Master Class: Travis Scott’s 'ASTROWORLD' is the ultimate time capsule for cloud rap
Welcome to REVOLT’s Master Class on cloud rap, as brought to you by Travis Scott’s ‘ASTROWORLD’ album.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
Lately — just examining the Billboard Hot 100 from this publication week alone — the genre of cloud rap is one scene undeniably dominating the mainstream landscape. What started as a chopped and screwed technique originating in Houston, Texas during the 90s, eventually evolved into a key sound architecting mixtape and Soundcloud cultures of the new millennium. Eventually that genre would be studio mastered, none as best as Travis Scott’s body of work.
Since its release in August, many have questioned what makes ASTROWORLD particularly special in this music age. Reports are coming out that the chart-topping LP could be a frontrunner for an Album of the Year nod at the 2019 Grammys. Scott is currently selling out arenas and causing mass hysteria on his rollercoaster riding ASTROWORLD Tour (no literally, he opens the concert performing on an actual rollercoaster). Houston is now gearing up for the ASTROWORLD Festival, which was curated by Scott following the album’s huge success.
After months of thinking about all this hype — not succumbing to the pressures of an instant opinion — I realized that ASTROWORLD not only occupies cloud rap dynamics, but also contains a hidden, musical amusement park of its rich history and impact on hip hop.
Welcome to REVOLT’s Master Class on cloud rap, as brought to you by Scott’s ASTROWORLD project.
This lesson starts with ASTROWORLD’s opening track, “STARGAZING.” Compacted in one song are the sonics and themes of cloud rap, alongside a commentary on how far it’s come as a commercially successful genre, from the perspective of its currently, leading figure.
Hallucinogenic as its central mood, “STARGAZING” recalls one of the many psychedelic trips the artist has had. Singing “rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ like I’m Stargazing” on the hook, Scott references those psychedelics, purp (“whatever I downed”), and cocaine (“booger sugar ‘til her nose bleed”). Cloud rap mainly revolves around drug intake with the scene’s rappers spitting and singing about its effects on relationships, fame, and new business ventures. As a result, this atmospheric music is loopy and “rollin’” through the clouds, enacting the state of being high from substances.
In his rap verse on “STARGAZING,” Scott acknowledges his superstar status: How his music insights mosh pits full of injuries, concertgoers “stage divin’ out the nosebleed” sections, and “packin’ out” Houston’s Toyota Center. He practically acknowledges how he has become the celebrity king of his hometown. On ASTROWORLD, Scott laces many Houstonian references throughout the lyricism and song titles, such as “HOUSTONFORNICATION.” Seeing as the album is a manifesto for cloud rap history, it’s time to briefly go into Houston’s originating start of the scene.
The fourth track “R.I.P. SCREW” pays homage to DJ Screw, the late technician of the chopped and screwed method. In 1995, DJ Screw released All Screwed Up, Vol II, a remixed studio album of songs from the likes of UGK and more . Slowing down the pace of each track, DJ Screw managed to also alter voices into deeper, demonous pitches while stopping, scratching, and crossfading the records.
Not only is DJ Screw memorialized on ASTROWORLD — 18 years after his death from heavy codeine-drank intact — but so is UGK’s Pimp C, who died from a similar fate. While chopped and screwed serves as the basis for some cloud rap, UGK’s own version of trap set the wheels in motion for what cloud rap would come to be.
UGK’s 1992 song “Pocket Full of Stones” is often credited as mainstream trap’s first significant record, as it documents selling crack on the streets of Port Arthur, Texas as a means of survival. But, listening to “Pocket Full of Stones” sonically, one could credit the song as proto-cloud rap, based on the trailing delivery of Pimp C and a twang in the instrumental, which floats in pockets. At the end of “R.I.P. SCREW,” there’s a snippet from a news story covering DJ Screw’s invented style of music: “Screw found international sound because/ Throughout the South, and it’s new to, um…” He even imitates their accents, shouting out the deceased DJ’s collective, Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.).
Jumping from the 90s to the 2010s, cloud rap developed as a mainstream entity. In 2006, the outsider rapper Viper made absurd music that had a hazy effect like the chopped and screwed work of DJ Screw and “Pocket Full of Stones.” This would lead to his 2008 album You’ll Cowards Don’t Even Smoke Crack, containing a title track that hilariously wallows in lo-fi haze and lazy chant-like articulation.
That LP resulted in a cult following online, shaping the internet culture and drawing attention to other artists who would later imitate the sound, such as Lil B The BasedGod. Lil B’s work adds a new age aesthetic to hip hop, experimenting on an alternative take on spoofing pop culture. With songs titled “I’m Paris Hilton” and “Katy Perry,” Lil B revolutionized a movement of other “Lils” and “Yungs” taking over Datpiff, SoundCloud, and Twitter cultures alike. Lil B would work with producer Clams Casino on a few tracks, as the latter would further engineer cloud rap through his Instrumentals mixtape series.
As Viper started a trend in 2006, A$AP Yams, A$AP Bari, and A$AP Illz would form a collective of rappers in Harlem. Eventually in 2012, the A$AP Mob would release their first mixtape Lords Never Worry. Simultaneously, A$AP Rocky found major solo success first with “Peso” and “Goldie.” That would lead to his opus debut, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, which debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart in 2013. At the beginning of 2015, the hip hop world received a shock when news came out about the drug overdose death of A$AP Yams, resulting in his Mob releasing two volumes of the Cozy Tapes in 2017.
