Travi$ Scott is a star in the making seeking to exceed the boundaries of rap; he’s too young to expect any different and naïve enough to succeed. His music is both menacing and sullen, and his love for indie sounds fuels his harmonics. “It’s not always about rap to me. It was mostly about melody,” Scott told Complex magazine last October. “I feel like Coldplay has the craziest, aired-out choruses, but the music was too happy. […] I like a dark vibe with choruses that are moody.” “Moody” is the most appropriate word to describe Scott’s long-awaited Owl Pharaoh project; dark is the central theme, and while there is a very nebulous distinction between the project and the album that so obviously inspired it, it is still a strong offering in its own right.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy birthed Travi$ Scott; Owl Pharaoh is the direct descendent of Kanye’s masterwork. It isn’t quite a worthy successor, but it does display the Houston MC’s promise as the potential heir apparent to arguably hip-hop’s most transcendent star. Some have hailed Scott the second coming of Kanye West, with his decadent and often daring arrangements and his intricately woven tales of excess, but he doesn’t quite capture the casually-egomaniacal-yet-simultaneously-socially-aware essence of his predecessor’s work. Instead, Scott’s music is simply a concept—an abstract idea formed from shallow, preconceived notions of what rappers should be and what they should do—set to an ambitious soundtrack. While Kanye is substance based at his core, Travi$ Scott is absurdly superficial, and almost implausibly so; his music is equipped to fill stadiums even if he’s not quite ready to fill the seats.
It seems unfair to so quickly cast a grand shadow over Travi$ Scott’s career, but we were left no other choice. He left us no other choice. The kid is a rare talent. The masses were first introduced to the Houston-born, Missouri City-bred rapper with the haunting “Sin City,” a brooding cut from G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer compilation album—a spectacle that grabbed the attention of the entire hip-hop universe—and his celebrity has been rapidly on the rise ever since. A then (mostly) unknown Scott spit biblical double entendres (over a track he co-produced) with such confidence and conviction that his sinister magnetism instantly gripped listeners. There’s no denying the kid has a star quality about him, and when mixed with the dark nature of his music, and his rapper/producer skill set, the lofty comparisons almost feel inevitable especially when juxtaposed in front of the G.O.O.D. Music backdrop. But, it doesn’t help that he has so quickly molded himself in Kanye’s image.
Owl Pharaoh is cataloged as an extended play—emphasis on extended—but at 55 minutes, the project is more appropriately categorized as a mixtape. The word mixtape does a disservice to the care with which the tracks were assembled, though, so it’d probably be best classified a debut. It is a mostly satisfying body of work that, more than anything, shows great potential for growth. There is something very promising about the music that you can’t quite put your finger on, but it has a very ostentatious feel that appeals to the Baz Lurhmann in all of us.
Despite punchlines that sometimes don’t connect (“They tryna find a nigga dead, Chris Lighty”) and the occasionally megalomaniacal overtones, the music feels transcendent, even if it isn’t. This is Travi$ Scott’s greatest gift: he takes himself way too seriously, almost to the point of deification, and has created a perception that doesn’t yet match his reality. His brand feeds his music and not vice versa. Even when a song is trite, it fits his operational mold—that mold being one of pretentiousness. It is that same pretentiousness that allows him to dare to do what others would never dream of. This is a characteristic that he and Kanye share, and it’s what makes them both so phenomenal, so visionary. Only Kanye would attempt to stuff Toro y Moi, Justin Vernon, Young Chop, and Lex Luger into the same track list, and only Kanye could pull it off. Travi$ Scott knows this, and while he doesn’t quite get it right (Pusha’s “Blocka” has a lot more bite), his attempt is proof of his ambition and a sign of what can be expected of the emerging star in the future. What a bright future it should be.
It’s all in the particulars for Travi$ and it’s the little things that help make Owl Pharaoh one of the standout projects of the year despite its weighty expectations—the drum programming in “Meadow Creek” that simulates pounding on a door, the incredibly dope breakdown at the end of “Uptown,” “Hell of A Night’s” brilliant Fleet Foxes sample and the airy, ethereal changeup that follows it, “Naked’s” brief 1:40 running time (which makes you pine for an extended version), all products of a meticulous mind. The project’s greatest moments, though, are the one’s that trace back to the rapper’s Houston roots. Travi$ knows where he came from, and this is made evident by the excerpts of Lil Flip’s “I Can Do That” and Z-Ro’s “I Can’t Leave Drank Alone” that precede one of Owl Pharaoh’s shining moments, “Drive,” which features the incomparable James Fauntleroy. The best homage to his home state is found on “Dance On the Moon,” where Paul Wall delivers a stellar guest verse over a screwed reworking of the already reasonably murky J Gramm Beats beat. There are several moments on the project that provoke repeated listening. When Owl Pharaoh hits, it hits hard.
Essentially, the projects only shortcoming is that the music doesn’t fully match the ambition yet. Travi$ wants to do so much that at times it comes off at too much, but with time he’ll perfect his formula. Rome wasn’t built in a day; Owl Pharaoh is great but isn’t worthy of coliseums, unlike the album it seeks to emulate. His stadium status will have to wait. Still, it is a fantastic place to start.
If you love melancholy harmonies and braggadocios raps, “additional production” credits and savage drums, Owl Pharaoh is just what you’ve been looking for. With his debut, Travi$ Scott has set the stage for an intriguing run; he clearly has lofty aspirations and more than enough talent necessary to achieve his goals. Now, it’s simply a matter of execution. He may not be transcendent yet, but he’s well on his way to getting there.