The majority of "Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight," right down to its title, is the product of brains that aren't Travis Scott's.
If there's one thing Travis Scott excels at, it's sounding cool. There was the grungy glam sound he lent to Yeezus tracks "New Slaves" and "Guilt Trip," his first introduction to many of us, and his defining moment in the Kanye West think tank spotlight. On 2014's Days Before Rodeo, he managed the unlikely welding job of psychedelic rock to Metro Boomin, Young Thug, and Migos' New Atlanta, deftly showing those two boundary-pushing genres' similarities, namely their penchant for druggy soundscapes and introspection balanced with hedonism. Rodeo was his most ambitious attempt at alchemy, an hour-plus crammed full of ideas, quickly-transitioning songs, and funhouse mirror experiments with various genres. Friends of mine who've visited Las Vegas have told me that a whirlwind weekend trip is better than a weeklong one, that all of the soulless debauchery hits like a jolt of energy but wears off quickly, and that's Travis Scott in a nutshell. There's never much depth to sink your teeth into, but usually enough temporal distractions to make his music exciting and intoxicating for the first few listens. More accurately, considering his fealty to Ye and high fashion, Travis Scott is the embodiment of "Vegas on acid, seen through Yves St. Laurent glasses."
His new Apple Music mixtape, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, offers a few of these colorfully weird moments, but not as many as its two predecessors. There's the gorgeous coda to "Way Back," in which whale song-esque backing vocals, a Mike Dean guitar solo, and twinkling synths make a call for women to bend it "way, way back for me" much more transcendent than it actually is. With its skillful Washed Out sample, "SDP Interlude" achieves the project's trippiest and most unorthodox moment, although it spends over two minutes repeating one line ad nauseam. There's that brief moment at the beginning of "First Take" when Travis' vocals levitate over a woozily minimal beat, its melancholic power erased as soon as he starts rapping and dropping "Lit!" ad-libs. And finally there's "Lose," one of my favorite instrumentals of the year, which sounds like Lex Luger flipping that gothic Enya sample The Fugees used on "Ready Or Not." All of these underscore Scott's strength at pushing his producer cohorts to their weirdest and most ambitious impulses, creating sounds you'll rarely hear anywhere else in rap.
In most other aspects of Scott's musical career though, uniqueness is a scarce commodity. He hinted that that'd be the case early on, when he unabashedly started using a Future hook as his go-to adlib and altered Gucci Mane's "La Flare" nickname by one letter to form his own, but it's only gotten more bald-faced and shameless on BITTSM. Granted, this wasn't billed as the follow-up album to Rodeo, so we should expect a less involved affair, but to Scott, that seems to mean "cut-and-paste my favorite parts of hip hop from the last decade without any context." Eight years ago, Dr. Carter gave us the tasteful biter's mission statement after dropping half a Kanye bar: "That was called recycling, or re-reciting something/Cause you just like it, so you say it just like it/Some say it's biting, but I say it's enlightening." On BITTSM, that's Travis' entire mission statement. Here's a rundown of his recycling route:
- The bell melody towards the end of "The Ends" directly recalls the one on Drake's "10 Bands"
- Swizz Beatz appears on "Way Back" solely for ad-libs, just as he did on Kanye's "Famous"
- On "Coordinate," Scott not only mimics Drake's "Cameras" on the hook, but also Desiigner's Future-aping "Panda" flow on the first verse, which not-so-coincidentally contains the word "broads"
- The most obvious of them all: the unaltered lyrics from Cudi's "Day N Night" on "Through The Late Night"
- Nav's flow on the "Beibs In The Trap" hook mimics either Travis' own on "Skyfall," or Playboi Carti's on "Fetti," or both
- The lines "Why all you wanna do is the coco/Hangin' out with you is a no-go" on "Sweet Sweet" use the same melody as Drake's verses on "Hotline Bling"
- Not only were all of Travis' "Pick Up The Phone" parts written by Starrah, but the title of this album is copped from one of Quavo's lines on the track (or a similar one off a track from Mike Will's Ransom)
- The "Guidance" instrumental is an unaltered rip of K. Forest's track of the same name, and to top it off, Travis uses unmistakably Desiigner-esque ad-libs towards the end of the song
Now, if you got nit-picky with most major rap albums these days, you could find a few similar claims of unoriginality, but Travis seems to check every box of industry-accepted plagiarism. BITTSM doesn't credit any of its guests in the song titles, instead opting for "featured vocalist" credits a la Yeezus, The Life Of Pablo, and Blonde, but Starrah and K. Forest only get songwriting credits, although their respective voices appear in a song apiece. They also didn't get named in the Blonde-style "thank u" list Travis shared on Twitter, although Madonna did. Flows and melodies get copied and recycled all the time, but Travis pulls from so many obvious sources that you don't have to rack your brain to ID them (the above list took me maybe 10 minutes to assemble). Similarly, ghostwriting and song-stealing are now par for the course in hip hop's upper echelon, but whereas Kanye and Drake seem at least a bit invested in those that inspire them (for example, signing Desiigner or befriending Popcaan), Travis seems to want to brush it all under the rug as much as possible.
