The king is dead; long live the king. By album sales and cultural impact, hip hop is the most popular musical genre in the world right now, but there’s been a vacancy at the top of the pyramid. For a musical style that feeds so much off of big personalities and charisma, the last few years have seen the biggest stars lose their shine. Some wounds have been self inflicted, like Kanye eroding most of his credibility through his antics in support of Trump. Others have loosened their grip as a product of stylistic shifts: Drake is arguably a pop star now; Kendrick is a brilliant activist whose work alienates many casual listeners who prefer party rap; Lil’ Wayne fell asleep at the bottom of a double styrofoam cup. But the need for gripping, larger than life characters is central to rap culture, and the machine continues to spin young pretenders up and out. And although nobody has laid out a firm claim to the throne in a while, I’m here to tell you that Travis Scott is the closest to it. Thursday felt like a passing of the torch, and it was most definitely lit.
It feels as if we are currently living through a golden era for stage production, and Thursday’s show at the Capital One Arena continued the streak of jaw-dropping, over the top rap shows at the venue. Although DC has phenomenal purpose-built music venues, the sheer size of a multi-use venue allows for the execution of patently absurd set designs. The most impressive of these remains Kanye’s floating stage from 2016’s Saint Pablo Tour, which physically removed the idea of being front row for a performance by bringing the performer to the people, but the Astroworld Tour gave it a run for its money. True to its name, the set design included a secondary stage with a fully functional “rollercoaster loop” – a train track with a single chair that Scott strapped himself into, continuing to rap verses from album opener “Stargazing” even as he was suspended upside-down thirty feet in the air. The show started off at a blistering pace and rarely let up during the first twenty minutes. At one point during the second song, I saw a guy in his late teens jump from the front of the one hundred section onto the floor, running deep into the heart of chaos before security could stop him. Let me repeat: some dude cleared eight feet of air for the chance to be slightly closer to his idol. And everyone around me who saw it agreed it was a pretty reasonable thing to have done. It would be a sign of things to come.
Astroworld dropped slightly over four months ago and immediately made a critical and commercial splash. The title and imagery played up the nostalgia factor for many Texans of a certain age – the album is named after a theme park that operated in Houston from 1968 until 2005, and one that Travis Scott himself visited many times as a child. But beyond the local shout out, the name is fitting: this record, more than anything else Scott has released, takes us on a journey through all of the artist’s influences, from trap to slap to psychedelic music. It is both fun house and hall of mirrors, revealing the multitudes within the rapper. Listeners are presented with versions of Travis Scott that are rooted in truth and fantasy: him as supremely talented musician-hyphenate, sex symbol, and spiritual/narcotic shaman (despite the fact that Scott himself claims to abstain from hard drugs).
In this way, Travis Scott is the natural heir to the throne Kanye West willingly abdicated. A rapper-producer with a very defined aesthetic and a broad palette of sonic influences, both men hail from middle-class backgrounds and are partners to women from the Kardashian-Jenner clan. Both are committed to putting on a hell of a live show, even if only one of them seems to enjoy the experience. If Kanye made his name as a performer through the bombast and production values of his performances on his Glow In the Dark tour, Scott isn’t too far behind in his progression. Besides the quality of the music, Astroworld translates to a really fun live show – with Scott leading an adoring crowd every step of the way. The rapper bounced, head slammed, and ripped his rhymes with confidence and zeal all night. The audience – skewing young, racially diverse, and with relative gender parity – repaid him by moshing, body slamming, and freaking out during the entire 115 minute set. Combine this type of broad and deep fandom with a number one song (“Sicko Mode”) and with Astroworld the number one album in the country at the time of writing, it seems that Travis Scott is poised to leave his mark on the rap game and popular music more generally. Let’s hope the ride continues being just as entertaining.