance the southern-trap sound of “WHO? WHAT!” It’s a feature list as star studded as the album’s cosmic title implies, and the collaborators’ hidden identities make for maximum impact on the first listen.
The album’s perfect production and execution are most impressive. Like a real-life thrill ride, ASTROWORLD is technically sound, avoiding any glitches or jolts that could transform its thrills from fun to dangerous in an instant. There is an amazing component under its hood to match every equally amazing surface-level component aforementioned.
Past Scott projects required a degree of forgiveness; muddiness and over-production often diluted their sonic focus, and Scott, while a brooding melody master, struggled to deliver technically advanced rap verses, instead forcing crowded, wince-inducing lines out of time that could be better. ASTROWORLD, however, doesn’t beg for forgiveness. The mixing is crisp, the synths are clear, the bass is precise and the vocal effects are contemporary without being distracting. Additionally, Scott’s rap verses are the most impressive they’ve ever been; instead of cringing at his attempt to jam, “Sprinkle a little season on the salad,” into time on “through the late night” from Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, you can smile as he precisely delivers, “Put it on God, he the one that put me on top,” on “NO BYSTANDERS.” In short, everything that took away from Scott’s previous projects has melted away; no sloppy beat changes, no cluttered mixes, no spacy sections so spacy that tracks uncongeal, no amateurism. What’s left is something that could only be explained as Scott fulfilling his musical potential.
Instead of going out with a bang, Scott exits with mature class, a soft and safe ending. “COFFEE BEAN,” the album’s final track, is tight, groovy, and low volume, with introspective lyrics about Scott’s struggles with the weight of dating a Kardashian. Its humble and sobering sound pairs well with the chorus line, “Back off a coffee bean, reflecting on all you see,” which acknowledges the thought-provoking nature of a cup of coffee. The song swells, but gently ends as Scott deeply hums by himself a soul-striking melody with a vocal effect that mimics a cello.
As the album comes to a close, you reflect on the unbelievable ride you just took, realize you’re okay, and want to do it again, the same feeling you have as you slowly slide to safety at the end of a mechanical sturm and drang.