Having released his first mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, in 2013, Scott should be regarded as one of cloud rap’s pioneers when analyzing the genre’s timeline, whether that’s appearing on Playboi Carti’s debut album Die Lit, or featuring a few of them on ASTROWORLD. Stepping outside of ASTROWORLD and into his “Let It Fly” collabo with Lil’ Wayne on Tha Carter V, Scott appears on another historically important track of the genre. Believe it or not, Lil’ Wayne has carried on the intents and attitude of cloud rap through his discography and image, particularly with his unmastered mixtapes of the mid-aughts, which inspired an entire SoundCloud generation. Hearing Weezy’s lighter flick, any listener can imagine the clouds of smoke filling up the recording booth.
Juice WRLD — who has found his own recent success with “Lucid Dreams” — appears on a chopped and screwed “NO BYSTANDERS.” As he cries out “the party never ends” at the song’s beginning — a rambunctious sample of Three Six Mafia’s “Tear Da Club Up ‘97” — energizes the hook recreated by Sheck Wes. “NO BYSTANDERS” could very well be the next hit from ASTROWORLD, as it embodies the spirit of cloud rap mosh-pitting through “Mo Bamba,” Playboi Carti cadences, Juice WRLD’s longing melancholy, and Travis Scott’s brand of raging angst.
Another contender for potential hit single from ASTROWORLD is “YOSEMITE.” Featuring Gunna — who is now finding success with features and his Lil Baby-assisted “Drip Too Hard” in the Billboard Top 10 of the Hot 100 — “YOSEMITE” loops serene country music that sounds as if it comes from the national park the song was named after. What has helped transform cloud rap’s crossover appeal is how artists are unafraid to experiment with the alternative in hip hop.
“NO BYSTANDERS” samples Björk, as “SKELETONS” features Tame Impala. In their rock and indie pop fields, both Björk and Impala have cloud sensibilities visually and musically. On the flip side, their legacies are living on through R&B and hip hop, most notably with Rihanna covering an exact replica of Impala’s “Same Ol Mistakes” on ANTI. It’s actually surprising that Scott didn’t add an Enya sample for extra credit, as she’s also a popular figure who cloud rappers such as Lil B and Yung Lean have distorted into some of their tracks.
What makes ASTROWORLD really stand out in its mastered lo-fi brilliance is how live instrumentation is emphasized, whether that’s John Mayer playing guitar on “ASTROTHUNDER” or Stevie Wonder bringing out the harmonica on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD.” On the notes of Wonder, he too has an important place in cloud rap history. What instantly comes to mind is his harmonica work on “Doing It Wrong” from Drake’s Take Care — an album that experiments with cloud rap, as well as the motifs of dying, feeling reborn through drug consumption, sex-filled relationships, and acquiring large sums of money.
ASTROWORLD also marries R&B’s side of cloud rap into trap. Scott’s sound has shaped trap&B and also elevated alternative R&B. Frank Ocean appears on “CAROUSEL,” and The Weeknd on “WAKE UP” and “SKELETONS.” At the start of the 2010s, both men contributed to the respective cultures of cloud rap by offering hallucinogenic takes on R&B that appealed to Coachella hipsters and hip hop hypebeasts alike. With songs like “Thinkin’ Bout You” from Ocean’s catalogue and “Wicked Games” from The Weeknd’s, psychedelia and the state of dreaming are what’s currently soundtracking the mainstream cloud sound.
Prior to Ariana Grande’s “thank you, next” surprisingly gripping the summit position of the Hot 100, ASTROWORLD’s central single “SICKO MODE” was just inches away from securing the top spot. Prior to that, Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” had a moment in the runner up position for the chart. Retrospectively, both No. 1s from the R&B and hip hop chart have any given opportunity to still cease the Hot 100’s top spot. But, right now this article will focus back on “SICKO MODE” and its impact on the culture.
It’s unknown if the “like a light” refrain or the beat change is what draws Scott and Drake’s generations of listeners wild. But, “SICKO MODE” shall be regarded as the core contemporary embodiment of where cloud rap has gone since its conception. It has a beginning instrumental that hovers. Take Care Drake comes back to wax as he sings the intro and arrogantly raps the midsection. There’s Scott spitting over a chopped and screwed beat, included is a Notorious B.I.G. and Uncle Luke reference to the 90s hip hop culture that overarches cloud rap trends. Big Hawk — an associate of DJ Screw’s S.U.C. who also passed — is sampled. Lee interrupts to croon about something “someone said” and of course, the beat drop has triggered mosh pits around the globe.
Through ASTROWORLD, Scott has not only elevated his own brand beyond the Rodeo and Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight eras, but also redirected the course of where cloud rap could go next. What was meant to be his adults-only recreation of his childhood at Houston’s Six Flags AstroWorld has transformed into a project that successfully represents serious artistry and curating. On ASTROWORLD, Scott proves his naysayers wrong and the critics who doubted his craft since the start. He manages that by staying true to the roots and origins of cloud rap, applying his personal style to revitalize those nearly lost moments of history, as a means to co-sign the hottest sounds and artists of today, while wholeheartedly embracing the genre’s future.
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