In June, Travis Scott was photographed leaving Abbey Road Studios in London, one bodyguard behind him and another two in front like a shitty Xerox of the Beatles. And of course, there was the UTOPIA briefcase, a MacGuffin motif that recurred across DSLR photos of Bad Bunny and The Weeknd before being “forgotten” by Drake at Starlets. It’s an album rollout that thinks it’s YEEZY Season 6 but looks more like “Kylie Jenner’s Car At Timothee Chalamet’s House Amid Dating Rumors;” personal assistants probably told the paparazzi what time to arrive.
Aspiring to be Kanye West and coming out looking like a Kardashian is nothing new for Scott, who is neither as radical nor as unhinged as Dior and Reese’s Puffs would like you to believe. But UTOPIA is an egregiously underwhelming misstep from an artist whose melodramatic studio albums have always been meticulously overstuffed and manicured. On 2018’s Astroworld, Scott seemed like he was coming into his own, even if he was continually upstaged by his guests: the most interesting person at a party is rarely the host. Five years later, UTOPIA makes the case that Travis Scott can single-handedly ruin a good time no matter how many cool people show up.
Take a step back: this is an album by a guy whose festival inadvertently killed 10 people. Whether Astroworld 2021 is his fault is up for debate — a grand jury in Texas declined to indict Scott, or anyone, and lawsuits continue to be settled. Scott has expressed, via greyscale Instagram story, softball Charlamagne Tha God interview, and Rick Rubin therapy session in promo flick Circus Maximus, his remorse and guilt. He’s also gestured at taking safety at live shows more seriously. It’s tempting to paint Scott as callous, but he is far too vacant for that strain of capitalist sociopathy. He’s just an empty mouthpiece, a guy who wants solutions but lacks the inclination, or indeed, the ability, to seek them out himself. Scott is content to leave concert safety in Houston and Giza up to the guys at LiveNation, who have famously done so well.
Mercifully, Scott isn’t stupid enough to try and atone for visceral sins on digital wax. If someone woke up from a five-year coma today, it’s unlikely much about UTOPIA would come as a surprise (perhaps Rob49 and Beyoncé). By now, Scott’s tics and rhythms have calcified: U-turn beat switches, autotuned ad-libs, big producers, bigger features. He has a penchant for gothic maximalism with indie flourishes, prog rock samples and pyrotechnical theatrics underscoring epic moments in a manner approximating heterosexual camp. When the stars align, you can practically see the dopamine flowing in real time. The other 80% of the time, it feels like watching a children’s play, with Ye and Mike Dean audibly whispering his lines from stage left.
This is not Travis’s Yeezus. Yes, he’s using an old Daft Punk beat for “I Am A God” (“MODERN JAM”), and yes, he has Swae Lee and The Weeknd singing over a “Black Skinhead” ripoff (“CIRCUS MAXIMUS”), but UTOPIA is a bit more buttoned up. Scott’s idea of “raging” has always been sanded-off, more instructive than expressive; it’s easy enough to imagine his handlers at Epic Records ordering him to avoid any risky actions or sounds that could injure income streams.
UTOPIA is the safest Travis Scott release yet. So the yelps on “MODERN JAM” are muted, although Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s rounded-off 808s provide a deliciously flubbery springboard for Scott’s best clunkers. Sure, “I’m on fire, the new Burning Man” is Swaghili-level dumb, but this is music to go dumb to: don’t overthink it. Perfectly adequate Bad Bunny duet “KPOP” is appended with an interminable verse from The Weeknd, just to make sure the streaming numbers look as good as the inexplicably Japanese single cover. 21 Savage showed up and that’s all that needs to be said about the Heroes & Villains scrap “TIL FURTHER NOTICE.”
Naturally, Beyoncé’s performance here is without fault, but if “DELRESTO (ECHOES)” was truly great, we’d have heard it on RENAISSANCE. The song is nowhere near as interesting as Queen B’s vote of investor confidence. The other obvious bits of foraging are DONDA castoffs “THANK GOD,” “GOD’S COUNTRY,” and “TELEKINESIS,” the latter of which entered the world as “Future Bounce.” Unlike the rest of Scott’s leftovers, UTOPIA breathes new life into the track, if only by passing the baton to Future and SZA.
“TELEKINESIS” is a great example of why people bother with these records in the first place. Travis Scott is among a handful of major rap stars with the connections and budget to get James Blake and Playboi Carti on the same album. When he manages to avoid fumbling, Travis Scott is a team player par excellence, selfless or self-aware enough to always pass the ball to a better scorer.
Drake saunters through like The Phantom of the Opera to “MELTDOWN” Pharrell’s chains; Pharrell’s beat for “LOOOVE” suggests Neptunes fans should take a note from Aubrey and stop caring about “all of that heritage shit.” Elsewhere, Rob49 confronts a moral dilemma: “Travis, what if they twins and they Siamese, but they wanna fuck us both?”
In a crowd of colorful guests, Scott’s contributions can feel listless. His rapping is more dexterous than ever, but he’s still saying things like “deep in her throat… I’m her favorite beverage.” When Westside Gunn swans into the Alchemist-produced “LOST FOREVER” with “poles in the Rolls/…alligators on the toes,” it makes a decent Travis verse look bland and unfocused.
Scott often catches flak for his dearth of charisma, the sense that there’s nothing beneath the Vetements and Bottega. But sometimes the lack of charm is charming, refreshingly unpolished rather than off-putting. The album’s best song “I KNOW ?” feels as delirious and delicate as maintaining a balanced buzz at the end of a long night. “Tell me, is you still up?” Scott mumbles. “It’s five A.M. and I’m drunk right now/Tell me, can we still fuck?” If “Maria, I’m Drunk” was dancing on the tables, “I KNOW ?” is nodding off in VIP.
But when UTOPIA is bad, it’s pretty awful, marred by tone-deaf and tune-deaf artistic decisions. “MY EYES” is ruined by one of the album’s few comments on Astroworld: “If they just knew what Scotty would do/to jump off the stage and save him a child.” Nobody comes to a Travis Scott album for substance, but the lip-service goes beyond offensive to malicious. “HYAENA” and “SIRENS” sound like Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho rejects; the omnipresent Rosemary’s Baby sample on “GOD’S COUNTRY” screams immediate skip. “PARASAIL” is gorgeously placid, though Dave Chappelle saying “I fall, but I get up/I stand tall” suggests a serious martyr complex. And The Weeknd’s work here may be even worse than his contributions to The Idol.
Last week, Scott’s plans to debut UTOPIA with a live show at the Pyramids of Giza were derailed, either by “demand and logistics” or Egypt’s Musicians’ Syndicate. “But in good news I had 4 more of these type of experiences in other places. COORDINATES SOON REACH” he tweeted (Rihanna’s “infamous” 777 tour comes to mind). It’s pop spectacle designed not for those fans in attendance, but for those at home, streaming and stanning. Music is just the top of the sales funnel. But even at the peak of the merch bundle wars, it felt like Scott respected listeners, or at least himself, enough to make an effort on his solo albums.
UTOPIA dispenses with the pretense. This is an album with nothing to say and everything to sell. Depressingly, there’s nothing to suggest that this won’t work out great for Travis; fans love Her Loss and critics will tell you Greta Gerwig wasn’t marketing dolls. But a bad album still sounds bad, no matter how many sweatshirts people buy. If Travis Scott doesn’t care about art, whatever. But someone on his team should remind him that good music makes for better advertising.