How Travis Scott's 'Astroworld' Embraces His Southern Rap Roots Like Never Before

Travis Scott
David X Prutting/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Travis Scott performs at Revolve in The Hampton Hot in Havana party on July 22, 2017 in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Billboard breaks down the surprising old-school Southern rap soul of his new album

In the five years since his debut mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, Travis Scott has cultivated a distinctly youthful vibe. His favorite rapper is Kid Cudi, whose debut album is less than 10 years old. He’s always photographed wearing hypermodern designer streetwear, never one for vintage looks. His fans are hordes of teenage hypebeasts whose fast-twitch attention spans are the subject of countless memes. He also cribs enough from current rap trends and his peers that older listeners label him a biter or a thief -- a SparkNotes version of popular rap.

Scott’s insistence on staying current has led to symbiotic relationships with the two most popular trend-hoppers in rap: Kanye West (whose Yeezus album Scott helped shape) and Drake (with whom he’s frequently collaborated). It’s also allowed him stylistic flexibility -- he sounds just as comfortable on tracks with Atlanta trailblazers like Young Thug and Migos as he does with pop-rock artists like The 1975 and Toro Y Moi. Yet the approach has also led to criticism. As Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce wrote in his review of 2015’s Rodeo, “Scott has cobbled together a composite identity to compensate for lacking his own.” After two mixtapes, two studio albums, and a collaborative release with Quavo, we still didn’t really know who Travis Scott was behind all of the trippy aesthetics and trendy beats.

Until now: Scott’s third studio LP, Astroworld, released last Friday, finally begins to render a full portrait of its creator. Along with details about his struggles with fame and relationship with Kylie Jenner, Scott also uses the album as an open-hearted love letter to his hometown -- and embraces his Southern roots like never before.

Scott was born and raised in Missouri City, a suburb of Houston, and while he’s delivered obligatory shout-outs to the city’s fruitful music scene in the past, it always played second fiddle to influences from Atlanta, the modern hip-hop capital, or mentors like West and Cudi. “Drive,” a song from 2013’s Owl Pharaoh, illustrates this all too perfectly. It begins with Scott cycling through snippets of three Houston classics by local stars Lil Flip, Z-Ro, and DJ Screw, only to settle on a synth-heavy beat that has far more in common with the then-popular soundtrack from the Ryan Gosling movie of the same name than anything those three ever made.

Sure, his Rodeo track “Wasted” flipped a sample from deceased Texas legend Pimp C, and, yes, Scott’s been fond of mentioning his hometown’s “Mo City” nickname. Yet his catalog has hardly seemed to be in conversation with those influences. More often than taking cues from Houston’s signature “chopped and screwed” sound, Scott was sampling the indie-blog sounds of Fleet Foxes and Washed Out. Veteran Houston producer Mike Dean has served as Scott’s right-hand man since day one, but Dean’s synth-heavy, high-sheen work in the past 15 years bear little resemblance to the Southern-fried styles he was cooking up for Scarface and Devin the Dude in the ‘90s. Even the landmarks Scott references were more likely to be from other cities: “In the hills is all we know,” he rapped on 2015’s “Antidote,” reveling in the Los Angeles high life.

This all changes on Astroworld. Scott still manages to push his genre-mashing ways into the future -- after all, the guy has the gall to throw Tame Impala, The Weeknd, and Pharrell on one song, and then James Blake, Stevie Wonder, and Cudi on another -- but for once, he grounds these impulses with a sense of regional identity. That shouldn’t be entirely surprising, considering he named the album after a defunct Houston theme park. Six Flags Astroworld was demolished in 2005, when Scott was 13, and on the album, you can practically hear him trying to reconstruct a bygone era of his city while adding new flourishes that he’s picked up during his wide-eyed career. Below, Billboard highlights four aspects of Astroworld that show off an older, Texas-centric soul more than any of his previous work.

He pays homage to DJ Screw

Looming large over Astroworld, as well as plenty of Houston-influenced hip-hop in the 2010s, is the specter of DJ Screw. The originator of the city’s chopped and screwed sound and the head of the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.) collective, Screw died from a codeine overdose in 2000 but has remained relevant thanks to streams of artists paying homage. Scott is just the latest of those, devoting an entire song on Astroworld to the slo-mo pioneer.

