Article and Photos by: Michael Castano
Over a year removed from the hip-hop trap anthem of 2015, “Antidote,” and his well-received debut album Rodeo, Travis Scott has returned with his sophomore studio effort, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. A 14-track LP, Birds showcases Scott’s maturation as a rapper and producer, while simultaneously chronicling the experiences of his youth. With the album debuting at the top of the Billboard 200, Scott has already established himself as one of the up-and-coming powerhouses of hip-hop. The current protégé of Kanye West himself truly comes into his own with Birds, and it acts as an excellent microcosm of the drugged, chopped-and-screwed-influenced trap music that dominates the landscape of a majority of current hip-hop.
“Birds in the trap sing Brian McKnight/Percocet and codeine please don’t take my life,” pleads Migos group-member Quavo in his feature on the lead single of Birds, “Pick Up the Phone.” In an interview with Billboard, Scott revealed that this line was the direct reason for the title of the album, and a phrase could not be more appropriate for the sonic atmosphere that Birds constructs. The line appears to contrasts drugs, or “the trap,” with R&B singer Brian McKnight, perfectly mirroring the smoother melodies that Scott foils against his haunting, hypnotic productions and complete immersion into a world of groupies, molly, “snow,” and lean, best detailed in “beibs in the trap.”
Scott’s first studio album, Rodeo, was his true introduction into the eye of mainstream hip-hop. Resultantly, he experimented with his sound, unsure if he was going to be a rapper of club anthems (“Antidote,” “3500”), an angsty rockstar similar to Kanye West’s Yeezus era (“Piss on Your Grave”), or a more emotional, auto-tuned artist of the Kid Cudi era (“90210”). While Rodeo struggled to strike a tonal and auditory balance between its different themes and sounds, Birds functions much more cohesively, and this earlier problem is nowhere to be found. This shift showcases Scott’s growth as a musician – he is more comfortable with his own sound, mixing avant-garde hip-hop with trap influences.
All of the tracks on the album share a similar sound, and almost every time, Scott is able to deliver a catchy, melodic hook to make the songs memorable. Apart from his production, his ability to formulate notable musical hooks is what sets Scott apart from his competition. The hooks service the songs, tying them together, not acting simply as the highlight of the tracks as they function in similar songs by Fetty Wap, Kid Ink and others. The same is true for the guest features on the album, including Andre 3000, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, Quavo, Bryson Tiller, and 21 Savage. Despite all delivering fantastic verses, this impressive roster of hip-hop/R&B all-stars don’t outshine Scott, but instead help to elevate his music, contributing to the mood of the album by echoing Scott’s own sentiments and adding their own respective styles.
One glaring flaw in Birds is the clear lack of development in Travis’ lyricism. While Travis is able to deliver catchy, haunting cadences, they aren’t in any way innovative or groundbreaking and neither are the topics about which he raps. In speaking on the album’s title in the aforementioned Billboard interview, Travis admits that the “Birds in the Trap” might have nothing to do with drugs as Quavo may have meant them; rather, it references the literal trap that Travis had to deal with in general as he grew up in Texas. With this in mind, we can see how the lack of advanced originality in subject matter stems from the realism of the album being born out of genuine experiences that were particularly frustrating. In this way, Travis’ method of storytelling mirrors that of Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon, which highlighted Cudi’s difficulties with his own life and also his being a new and different kind of rapper. Travis even references Kid Cudi’s track “Day ‘n’ Nite” on his own, “Through the Late Night,” a song in which Travis is finally able to rap alongside his idol, Cudi himself. Continuing with the parallels to Kid Cudi, Travis also details his emotional struggles with relationships. He expresses his uncontrolled infatuation with someone on “goosebumps,” demonstrates anxiety on “first take” and doubt and regret on “guidance.” The whole B-side of the album, including the lead single, “pick up the phone,” all deal with Travis’ confusion with his emotions for this person, and such a struggle flows seamlessly from the A-side’s detailing of Travis’ experiences both from home and in his newfound success and fame. This seamlessness occurs due to steady consistency in his solid production and lyricism and technique, despite those both being somewhat average.
Birds isn’t perfect, but it’s a compelling piece nonetheless. Travis’ hypnotic tracks are the result of haunting, almost ethereal production and catchy melodies, both of which help to solidify Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight as one of the standout hip-hop albums of 2016. Hopefully, we will continue to see Travis grow as a musician, but in the meantime, Birds will remain on heavy rotation for some dark nighttime vibes.