After his 2018 album Astroworld, Travis Scott reached a commercial steeple that allowed him to sell candles and McDonalds meals and Forgiatto rims and anything else he wanted to pick up and wail, “It’s lit!” with. He carried that eye for consumerism into his Utopia rollout to middling effect. Even after his planned performance at the Giza Pyramid was canceled (the mere possibility of a show there was striking since it was unclear whether he’d be insured to perform again anywhere after the Astroworld concert tragedy), Utopia is still going to go Number One next week off fandom alone, scoring a victory for rap in the Billboard wars.
To Scott’s credit, if any modern album were to vault an artist to “brand whisperer” territory, Astroworld, a well-crafted dose of Houston rap and interstellar trap, managed to do that while still being an artistic breakthrough. But let’s get it out: Utopia doesn’t reach that mark. None of the hip-hop-leaning tracks are as immediately immersive as “Sicko Mode” or “Stargazing.” Despite the presence of Beyoncé, Bon Iver, Bad Bunny, and the Weeknd, there isn’t an obvious pop entry in the song-of-the-summer conversation. “K-Pop,” featuring the latter two artists, feels like a reach for streams from Bad Bunny’s rabid fanbase. That said, an artist not matching their opus isn’t the automatic mark of a miss.
The sonics alone make Utopia worth a listen. “Modern Jam” feels like an ode to Eighties hip-hop that’s subtle enough to not feel gimmicky. The haunting vocal harmonizing on “God’s Country” evokes a horror movie about possessed children who lurk on the outskirts of sundown towns. “Fein” is the kind of beat that’s good enough for Playboi Carti to repeat himself 182 times over. “Lost Forever” is a whirling mesh of synth blips and tom drums that switches into a cavernous abyss ripe for Westside Gunn to go off on top of.
Westside Gunn is an artist who, like Scott, rates high up on the rap-curator rankings. He’s previously said that he crafts albums specifically so features can kill him, likening himself to a great point guard. If Scott is subscribing to the “wash me” mindset here, then he deserves a Grammy for execution, because nearly all of his features outdo him. That’s not to say he doesn’t try. “God’s Country” and “Telekinesis” are solid verses. On “Hyaena” and “Looove,” he fervently chains together end rhymes with multiple syllables and raps in interesting cadences. There’s just not enough substance, though. That’s not a new knock on Scott. But the expectation of subpar lyricism doesn’t absolve him from criticism; if he didn’t want to be called out for bland bars, he could simply produce compilation albums like Metro Boomin or DJ Khaled.
One immediately wants to hear Rob49 again after Scott follows up his short verse on “Topia Twins.” When Future laments on “Telekinesis” that he’s “takin’ more drugs all alone in a mansion/Walkin’ around tweakin’ with the yop in my hands,” you feel like someone’s finally depicting what rich-nigga nihilism is supposed to sound like. “I Know?” is the obligatory “about a girl in my harem” song, but there are five artists on the album (Drake, Future, 21 Savage, Young Thug, even the Weeknd) who could’ve done more than Scott with his solo moment.
Scott shows initiative with several third verses and beat switches, including one of the best loops of the year on the last part of “Skitzo,” which sounds like it’s from a netherworld where Biggie and Tupac squashed their beef with a song. But unfortunately, Scott merely leaves you wanting for the inevitable freestyles we’ll soon be hearing over the beat, mailing it in and letting us know he’s “got Ye over Biden.” On “Sirens,” he rhymes “detail” with “de-vail,” “he-ail, “pee-pail” and “festie-vee-ail,” which he follows up with the (more sophisticated?) “festie-vee-awl.” It might be million-dollar production, but it’s not million-dollar rap.
Utopia has drawn a boatload of Yeezus comparisons on social media (which meandered into love for underground cult hero Blackie). Scott spent his formative music years around Kanye and was involved in the conception of Yeezus — one could actually wonder how much comparing Utopia to Yeezus is just comparing Scott to his old work. Kanye’s artistic remnants are apparent on Utopia. “Lost Forever” sounds suspiciously like a reference track for Kanye. The album’s meticulous sonic texturing is the obvious parallel. But rapper-producers and music fans are wrong if they think channeling Kanye’s genius is simply about a wall of sound and beat switches. For all the justified criticisms of Ye in 2023, at his best, he was always a compelling rhymer, whether he was bragging, calling himself an insecure, materialistic hypocrite, or chronicling a dysfunctional relationship. He was imbuing songs with glimpses of bleached assholes and Vogue party orgies and indignant croissant commands. On Yeezus’ “New Slaves,” Kanye incisively called out 2013’s Illuminati hysteria by noting that private prisons and “the new Jim Crow” are public horrors; Travis counters his round of satanic panic by merely rhyming, “They think I’m satanic, I keep me a reverend.” There’s no comparison.
Aestheticism will always draw people into a piece of art, but it’s the amount of heart that determines who sticks around. Utopia is a suitable #event for younger fans who simply want new Scott to scream while they mosh (wearing his merch and his shoes), but there are other listeners who expect rappers to have something distinctive about them. That’s not to say they need to be lyrical demons or overly introspective, but they can be in your face like Rob49, confounding like a Young Thug, crass like Future, or even simply have an interesting delivery like Playboi Carti. Scott’s music too often feels like a duo where you wonder why the producer keeps giving this guy these bangers.
Production-wise, Utopia is operatic. It’s akin to Kanye’s big extravaganzas and Metro Boomin’s Heroes and Villains. One could quibble about the number of features and co-producers on the album, but if we can watch award shows and ogle the celebrity fishbowl hoping we get a meme, we shouldn’t complain when they all huddle together and do their actual job. It’s no wonder he has relationships with LeBron James and Kevin Durant; Scott knows his way around a studio board like they do an NBA defense. But the reality is that while Scott is a masterful curator, he’s just an OK rapper. Those two realities are discordant for too many moments on Utopia.