Whether we’d like to admit it or not, Travis Scott suffered from a sophomore slump. Creatively speaking, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight was more off the cuff than any of Scott’s previous efforts - mixtapes included - and marked a noticeable departure from his usual concept heavy approach. It was all aesthetic, leaning heavily on a star-studded cast of features. It saw Travis actively refining a style that would ultimately sputter to a halt on the following collab tape with Quavo. It never truly felt like an extension of the world-building on his debut.

Since his inception, Travis Scott has been propped up by industry giants and hidden gems alike; Mike Dean, Kanye West, WondaGurl on the boards since his very first tape, Owl Pharaoh, with a rotating cast of Atlantan producers and rappers joining him to make the follow up, Days Before Rodeo, his proper breakout. Following these tapes, Rodeo was an ambitious studio debut, with Scott unabashedly wielding his pointed influences (Kanye West, Kid Cudi, contemporaries such as Quavo of Migos, Young Thug), as a lightning rod for the youth, successfully drawing in a mainstream crowd to compliment the cult following garnered by Days Before and Owl Pharaoh.

Where contemporaries like Thug often make a lot out of little, Travis’ genius lies in his ability to reduce his endless well of resources into hits ready for public consumption. Whether he’s grabbing Toro y Moi, The 1975, Justin Bieber, or Stevie Wonder, James Blake, Frank Ocean this time around, Travis’ ear almost always guides him to a captivating, if not entirely original, arrangement. In that sense, the faux-psychedelic intro to ASTROWORLD, “STARGAZING,” tries too hard to do what the following handful of tracks seem to achieve effortlessly, that is, create an aura of unpredictability rooted in a pure sense of wonder.

Ushered in with a few choice words from Dallas staple Big Tuck, “CAROUSEL” and its Hit-Boy produced instrumental is when ASTROWORLD truly takes off. Travis is talking his shit, Frank Ocean is doing his best Young Thug impersonation, and the beat, with its singular producer, threatens to outshine some of the more involved instrumentals found throughout. The transitions between tracks are slick, the beat switches found within sounding more vital than ever. “SICKO MODE” is a bewildering success. Nothing about it should work, what with its various interpolations, Swae Lee ad-libs, and endearing dad raps, but all of it does nonetheless. Half a bar of Xanax and some Jamba Juice and Travis sounds as urgent as ever.

The following trio of tracks are amongst the best Scott’s ever composed. “R.I.P. SCREW” is a fleeting ode to DJ Screw, Swae Lee’s croon brilliantly complimenting FKi 1st’s sublime production. “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” is the crowning achievement of ASTROWORLD; “GOD” is ethereal, plays like a lucid premonition, with Stevie Wonder dusting off his harmonica and Kid Cudi his signature hums. James Blake absolutely steals the show with the type of tortured performance we’ve come to miss from the current R&B landscape. “NO BYSTANDERS” is a whiplash inducing follow up to the downtempo ruminations found before it. Not only is the Juice WRLD and Sheck Wes featuring banger - produced by TM88, Mike Dean, Wondagurl - designed to conjure up mosh pits from the depths of hell, “NO BYSTANDERS” has some of Travis’ most entertaining rapping in years.

But despite an undeniable run of opening tracks, ASTROWORLD loses steam fast. Alethargic midsection and anti-climactic conclusion bars it from overtaking Days Before as his outright best project. On “SKELETONS,” Travis wastes the minds of The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams and Tame Impala by impersonating some of the worst traits of Kanye’s rapping. The following track, another effort with The Weeknd,  showcases Travis’ admittedly improved vocal range, but is utterly boring amongst the rest of the more fully realized collaborations. “NC-17” is only good for the 21 Savage verse; “YOSEMITE” for Gunna; “CAN’T SAY” for introducing burgeoning Houston rapper, Don Toliver.  “5% TINT” is the least inoffensive of the bunch, its Goodie Mob interpolation another welcomed instance of homage being paid to southern legends throughout the album.

By the time “BUTTERFLY EFFECT” twinkles on, a sense of familiarity has overtaken the initial whirlwind of mystique, excitement, bewilderment. Still, this is Travis Scott’s most fully realized concept, his best batch of beats, his most focused raps. While Rodeo was full of untapped potential, the overlong runtime and self-seriousness of its songwriting ultimately detracted from some genuinely interesting production and rapping choices. After the stepping stone that was Birds, Travis sounds re-energized on ASTROWORLD. He is no less self-indulgent - or self-serious - but after the split reception to Birds, there seems to be a chip on his shoulder, a conscious effort to prove his worth and earn his place amongst rap’s elite.