The Houston native’s fourth album affirms Scott as a sweeping sonic conductor, granting the imposing blockbuster listeners expected.
It’s been a meandering five years for Travis Scott. Since the release of his last album, Astroworld, he became a father of two, a brand powerhouse, a successful labelhead and festival headliner. The last of those turned sour in 2021 when a devastating crowd crush occurred at the third Astroworld Festival, leading to reclusion, both for legal and remorseful reasons, and the inevitable delay of the much-anticipated Utopia. Scott’s waited for the right time to come back to the limelight. Brown briefcases, billboards and complimentary films signalled the start of the Utopia era—where would the five-year hype take the artist, album, and fans?
After a five-year wait, Utopia guarantees a blockbuster experience. Over 19 tracks, Travis Scott grants yet another out-worldly soundscape, loaded with surprise guest appearances, slick beat switches, and some of the daring songs of the year. It’s the chaotic lovechild of Donda and Yeezus, a full-circle moment for Scott’s early production days (back when he had the dollar sign in his name—remember that?). Scott’s rapping also takes centre-stage, throwing the flows back to his early cult mixtapes (a few songs in particular were recorded in the same era). He’s still not quite there lyrically, but the dexterity shown in his performances have to be credited nonetheless.
Rodeo was the experimental introduction. Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight was the commercial sophomore. Astroworld was the psychedelic world-builder. So what’s Utopia? Sonically, it subverts expectations of what ‘utopia’ should sound like. Instead of a blissful, heavenly experience, Utopia is a dim land of chaos. This makes Utopia lack a running thread throughout the album, especially when it jumps from trap and industrial hip hop to dance and reggaeton. The skit at the end of “SIRENS” puts it all into perspective, paired with the “Utopia is wherever you are” tagline attached to promotional material for the album.
For a 19-track album, there are plenty highlights, and nothing worthy of a skip. Opening track “HYAENA” is his most combusting intro to date; “THANK GOD” is flooded in darkness; “I KNOW ?” is a Rodeo remnant; “TOPIA TWINS” is the “Yosemite” of the album, far from the most artistic joint but is an indisputable banger. Teezo Touchdown steals the show on the polarising “MODERN JAM”, offering the weirdest moments of the album. “FE!N” was birthed, nurtured and granted immortality in the moshpits, featuring a nonsensical performance from Playboi Carti that becomes more normal the more you hear it.
Scott’s ambitions for expansive songs don’t stop there. “SKITZO” with Young Thug is a six-minute thriller with four phases, signing off with one of the best beats on the album. “TELEKINESIS” captures the blissful expectations of ‘utopia’, offering the project’s best features in Future and SZA. “PARASAIL” grants the same bliss with its nimble guitar and soft vocals by Scott and Yung Lean. “LOOOVE” is a nine-year old track lifted from the Days Before Rodeo sessions, a danceable powerhouse tune with a ghoulish touch. You think the track is ending until it surprises with a late Kid Cudi feature, a perfect match to the style of song.
The best song on Utopia comes with “MY EYES”, a gorgeous cut drenched in electronica topped off with vocals from Sampha and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Its peak arrives at the beat switch where Travis delivers a rap verse to rival his very best efforts. It’s also the only moment on the album where he references the AstroFest disaster—a necessary touch from an artist who’s critiqued for showing a lack of emotion in his songs (“I replay them nights, and right by my side, all I see is a sea of people that ride with me / If they just knew what Scotty would do to jump off the stage and save him a child”).
Scott’s naysayers hold one major element against him: he doesn’t rap about anything. This is a multifaceted critique, particularly in a trap genre known for not rapping about anything that substantial. In Travis’ case, it’s largely true on Utopia. Even an album like Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, Travis’ worst album only by comparison, had songs where you could follow what he was actually talking about (“Sweet Sweet”, “Goosebumps”). At the same time, it’s hypocritical for people to want subject matter from Scott when there’s a hundreds songs in their playlist just for the ‘vibes’. Scott has offered subject matter multiple times, most notably on Rodeo with songs like “Apple Pie”, “Pray 4 Love” and “Impossible”, which is why Rodeo remains his strongest effort.
Travis Scott became renown for beat switches over every album. They became a staple signature by the time he earned a Diamond plaque for a five-minute single with three beat switches. But Utopia tends to overindulge in those beat switches. Tracks often aren’t given a moment to breathe, sacrificing a portion of a song that’s not finished fleshing for the sake of a switch-up (“LOST FOREVER”). It can help justify the 73-minute runtime, but comes at a cost of song potential. In other moments, Utopia treads into Donda 3 territory, grabbing early drafts of Kanye songs and not repurposing them creatively; most notably the demo qualities. of”CIRCUS MAXIMUS”, lifting the drums and flows from “Black Skinhead” to a tee, on top of The Weeknd’s hook feeling so detached to the rest of the song.
Even through its minor flaws, Utopia shows that at four albums deep, Travis hasn’t lost his knack for sequenced auditory trips. It’s an album that takes elements from his best work while standing tall in its own identity. When it comes to rap explosions, nothing in 2023 will come close to the combustion of Utopia.
8.5 / 10
Best tracks: “MY EYES”, “TELEKINESIS”, “MODERN JAM”, “SKITZO”, “HYAENA”, “FE!N”, “LOOOVE”, “I KNOW ?”