No stranger to pushing the boundaries of modern hip-hop, rapper Travis Scott, born Jacques Berman Webster II, has pioneered psychedelic trap since releasing his debut mixtape “Owl Pharaoh” in 2013. Scott, at the time raw and unpolished, still managed to distinguish himself amongst the sea of trap musicians that had begun to flood the hip-hop genre in the early 2010s. Coincidentally, Scott’s predecessor, mentor, and idol, Kanye West (Ye), released his divisive, experimental album “Yeezus” in the same year with many production credits owed to Scott himself. Initially criticized for its erratic nature, “Yeezus” has garnered a dedicated following and is regarded as one of Ye’s most forward-thinking albums. A decade later — following three studio albums and the conception of his own record label “Cactus Jack” — Scott finally has a version of “Yeezus” to call his own: “UTOPIA.”
Preceding “UTOPIA,” Travis Scott faced a level of scrutiny that equaled his celebrity and was tasked with undoing the immense burden he carried following the unfortunate “ASTROWORLD” festival tragedy, where a crowd rush resulted in 10 deaths. Scott recognized the weight “UTOPIA” would bear on not only his music career, but also on him and the music industry. Scott the musician was already solidified among the pantheon of rap superstars — how would Scott the human being seek to regain mass approval and redefine his image?
Following a long and turbulent rollout, Scott dropped “UTOPIA” on July 28. Like any other Travis Scott project, the 19-track album enlists a slew of well-established features, from frequent collaborators Kid Cudi, 21 Savage, and Young Thug to curveballs like Westside Gunn.
It seems “UTOPIA” shares more in common with Scott’s 2015 debut album “Rodeo” than just dark and foreboding cover art. Scott’s latest project boasts the most self-produced material since “Rodeo,” with 63 percent of the album owed to Scott himself. Production is also owed to the likes of WondaGurl, Boi-1da, BYNX, and more. But aside from Travis himself, no one’s presence is felt more than Ye, whose influence — unlike the album art — shines bright as day on “UTOPIA.”
“THANK GOD”: co-produced by Ye.
“GOD’S COUNTRY” and “TELEKINESIS”: originally from Ye’s 2021 album “Donda.”
“MODERN JAM”: features an alternate beat from “I Am A God” off “Yeezus.”
“DELRESTO (ECHOS)”: Scott interpolates “Coldest Winter” off Ye’s 2009 album “808s and Heartbreak.”
“CIRCUS MAXIMUS”: samples “Black Skinhead” off “Yeezus.”
At first glance, Ye’s imprint on Scott may have appeared to stain Scott’s effort to carve out a unique soundscape on “UTOPIA.” Unlike its godfather “Yeezus,” which took fans the greater part of a decade to realize its vision, “UTOPIA” promptly introduces its maximalist approach. “HYAENA” has overdriven drums reminiscent of Scott’s earlier work on “Owl Pharaoh,” while “MODERN JAM,” aided by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, sounds like something from outer space with ascending synths and futuristic hi-hats. Scott is able to blend his signature cinematic trap sound with elements of novelty; while not as “experimental” or contentious as “Yeezus,” “UTOPIA” still succeeds in pushing the envelope.
Defined by orchestral violins, a lo-fi vinyl crackle, and bell harmonies, “THANK GOD” is nothing short of an anthem: “we killin’ the critics and killin’ the hate / might gotta talk to a priest.” From the pressuring weight of “ASTROWORLD”’s success to the crushing disappointment of the 2018 Grammys where Scott lost to Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” for best album, Travis quite literally is speaking to God, placing the utmost trust into his plans for La Flame.
As innovative as “UTOPIA” is, Scott, on several tracks, largely aims to please rather than surprise. “MELTDOWN” sees Scott call upon the ol-reliable Drake stimulus package to essentially create a “SICKO MODE” sequel; “FE!N” features Playboi Carti and fittingly chaotic rage production; and “I KNOW ?” taps into Scott’s melodic trap sound with eerie piano keys paired with haunting vocals. What can only be described as low risk, high reward — these songs in particular had platinum written all over them even before their conception. Those familiar with his work know when it comes to hit-making, Travis Scott rarely misses; on “UTOPIA,” his aim remains impeccable.
Scott’s penchant for topping the charts is second to none. However, his insatiable appetite for pushing creative boundaries is hard to be overshadowed. “MY EYES” stands out as one of Scott’s best rapping performances to date. The first half of the song is a melancholic ballad containing soothing vocals, mellow guitar production, and topics of emotional emptiness and materialism. Marked by a brief Sampha appearance, the song seamlessly transitions into an ethereal beat that Travis raps over at breakneck pace: “If they just knew what Scotty would do to jump off the stage and save him a child.” From deep-cutting trauma, most notably from his past relationship with ex-girlfriend Kylie Jenner, to his incessant pursuit of success, “MY EYES” is Scott’s finest effort of self-liberation.
“Utopia is wherever you are.” Reemphasized by Scott prior to the album, the statement remains true as Scott pays homage to a multitude of places and faces which have guided his sonic direction. Residents of his hometown Houston are gifted with “DELRESTO (ECHOES),” a collaboration between the city’s two biggest artists — Beyoncé and Scott. “K-POP” draws in Latin America with its reggaeton influences. “TELEKINESIS” features a riveting SZA feature that is sure to strike a chord in fans of contemporary R&B.
To put it simply, “UTOPIA” is a project for Travis Scott fans, not those of “ASTROWORLD,” a project that stuck more faithfully to Scott’s trademark upbeat psychedelic trap sound, cementing Scott into the rap mainstream. Instead, his latest project seeks to break new ground, successfully delving into another dimension of Travis Scott’s soundscape. Despite containing more filler than previous work, Scott’s “UTOPIA” still stands out as one of the most memorable and significant albums of the 2020s so far. As opposed to its namesake, the project can be described as inherently hellish: it revisits the familiar dark, more sinister sounds of Scott’s older work from the early 2010s. However, through imbuing it with futuristic production and progressive sounds, Scott — just as Ye did with “Yeezus” exactly 10 years ago — composes his most avant-garde and innovative album yet. Whether you’re aware of it or not, “UTOPIA” has already left an indelible mark on hip-hop and music.