“RIP Screw” is as much an ode to Houston as it is a cautionary tale about drug abuse. On it, Scott shouts out not only the titular DJ but also Pimp C and the whole Screwed Up Click. Screw is also sampled saying “Southside” from his track of the same name, and Scott even includes a clip from a 1998 local newscast about the DJ’s influence.

Elsewhere on the album, on the song “5% Tint,” Scott flips a sample that initially appears to be another one of his Atlanta homages but in fact has a deep-seated Houston history behind it as well. The piano line from Goodie Mob’s 1995 classic “Cell Therapy” might ring a bell for any OutKast/Dungeon Family scholars, but for Houstonians, it’s inextricably linked to Screw, who slowed it down for Lil Keke’s “Peepin’ in My Window” a few years later. All signs point to a Screw tribute: Scott’s version of the sample more closely matches the tempo of Keke’s version.

References to other Texas legends abound

While Screw undoubtedly leads the pack of Houston influences on Astroworld, he’s far from the only Texan to pop up on the album in some form or another. Early on in the album, Dallas’ Big Tuck delivers a spoken-word intro on the track “Carousel,” which also uses a familiar sample to connect Scott to a larger Southern lineage: The chorus of voices you hear in the background belong to the Beastie Boys, but their presence is likely intended to give props to Big Tuck himself, who sampled the exact same part of the New York group’s “The New Style” on his regional 2004 hit “Not a Stain on Me.”  

Elsewhere, on the hook of the Drake-assisted “Sicko Mode,” Scott samples Big Hawk, another member of DJ Screw’s S.U.C. (On the day of Astroworld’s release, Scott took to Twitter to thank the deceased rapper’s family for clearing the sample.) And rounding out the samples and name-drops of fellow Texans are the tracks “Can’t Say,” which incorporates vocals from Fat Pat’s verse on DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters,” and opener “Stargazing,” on which Scott shouts out the “Barre Baby” -- a nickname of the late Houston rapper Big Moe.

He samples other iconic moments in Southern rap history

As much as Houston is at the heart of Astroworld, Scott’s curatorial approach draws from all corners of Southern rap history. On “Sicko Mode,” he raps, “Bitches treat me like I’m Uncle Luke” -- a reference to the leader of Miami’s 2 Live Crew -- then promptly flips a sample of Luke’s iconic 1992 track “I Wanna Rock.” On “No Bystanders,” Scott calls upon his young Cactus Jack Records signee Sheck Wes to interpolate the hook of Three 6 Mafia’s hell-raising 1995 track “Tear Da Club Up.” Both of these tracks have ties to contemporary rap: French Montana memorably sampled the former for his 2013 hit “Pop That,” while Waka Flocka Flame repurposed the latter for a hook on 2010’s landmark Flockaveli tape. But by including them on Astroworld, Scott lays down his roots and, for a moment, hits pause on his never-ending quest to rush headlong into the zeitgeist.

He shouts out a whole cast of Houston characters

At one point on the song “Wake Up,” Scott raps, “Any given Sunday, you can get it, Willie Beaman.” He’s referring to Jamie Foxx’s character in the football movie Any Given Sunday, who of course also has Texas ties -- Beaman played his college ball at University of Houston. It’s the kind of deep-cut nod to his hometown Scott usually doesn’t make beyond the “Mo City” name-drops, and it’s hardly the only one on Astroworld: He also mentions the city’s Beltway 8 on “Wake Up” and brags about receiving the key to Missouri City earlier this year on “Stargazing.”

Not every Houston-related reference on Astroworld is rooted in the past, however. In his career, Scott’s never seemed particularly invested in discovering up-and-coming talent in his hometown, or even collaborating with his Houston peers. But on “Can’t Say,” he calls upon a promising youngster for a crucial assist. Don Toliver, a Houston native, lends his sing-songy vocals to the track in one of the album’s best features. In the wake of Astroworld and Toliver’s new mixtape, Donny Womack, Scott announced that he’s signed the young rapper to his Cactus Jack label. Now that he’s shown love for his city’s rich rap history, perhaps his new mission will be grooming Houston’s next generation of stars.