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“Utopia” and Travis Scott’s Bold Return to Form

Few albums in hip-hop built up the amount of anticipation that Travis Scott’s UTOPIA has in the past few years. First teased shortly after the release of ASTROWORLD, it originally carried a 2021 release date. Finally seeing the light of day, there is a ton to dissect on this next chapter of the rapper’s career. 

A Trip to the Cutting Edge

“HYAENA,” the opener, relies on a sample from British prog rock outfit Gentle Giant to make its entrance. “The situation we are in this time / neither a good one, nor is it so unblessed / it can change it can stay the same / I can say, I can make my claim,” the sample cries out. That refrain certainly sets the scene for what you’re getting into. That proclamation of experimentation vs. stagnation rings truest as you work through the rest of the project. There are moments where Travis relies on old formulas that have brought him success, but they’re few and far between.

The official cover art for UTOPIA, one of 5 versions that Scott teased on Instagram in the days preceding.

Familiar Faces & Sounds for Travis Fans on Utopia

MODERN JAM “carries some of the wildest and risque bars from Travis on the whole record. But more importantly a scene-stealing performance by genre-bending singer Teezo Touchdown. In taking cues from rock legends of old, he turns in a spirited and endlessly repayable verse. Likewise, “FE!N,” where we get an appearance from Playboi Carti, also sees Scott step out of his comfort zone. Though they’ve worked together in the past, the two rapper’s collaboration swings much more towards the latter’s universe. It employs heavy atmospheric synths in its beat that fans of Whole Lotta Red will quickly recognize as a Carti staple.  

All that said, there’s still plenty of red meat on UTOPIA for the dedicated Travis devotees. He brings the best of it on ” I KNOW“- the latest installment in the pseudo-saga of ballads that he has visited frequently in past work. (ASTROTHUNDER, Maria, I’m Drunk or sdp interlude.) Singing “I know I lied too way before” in the crux of its chorus, Scott certainly isn’t displaying a model relationship on this one. But it’s a character he has played plenty of times before and again it makes for a great song.  

That track and the slower songs on this album do well to temper the breakneck speed most of it operates at. It may pump the brakes in the middle section, but following the interlude “PARASAIL,” the album quickly regains its footing. Some of the best material lies in the 6 songs that follow. SZA reunites with the rapper on “TELEKENESIS” and if you had forgotten, reminds why she’s such a special talent. We close with TIL FURTHER NOTICE, another reunion with frequent collaborators James Blake, Metro Boomin and 21 Savage. An effective summation of what UTOPIA’s strengths are, we run the gambit from pure, braggadocious rap, to heart-rending indie and to morose R&B in the 5 minutes that close out the LP.

A Thought On The Rapper’s Legacy

In the days since releasing, many have drawn comparisons between UTOPIA and Kanye West’s Yeezus. The drums onCIRCUS MAXIMUS” resemblance to West’s Black Skinhead are chief among the sections that make this a no-brainer. Besides the production, alluding the two artists to one another at this point seems apt. Though more than capable of turning in incredible verses in his own right, West’s greatest strength has always been as an architect. More simply put, he consistently executes a concise, cohesive vision, and often enlisting some of music’s biggest stars to come along for the ride. And as his career has drawn on, he isn’t afraid to draw heavy inspiration from those collaborators. See “Tell the Vision” from 2021’s Donda which shared 95% of its DNA with an already released Pop Smoke song.  

Cue Utopia, where Beyonce’s appearance on “DELRESTO (ECHOES) ” would have perfectly fit on Renaissance, the aforementioned Playboi Carti cut- the list goes on. More than anything, Scott serves as a unifying voice and a throughline rather the true-blue main attraction. His features in the leadup for this project (Drake & 21 Savage’s P*ssy and Millions, DJ Khaled’s LET’S PRAY) were often flat and off-tone, lending credence to the idea that when he’s not entirely in the driver’s seat, his performances suffer.

The maestro on this fourth record, creating a dimly lit, warehouse rave atmosphere both behind the boards and on the mic is where he’s most well suited. And I think Travis himself would even agree, rapping on his biggest hit, “SICKO MODE,” “who put this sh*t together, I’m the glue.” On UTOPIA, Scott excels in doing exactly that, and the results speak for themselves. 

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