Industry insiders help Billboard detail how Travis Scott's "SICKO MODE" went from radio-proof three-part rollercoaster ride to a year-defining smash within four months.
"Who put this shit together? I'm the glue," Travis Scott emphatically raps to close out the second verse of "SICKO MODE." At the core of Scott's banner year, the Cactus Jack CEO proved to be the ultimate collaborator. La Flame enlisted a plethora of talented artists over a range of eclectic sonics to bring his vision for the controlled chaos of Astroworld to life -- much like his mentor, Kanye West, has displayed throughout his hall-of-fame career.
"SICKO MODE" was like watching a mad scientist at work in that very aspect, as the 26-year-old perfectionist concocted the experimental three-part composition, with assists from Drake, Swae Lee, and a sample from H-town legend Big Hawk. Travis also calls on a starting five of contributors behind the boards for the daring track, including Rookie of the Year Tay Keith, Hit-Boy, OZ, Rogét Chahayed, and CuBeatz.
The cinematic track's slow burn to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 from August to December was fitting, considering origins of the intricate record date back to 2016, and it wasn't completed until 2 a.m. of Astroworld's release day (Aug. 3), when Drizzy's vocals came in letting us know "Winter's here." "I was working a lot with Hit-Boy in 2016. He brought me into a session with Travis," Chahayed explains to Billboard over the phone. "I came up with that first organ chord progression you hear [with Hit-Boy]. We were just having a normal producer cook-up session and I ended up making that with the organ and [Hit-Boy] put some bass and drums on there for an incredible beat, which went on to be the first part of 'SICKO MODE.'"
The piano savant says he had no idea his creation would end up on Scott's third LP: "Fast-forward two years later, we found out something we did was on Astroworld." Chahayed also confirms that a full track between Drake and Travis over the initial ominous beat exists somewhere in the digital world. "Travis and Drake actually did a [whole] song to that beat," he reveals. "There is a full song to that but they only ended up using the first minute you hear. On a hard drive somewhere out there in the universe is the full version."
In typical La Flame fashion, the features remained officially hidden on the capitalized Astroworld track list until mid-December, so the listener had no idea what surprises Scott had in store when entering his theme park. As fans pressed play on the five-minute plus experience, they were greeted to start the song by Drake vocals behind frightening organs. The 6 God fan in your life may have had a reaction similar to the viral screeches heard from DJ Akademiks on his Astroworld livestream party.
The first twist comes around the one-minute mark, when the beat takes a stark shift into part two, which finds Travis starring front and center over OZ's bouncy yet balanced production. Swae Lee injects himself into the track soon after ("Someone said") which is followed up by the haunting Hawk sample ("Pl-Pl-Playin' for keeps, don't play us for weak"). Part three calls on Drizzy's return, as he and a rejuvenated La Flame sprint toward the finish line, thanks to a mix of dreamy keys and thunderous drums making up the vibrant beat -- courtesy of Memphis native and 2018 college graduate Tay Keith, who previously teamed with Drake on "Nonstop" and "Look Alive."
With "SICKO" boasting unique construction and some serious star power, the public quickly crowned the track, which premiered on the Hot 100 at No. 4, the highest of any of the 16 tracks from Astroworld that debuted on the charts that week in August. Cactus Jack and Epic Records swiftly caught on, dubbing "SICKO MODE" the second official single off Scott's adventurous LP on Aug. 21, despite it's atypical, radio-unfriendly structure. "Unlike a lot of artists who think it’s just about putting out commercial records, Travis was always true to himself," said Sylvia Rhone, president of Epic Records, earlier in 2018. "He was always less concerned about radio hits. He embraced his core fans."
The track was well on its way to becoming the most atypical radio hit in recent memory, breaking the mold of what a rap-turned-pop record should sound like. "I've always tried to make some dope ass shit. I knew it was going to be a different sounding song for people and I was hoping that they would catch up to it," Scott previously told Billboard. "I just tried to bring producers into my world and I generally had this kind of idea of like what I wanted to do."
Though DJs across the country and radio stations began to pick up "SICKO MODE," most of the nation was still swept up in the madness caused by Drake's "In My Feelings," which had a stranglehold on the Hot 100's No. 1 spot for 10 weeks until it was finally dethroned by Maroon 5 and Cardi B's "Girls Like You" on Sept. 29.
But instead of fading in the ensuing weeks, "SICKO MODE" was still holding firm in the top 10 of the chart -- and to start off October, the tune even received a boost up from No. 9 to No. 6. "'SICKO MODE' was one of those records nobody thought was going to be a radio hit," The Breakfast Club co-host DJ Envy tells Billboard. "As soon as I heard it, I knew what it was. The thing about music today, there is no format... If you're a new DJ or a horrible DJ, you know if you play that record, you have the crowd. It's kind of like 'Swag Surfin' back in the day."
However, It wasn't until the Dave Meyers-directed visual to "SICKO MODE" released (Oct. 19) that dreams of the song hitting No. 1 became a reality. Meyers used his expertise behind the camera -- which has graced many of the 21st century's most iconic hip-hop videos, from "Work It" to "HUMBLE." -- to properly sequence Scott's scattered vision of what the perfect video would entail. Centered around paying homage to the rapper's Houston hometown, the clip is a disorienting but intoxicating mix of fantasy and reality, exactly what viewers would hope for from the Scott/Meyers combination in 2018. With the video of the year candidate's 125 million views and increased radio play, the track jolted up to No. 2 in its 12th week on the Billboard Hot 100 (Nov. 3).
The full-court press was on from La Flame and Epic Records to push "SICKO MODE" over the top. The timing seemed to be perfect, as Travis was back in the spotlight kicking off his anticipated headlining arena Astroworld Tour on Nov. 8. The last week of November proved to be one of the most pivotal of Scott's career. With tour in full tilt, Travis pleaded with fans to keep supporting "SICKO MODE" during the second of two raucous sold-out shows at NYC's jampacked Madison Square Garden on Nov. 28 to help it reach the No. 1 spot.
