Travis Scott has displayed two great strengths through his career. He is an expert mood curator, gracing only the most prime of instrumentals (and tweaking the lesser ones until they’re right), placing guests in the perfect environment, using smoke machines and neon lights to frame his signature mysterious and angst-dripping sound. He has also been a maximalist – think “3500” from his excellent and overflowing debut, Rodeo.
That song is seven minutes and forty-one seconds of Scott, Future and 2 Chainz (spazzing, slurring, and spitting, respectively) over a densely packed beat featuring disembodied gothic vocalization over a thick Yeezus-inspired synth line over a string patch over a xylophone and bell melody over a ’70s rock guitar riff over sharp snares and an 808 and kick pairing, and at the end of the song, it all melts into a Houston-style slurry of a melody, a plinking synth meandering up and down the spectrum. “3500” was the maximum of the maximalist Rodeo, but the rest of the album was still packed with instruments, vocal effects, production wizardry from Mike Dean, and creative beat breakdowns. It was sublime.
But times change. Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight sees Travis Scott trading in the vibrant layers of Rodeo for relatively muted colors, emphasis on relatively. Birds is a 14 song, 54-minute affair, and it’s far less extravagant than its predecessor. The extended breakdowns and cinematic outros have been trimmed in favor of compact, straight to the point tracks.
You can still see traces of that indulgence, like in the standout “through the late night”, where Scott brings in his musical father, Kid Cudi. Heavily autotuned, Cudi sings the chorus through moans and hums, and when it feels like the chorus is just turning into a verse, the vocals instead ramp up, intensifying for a few more bars. Cudi sounds like he’s been listening to Days Before Rodeo’s “Skyfall”, which is fascinating since when Scott first arrived on the scene (and still to this day), people accused him, not always incorrectly, of ripping from Cudi.
“through the late night” is a microcosm of Birds as a whole in that Birds peaks when a talented guest is lighting a fire under Scott to keep him on track. “goosebumps”, a trap-flavored cut that easily could have devolved into sad rap and nothing-isms, is instead graced with a unique La Flare flow. Goaded by a typically fantastic Kendrick Lamar guest appearance, Scott drops one of the best technical verses of his career.
That would be pointless praise (see: modern Eminem) if the song as a whole wasn’t also one of the most musically interesting of the album. The “brr brr” ad libs and the hyperactive bass and the little references to real-life places (which passes for intimacy in the Travis Scott realm) make the song feel more lived-in than many of the album’s lesser cuts. You feel Scott’s presence.
For juxtaposition, listen to “biebs in the trap”. It’s a bland trap cut that Scott sleepwalks through, that doesn’t have any of the swagger, the fire that made Scott a known entity. Lyrics like “Beast, beast it/Bite me, ride me, strike me, indict me” read like discarded Anthony Kiedis lines. It’s the kind of empty turn-up track that is begging for an artist like Rae Sremmurd to fill with personality, but Scott just matches the track with an equally blank-stared verse.
The same thing happens on “first take”, a muddy collaboration with Bryson Tiller that looks good on paper but falters in practice. Scott makes a poor attempt at a Tiller impression and Tiller sounds like he’s reading his lyrics off a page for the first time. It’s plain awkward, and each artist sounds like a washed-out, timid version of themselves.
Scott had a few obvious angles to approach Birds: double down on Rodeo and ramp up the energy, zoom in on the hangover following the party, or pull back the curtain entirely on the backstory of Jacques Webster, the man behind Travis Scott. Birds ends up sounding like Scott read too many negative reviews, tried to tone down his eccentricity, smooth out his edges, and create a “mature” album.
The move toward relative subtlety leaves Scott in a spot of unfulfilled potential. The songs don’t have as much rambunctious energy as previous works, but while a greater emphasis on storytelling could’ve picked up the slack, nothing on Birds matches the more insightful* cuts on Rodeo like “90210” or “Oh My Dis Side”. The continued and plentiful presence of lyrics like “we go back like futons and coupons” dooms the “mature” look.
So that’s where Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight lands – somewhere in musical purgatory. Listening to the dullness, the blandness, that seeped into most of Birds, and hearing the way Scott produces at another level when he has a peer with vision (Kendrick, Cudi, Andre 3000, Young Thug) pushing him from behind is disappointing. Listening to Birds while considering how peers like Schoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad recently executed visions through multiple mediums without compromise while sounding comfortable in their skins makes it utterly impossible to be content with the album.
That’s not to say Birds is unenjoyable, because it really is. In a vacuum, Birds is a good release. “the ends”, “through the late night”, “goosebumps”, and “pick up the phone” are all good-to-great tracks. The rest of the album features a few catchy hooks and interesting production choices. In a vacuum, Birds could be appreciated as the delivery vessel for eight or nine playlist-ready songs. But it was not released in a vacuum. After the promise of greatness made by Rodeo, it’s easy to catch oneself looking past Birds toward Scott’s next release.