TLOP and Views both have far more samples than BITTSM, but even their most direct rips-- Desiigner's "Panda" and Kyla's "Do You Mind"-- are chopped up and altered in ways that render them somewhat new. Travis, on the other hand, took the already-finished "Pick Up The Phone" and "Guidance," deleted some vocals, added his own, and called it a day. I'm not suggesting that he didn't handsomely reward each songwriter (they've both shared positive news about their involvement with the album on social media), but it's the listener who's shortchanged here. Unless you only have a passing knowledge of the biggest rappers of the 2010s, and have no interest in furthering it, this project plays like Sparknotes. You get all of the stylistic signifiers, slang, and ad-libs, but none of the substance. A thimbleful of Future's "Codeine Crazy" has more emotional depth than a gallon of BITTSM, which spends a good deal of its 54 minute runtime mentioning drugs, but only in a "They're cool!!" sense. The shortest, choppiest song from TLOP ("Freestyle 4") aims for the same experimentation and frantic energy as most of this project, but accomplishes more in 1/27th of the time. Even the somewhat-rightfully-maligned Views goes places nobody but Drake would go, what with the Sinatra swag of "Keep The Family Close" and the chillwavey "Feel No Ways"; Travis goes exactly where we expect a trendy 2016 rapper to go, right down to the dancehall track.
Oh yeah, there are lyrics on this thing too. Here are some:
"Amen, high life, sleepy, night night
Flashes, spotlight, pull up, night sky
Healthy, peace, peace, peaced it
Bite me, ride me, strike me, indict me
Snipe it, swipe it, drop it, trap it"
Now, I'm usually against the concept of laying out lyrics without context and confronting people with blunt, Ebro-style "THAT'S BARS?!" rhetoric, but RE:Travis' first verse on "Beibs In The Trap"... THAT'S BARS?! Those are words that sound cool together, yes, but mean nothing. Again, that's a pretty close analog for Travis' whole artistic vision: assembling the coolest possible collaborators, sounds, words, drugs, and clothing, removing any and all context, and constructing dream worlds for nihilistic teens. When he gets ambitious enough, that approach can dazzle even the stodgiest critic, but on Birds, he lazily expects that we all haven't been paying attention to anything else going on in hip hop besides him.
Travis is part of a larger group of modern rappers whose sole influences are rappers who predate them by five to ten years, which offers an easily-truncated history lesson for listeners who are either young or mostly uninterested in 98% of hip hop, but that's a story for another time. He happens to be the only one of those who's actually influenced one of his influences, as he produced and (probably) ghostwrote on Yeezus, and stylistically, he does seem to have magnetism and cachet that renders him more of his own entity. Given his budget and connections, I have no doubt that he'll make much more impressive, kaleidoscopic opuses in the future, but Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight is an attempt at sounding just as world-conquering with half the effort. For future Scott mixtapes to succeed, he'll have to narrow his scope, as he did on DBR. Not every full-length can recreate Vegas on acid. Birds, with its inflated self-worth, D-grade bars, and quick comedowns, is more like Reno on subpar coke.