Releasing the Skrillex remix to "SICKO MODE" can't be downplayed when it comes to subtly helping add sales and streams to the original song. The electronic remix hit streaming services Nov. 28. "I actually had it on repeat when I was running -- you know, I like to run -- and I know Travis is a master producer," the 30-year-old super-producer told Billboard of the track's appeal. The Houston native's cash cow of an online shop also released a limited-edition tie-dye shirt for 48 hours only, where purchases also came with a digital download to an Astroworld album. Vinyl records also showed up for sale through his online shop. The records happened to feature both versions of "SICKO MODE," as digital singles were also attached with every purchase.
Lastly, Scott's team implemented the "69-cent strategy," a popular tactic by major labels to assist in powering singles higher onto the Hot 100, where the selected hit song's price is temporarily lowered from $1.29 to $0.69 on iTunes in an effort to boost sales. The remix was also sold for $0.69 on Nov. 27 prior to the track hitting streaming services.
The execution from Cactus Jack and Epic Records paid off. Scott's aspirations of landing a No. 1 hit were realized when "SICKO MODE" dethroned Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next" to top the Billboard Hot 100 on Dec. 3 (chart dated Dec. 8), after four total weeks occupying the second spot. "I don't know how I'm writing this right now … it's so many emotions. Just super-thankful to all the fans and supporters," Scott wrote to Billboard immediately following the news. "Me and Drake been working to make something so crazy for the kids. It's dope that one of our illest collaborations just went No. 1. The whole idea when we made the song was to go 'sicko mode' … and what's more sicko mode than going No. 1?!"
The track was streamed over 37.2 million times for the week in the United States. The most substantial gain came from the digital sales department, as "SICKO" shot up to No. 2 on the Digital Sales Songs chart, raking in 24,000 downloads, which was a 35 percent increase from the previous week. A small 5 percent growth in radio play (65.1 million in all-format airplay audience) also contributed to the rise. "'Sicko Mode' is a career-high for Travis, as well as a watershed moment for the creative community," Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone says in a statement to Billboard. "The song challenged the conventional notion that you need a ‘catchy hook’ in order to be successful at radio. 'Sicko Mode' was that breakthrough song of 2018!"
Of course, the Drake Effect has also worked like a cheat code in 2018. "SICKO MODE" unofficially notched Drizzy his fourth Hot 100 No. 1 of the year, in what's been an outright epic commercial run for the 6 God. Assists from the OVO rapper have helped grant Blocboy JB's "Look Alive," Bad Bunny's "MIA," Lil Baby's "Yes Indeed," Meek Mill's "Going Bad," and the Migos' "Walk It, Talk It" trips to the chart's top 10.
"I've never seen anything like [the Drake effect] in my life," says Envy. "Whatever [he] touches goes right to radio and can be a No. 1 record. He knows he can do a pop, street or female record. He plays chess, while a lot of other artists play checkers."
Let's not forget Kylie Jenner's inherent role in the Rodeo artist's meteoric rise, either. In today's celebrity-hungry society, the impact of being one half of a power couple on Travis' career has been immeasurable. Millions of Jenner loyalists have discovered and supported Scott's music because of his alignment with Kylie, pushing his burgeoning brand further into the mainstream. La Flame still makes sure to stay focused on the task at-hand when it comes to his music career, though. "It's how you live your life. You just got to stay focused," Scott previously explained to Billboard, of maintaining his relentless work ethic even as his star power brightens. "Can't let motherfuckers throw you off. I got too much shit to do, too much ground to cover."
The last message Cactus Jack leaves listeners with on "SICKO MODE" even spotlights Jenner and her August Forbes cover, who projects Kylie to be the youngest future billionaire at just 21-years-old, courtesy of her booming cosmetics line. "Baby mama cover Forbes, got these other bitches shook," he raps of the lip kit mogul. Indeed, if you believe Scott to be the breadwinner of the family, think again -- Jenner reportedly raked in a reported $900 million in 2018, tying her for the fifth wealthiest celebrity with Jay-Z.
The emergence of "SICKO MODE" as one of the defining hits of 2018 only tells part of the story to Scott's banner campaign, squeezing everything he could out of the jampacked year. Between the hit record and Astroworld being well-represented at the 2019 Grammys (three nominations) -- while also giving him his second-straight No. 1 album, as well as some of the year's best first-week numbers -- the 26-year-old Scott seems to be finally getting his due from critics and fans alike. From this point on, when anyone mentions the biggest rap stars of today -- Drake, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B -- Travis Scott needs to be a name that comes up in that conversation.
Ronnie Triana, Sirius XM program director for Hip Hop Nation and Shade45, believes that Scott has taken over the lane that his mentor Kanye West carved out over a decade ago. "Travis is like that new Kanye, to me. With Kanye drifting away into his own space, I think Travis is taking a lot of that audience," Triana details over the phone. "Being he's so great with the lyrics, production, and showmanship."
At the top of the year, Scott told Billboard, "My whole life, I ain’t been on vacation." With Travis going from homeless couch surfing while running around Los Angeles with rap dreams in 2012, to having the beautiful family and music success he'd been yearning for, just maybe, Jacques Webster II feels like he's finally earned that well-deserved getaway with Kylie and baby Stormi in 2019.
In the meantime, It's going to be interesting to see the impact the now multi-platinum certified "SICKO MODE" has on creativity and song structure in hip-hop going forward. Chahayed, for one, believes it's a sign of things to come. "It will inspire other artists to be more free with their form and structure," he predicts. "It's what I wished for when I was studying music."