In Circus Maximus, the 75-minute documentary/brain poem that accompanies Travis Scott’s new album UTOPIA, our hero Travis gets into a scuffle with a tentacle creature and headbangs in an open field. He then climbs a mountain to seek an audience with Rick Rubin to confess a deep-seated fear that has been gnawing at his very soul: Do I still have the ability to rage?
This is Travis’ idea of getting vulnerable. Since he released his inescapable album Astroworld five years ago, Travis has fully embraced his persona as the ultimate hooligan, even after tragedy put that character under fire. In 2021, while he performed one of his raucous sets at his hometown Astroworld Festival in Houston, 10 people were killed and thousands more were injured during a sudden crowd crush. While Travis remains a defendant in several civil lawsuits, he was not held criminally responsible for the incident and has seemingly moved on, or pretended it never happened. Spoiler alert: He does still have the ability to rage. And to get that across, here is UTOPIA, a big, empty rap blockbuster that lives in the shadow of other bigger, less-empty rap blockbusters.
Specifically, those by Kanye West. That probably won’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever heard any song by Travis Scott, who’s been a Ye disciple since the days of getting some production credits on Yeezus a decade ago. But UTOPIA veers from heavy inspiration into Travis pretty much trying to Single White Female him. Well, that’s impossible, because even with the moody AutoTune warbling of 808s & Heartbreaks, the grand maestro vibes of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the icy electro synths of Yeezus, and the famous-friend-apalooza of The Life of Pablo, Travis is missing arguably the most important aspect of Kanye. Even at his most wild, most narcissistic, and most famous, Kanye still felt shit. Raw no matter how much he tinkered, layered, or absorbed. Unafraid to look like a fool, or at least convinced that he was so cool that it didn’t matter if he did. In the Circus Maximus film, the visuals are at times so pristine and polished that Travis looks like a cyborg; UTOPIA sounds a lot like that, too.
Sometimes, the marquee features and shiny production are good at masking the fact that Travis is an emotional blackhole on the mic. The digitized lilts over Blonde-inspired fogginess on “My Eyes” sound nice enough, especially when sprinkled with dreamy riffing from Sampha and Justin Vernon. The rage beat on “Fe!n” is played-out, but Playboi Carti’s new vocal trick (sounding like he has bronchitis) soaks up the attention and just lets Travis do a bunch of ad-libbing. Future is strong over the orchestral beat of “Telekinesis,” and I like when he raps, “Countin’ so much money till my skin peel.” SZA is here, too, sounding good and sounding like she’s collecting a check. But again, at his peak, Kanye was able to draw showstopping features out of collaborators—these are nothing more than fleeting thrills.
Travis needs those knockout guest appearances because nobody expects him to carry an album himself. The bar for him as a rapper is already low; he’s here for the vibes, not the skill, and that’s fine. But what happens when the vibes are off? UTOPIA is a more expensive model of his previous albums, but it doesn’t sound like he’s leveled up because his life is so different now that when he tries to act like it’s not, he comes off as fake as hell. (His romantic breakups and reconciliations have been endless tabloid fodder; his future as a bankable mainstream act seemed uncertain after the Astroworld Fest disaster.) That’s not asking him to suddenly be a lyricist, but one of the basic attributes we expect from rappers is to be real with us, or at least convince us that they’re not purely bullshitting. Mild edginess like “I got Ye over Biden” on “Skitzo” or blank moshpit-ready tracks such as “Topia Twins” just come off as deflections. It’s scared rapping, hiding behind the spectacle.
Even more so than his past projects, UTOPIA has rapid beat switch-ups, stacked credits, and cinematic songs for no other reason than he thinks that is what signals an event album. “Modern Jam” features some embarrassingly uninspired stripped-down rapping by Travis. But oooh the mildly funky beat is co-produced by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk! “Meltdown” is diet “Sicko Mode.” But oh man Drake dissed Pharrell’s new office job! (OK, it was kind of funny.) On “Delresto (Echoes),” the shimmering and buffering noise gets topped with Beyoncé’s wails. Never mind that she’s going through the motions like Robert Downey Jr.’s guest appearances in minor Marvel movies. This Beyoncé feature is about as deep as his nods to his Houston roots go, and still, it’s Beyoncé. Rap is such a regional culture, even for the megastars. Whether it’s Drake with Toronto, or Kendrick with L.A., or Lil Baby with Atlanta, a connection to their home grounds them as they become international superstars. Travis still had that on Astroworld, where the chopped-and-screwed Big Hawk sample on “Sicko Mode” or the homage to his hometown “R.I.P. Screw” went a long way in making him feel like a real person. UTOPIA’s global ambitions sacrifice that little bit of realness he had left.
So it’s not even surprising that “K-Pop” exists, a diabolically stupid plan to create the most popular song in the world. You have Travis, the Weeknd, and Bad Bunny fusing their croons together over a sauceless Afropop rhythm on a track where the title supposedly isn’t a reference to the Korean pop genre to game extra clicks, but has the same effect. The algorithms will love it, congrats on the hit song. Surprised he didn’t round out the chart-chasing by hitting up Morgan Wallen.
For all its blinding star power, every moment on UTOPIA should feel seismic, or at the very least impactful. Think of Quavo’s melodic fantasia on “Oh My Dis Side,” or Nav’s ice-cold breeziness on “Beibs in the Trap,” or even Drake’s “Sicko Mode” verses which were basically implanted into your brain permanently after one listen. Now, without those, all he has to back himself up is the production. Yet even that is so safe. He waters down the cutting-edge sounds of the past and, in the process, flattens his Southerness to the point that he feels like he’s from nowhere.
To Travis’ credit, rap needs blockbusters, too. Many of the genre’s great albums of the year are so completely absorbed in regional movements that they are even cutting through the noise (see: Sexyy Red’s Hood Hottest Princess and Veeze’s Ganger). But it also would be nice to have a water-cooler monocultural event, a conversation piece that you can talk about with anyone, anywhere. We need those albums that end all the widespread fear-mongering that rap is on a downward spiral just because it’s struggling to get a No. 1 hit this year, rap albums that become so ubiquitous in pop culture that when you look back at that moment in your life it will be inextricable. There are fewer moments like that in art in general anymore, but to get there, the hollow spectacle of UTOPIA is not enough. You want something to grab onto beyond that, an idea, a feeling, honesty. You want music with a vision that can make you feel like your world, or the world, is different, even for a moment.