Written by: Andrew Kirkpatrick
Travis Scott’s 2015 debut album, Rodeo, had a bit of everything.
It had wonderfully produced progressive trap epics (like “3500” and “Oh My Dis Side”), straightforward bangers (“Antidote”), some surprisingly introspective cuts (“Apple Pie,” “Ok Alright”), and even a running theme conveyed through a series of fantastic spoken word interludes courtesy of T.I.
The depth these elements lent Rodeo was undeniable, making it easily one of the best projects of last year. La Flame’s latest project, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight — a reference to both selling crack and R&B singer/pianist Brian McKnight — is, conversely, shallow as can be. Though Travis assembles yet another wrecking crew of features and producers, this project just doesn’t have the same spark that his previous efforts did.
For the uninitiated, Houston rapper/singer/producer Travis (formerly Travi$) Scott is a maximalist trap mastermind whose chief modus operandi is giving turn up music an artsy flair. His lyrics may fixate on reckless and impulsive hedonism, but every other element of his music typically feels intellectualized to a degree that mostly goes unmatched within trap music. Put differently, no other trap rapper puts together eight-minute tracks with lengthy instrumental passages or punctuates big-brag verses with sweet chamber pop breaks.
On the surface, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight is a continuation of Scott’s usual style; the record is comprised almost exclusively of nocturnal club music and is supported by a bevy of big name guests. But there’s a sloppy halfheartedness to it all that squanders moments of would-be greatness and drags lackluster songs down even lower.
The questionable decisions that plague the project undoubtedly start with the awful mixing. Unintentional distortion and clipping (a crackling sound similar to the noise you hear when your speakers or auxiliary cords are on their last legs) are readily apparent on nearly every song. The result: many of the record’s opulent instrumentals are at least partially obscured by a murky haze of noise. “Way Back,” for instance, transitions into a haunting, multilayered synth and guitar outro that’d make Kanye well up with pride; but for as beautiful as this section could’ve been, the mix is so fucking bad that I was worried my headphones were busted when I first heard it.
Another prime example of the record’s poor post-production quality is unearthed by examining the state its lead-in single, “Pick Up The Phone,” is in on Birds compared to how it sounds on Young Thug’s latest release, Jeffery. On Thugger’s album, the track’s Caribbean-inflected instrumental is pristine. On Scott’s album, the song’s hooky synth lead noticeably distorts with each and every note. How it is that a bunch of producers and engineers working for a respected label like GOOD Music either didn’t catch this shit or didn’t care enough to fix it is beyond me.
But there are problems here that extend beyond mixing and mastering. For one, Travis’s bars on a lot of these songs are godawful. Rodeo saw Travis really step up as a lyricist, competently delving not only into his love of partying, but also themes like family, love, isolation, and addiction in equally catchy ways. If you were expecting that to continue or improve on Birds, that’s too bad. Instead, brace yourself for cringeworthy bars like “Newspaper stand, we press the issue,” “Snipe it, swipe it, trapper, rapper,” and my personal favorite, “Relieve my heart of malice, hit my palace / Stroke my CACTUS.” Are you fucking kidding me?
Furthermore, while Trav admirably continues to fold experimental elements into his music, a lot of his choices don’t go over well; many times throughout Birds, the ways he goes about subverting typical party anthem song structure simply wind up stripping the tracks of their momentum. “Beibs in the Trap” kicks off with percolating synths and a fast, melodic flow from Toronto up-and-comer Nav — the stage is set for the song to transform into an energetic banger, but the proceedings screech to a halt when most of the instrumentation disappears as Travis delivers his verse.
Even more disappointing is the opener, “The Ends,” which pairs La Flame with none other than Andre 3000. As to be expected, 3 Stacks delivers a great verse, but the song structured around it is a wreck. The track is made up of a few very distinct parts — a hazy, almost shoegazy intro and a few different trap beats — that don’t transition into one another smoothly in the slightest. The rhythms driving the verses and choruses are so disparate that the song essentially has to stop and reboot as it changes sections. Such a shame that one of the greatest rappers there ever was or will be had to have been featured on a shambling Frankenstein monster of a song.
Towards the end of Birds in the Trap, there finally arrives a stretch of songs I enjoy without reservation. Kicking this streak off is “Goosebumps,” which features one of the catchiest hooks on the entire album along with some nicely played, choppy guitar riffs and an out-of-nowhere verse from Kendrick Lamar who brings along the best punchline on the album: “I’m reliving moments making more residuals / I can buy the building, burn the building, take your bitch, rebuild the building just to fuck some more.”
From there we get “First Take,” which is easily my favorite song on the project, and perhaps the only cut that rivals the highlights from Scott’s other projects. This thing is straight up cyberpunk trap; when Travis, drenched in autotune and reverb, croons “Don’t like what I saw / This life without yours,” I imagine him staring bleakly at the rained-out streets of Neo Los Angeles from the window of a penthouse. Newfound R&B phenom Bryson Tiller appears on the latter half of the track and — in one of the only moments that makes Birds feel like a well thought out album — he does a brilliant job of setting up the next track, singing “Your mama called to check on me / But you won’t pick up the phone / Shit, goddamn you feelin’ yourself.”
The next track is (you guessed it) “Pick Up The Phone,” which, despite its sonic blemishes here, is still a fantastic song. Travis and Thugger’s two-part chorus is incredibly catchy, Quavo has a great, album-title-referencing verse, and the synth tidal wave that closes everything out is perfection. This should’ve been the anthem of the summer, but in a year so rich in mediocre Rihanna and Drake singles, it unfortunately stood no chance.
Immediately after comes another fantastic cut, “Lose,” which finds Scott in a duet with GOOD Music cohort Kacy Hill. The lyrics are negligible, but their harmonizing is great, with Travis’s heavily processed falsetto proving particularly ear grabbing. The instrumental here is also the best on the entire record, complete with beautifully arranged strings and a glistening, ethereal drum loop.
Things unfortunately cool down a bit as the record comes to a close. “Guidance” — the requisite dancehall-lite track that every popular artist seemingly has a contractual obligation to make — is actually a pretty creative take on the en vogue style. Rather than come through with the sort of whitewashed bastardization of the genre that Justin Bieber and Drake have flooded the market with, Travis goes in a genuinely unique direction, crafting a catchy song with nothing but a minimal vocal sample and thunderous drums backing him up. Birds’ trend of weak, unmemorable lyrics continues here, keeping the track from having true staying power, but it’s still the best take on pop-dancehall I’ve heard yet.
Birds ends with the Weeknd-assisted “Wonderful,” a song that perfectly summarizes how off the record feels. The track came out in 2015, a couple months after Rodeo released. It’s clearly a B-side from that project, but it’s inexplicably used to punctuate this new album. I don’t think I could possibly fathom what drove this decision, but the fact that a throwaway that didn’t make the cut for La Flame’s previous project resurfaces as Birds in the Trap’s grand finale speaks volumes about how half-assed this album is.
Central to Travis Scott’s image has been the idea that he’s an anti-establishmentarian voice of the youth. With Owl Pharaoh, Days Before Rodeo, and Rodeo, his music — innovative and brash in equal measure — fit that image perfectly. With Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, Trav already sounds like an aging artist trying to relive his glory days. The fact that he already has two projects slated for 2017 has me worried indeed.
Worst of all, what did Brian McKnight do to have his name slandered like this?