"If you're gonna be a leader of your generation, you got no time to just chill."
Travis Scott maintains a pretty ragtag operation. That in and of itself is not unusual for a 21-year-old new artist, but it is for someone with a major label deal, a cosign from Kanye West and potentially unparalleled skill as a producer and rapper. This has its upsides and its downsides. In March, I saw Scott during SXSW in his home state of Texas. He was at the festival performing, often tagging along with Casey Veggies. The Veggies set I saw was generally dull until Scott bounded onstage to perform his verse from their song, “Up.” He was infinite energy where Veggies was flatlined—Scott hopped up and down like a runner doing hurdles. Later that day, he flagged me down on an Austin street and said he had to play me a new song he’d recorded with Future. It was in his email, but he couldn’t remember the name of the studio engineer who had sent it to him, so I stood and waited while he scrolled through his phone for five minutes, alternately talking to me and to himself, trying to jog his memory. Eventually he found the MP3, but he’d forgotten it would need to load over the especially poor wi-fi during the massive festival. We lingered, it loaded and then he played it. It sounded like crap through his phone’s tiny speaker in the middle of a crowd, but it jammed so much harder in that stupid context than it had any right to.
That song, along with over a year’s worth of tracks, make up his debut mixtape Owl Pharaoh—tracks like “Quintana,” and “Upper Echelon” (both produced by him) are behemoths, marked by his penchant for crushingly hard and deep drums and his signature, throaty ad-lib: Straight up! The thing about Scott is that nothing he is doing is all that groundbreaking. He’s playing around in many of the over-utilized tropes of radio-friendly, triumphant rap music today—he just does them all better than everyone else. His de rigueur hi-hats trill that much more efficiently, his gunshots blast that much scarier, his snares ping that much crisper. Imagine if you’d only eaten at McDonald’s your whole life and then Julia Child showed up at your door with a homemade burger. Even his manic nonsense rapping, like a baby Kanye with a thesaurus, can be adventurous, as though he was exploring all the different ways his mouth could make sounds.
Scott acknowledges that despite his quick success, he has a lot to learn. “I’m so young, I gotta catch up,” he says over the phone from LA. “If you’re gonna be a leader of your generation, you got no time to just chill.” Then he says his birthday was a week ago and he “didn’t do shit.” Five seconds later he says “that nigga Wiz” bought him “30 bottles” and got him “super drunk.” The next day he was hungover on a plane to New York. He’s back home now, recording again while his manager works with Kanye on finishing West’s album in New York. There’s a tinge of jealousy in Scott’s voice when he describes his own sort-of sequestering in the studio instead of being where the action is. But he knows he’s on a magical mission of his own. “I feel like music is stagnant now, especially rap,” he says. “I’m trying to do way bigger shit, man.” Yeah, duh.