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For a little under a decade now, Texas rapper Travis Scott has had his fingers firmly on the pulse of the hip-hop zeitgeist. Starting with his second mixtape Days Before Rodeo in 2014, Travis has embodied the sort of chaotic, disaffected energy anyone born after Y2K finds intrinsic to their nature. It’s sort of a combination of the shoulder-shrugging nihilism of Generation X, multiplied by the molar-grinding anxiety of the millennial generation, cut with the hyperspeed stream of always-on, instantly gratifying internet culture. The dude always seemed great at aesthetics and giving the impression of perspective without really having much to say, and that seems to be catnip for the algorithmically programmed YouTube junkies we’re all turning into.

Travis’ ascension to hip-hop supremacy seemed certified with 2018’s Astroworld, which finally alchemized all the components and influences he’d always jammed together into more than the sum of its parts. Hip-hop, for the better part of the next couple of years, sounded like Astroworld. Travis became the influence instead of just the living mood board showcasing his inspirations. His dominance appeared inevitable. Then, a pandemic happened. Then, just when it seemed things might be getting back to normal, Travis’ 2021 Astroworld Festival ended in disaster, and he was semi-forced into a year of exile, just when he was prepared to present the next phase of his stylistic evolution and pay off his potential in full.

Now, five years after Astroworld, Travis finally presents his vision of Utopia — and it seems that his aim, once so very true, is off for the first time in his career. The thing is, I’m not sure in which direction. It’s obviously forward facing, positing a view of hip-hop very different from its current trajectory. On the other hand, it seems like Travis has once again presented a project that is the sum of its influences, without being sublime enough to portend the future of the culture and the genre. Maybe it’s a dud or maybe, as with so many works of true genius, it’s just too ahead of its time.

It’s said in the fashion world — another realm in which Travis has always appeared to be intensely interested — if something goes out of style, just wait. In a decade or so, it’ll be back in style with a vengeance. In the case of Utopia, the common consensus appears to be that Travis is once again being moved by the spirit of his greatest inspiration, Kanye West. Unfortunately, it’s at a time when Kanye is not the hero to the world at large that he once was. Even worse, the album Travis chose to channel was one of Ye’s most controversial: Yeezus, the mercurial Chicago producer’s 2013 attempt at being deconstructionist and avant garde.

Like Yeezus, Mike Dean’s fingerprints are all over Utopia; distorted drum breaks blast through “Hyaena,” ghostly, stripped-down synths under-gird “My Eyes,” even a broken Nina Simone sample appears on “I Know?” It’s like Travis and Dean took the maximalist-minimalist approach from Yeezus and wrought it on a more massive canvas. Rather than the zoned-out groove of Astroworld, we’ve got the twitchy, nervous energy of Kanye right before his first breakdown, when it seemed like he stopped trying to impress us and started trying to see just what we’d let him get away with.

The thing is, Yeezus, for better or worse, was never really in style. Some critics loved it, some listeners hated it, but the thing is, there has never really been anything else that sounded like it in hip-hop since — until now. The culture, whether you believe it’s a hivemind or an algorithm or just advertising dollars being spent, went in other directions. In fact, Travis Scott’s sound was the one that seemed most in-demand, spawning a horde of imitators and collaborators from Future and Nav to Quavo and Young Thug. Everyone incorporated a little of what Travis did from 2014 to 2020, while Kanye seemingly moved on from his own experimentation by his next album, 2016’s The Life Of Pablo.

That avant-garde style sounds just as out-of-step now as it did ten years ago. Where hip-hop has decided to reincorporate its ’80s club sister sounds like house and techno (perhaps in an escapist effort to shake off the world’s looming problems through cathartic dance), Utopia perhaps more closely reflects the anxious, apocalyptic times we’re currently living through. If music is supposed to be an escape, Utopia sounds less like its namesake than a sharp-angled, iron-walled maze, a gilded cage, or a chair made of swords. It’s jagged and concussive and claustrophobic, while Travis’ raps haven’t really improved enough to feel like he’s trying to make any kind of a coherent statement about all of this.

So, I don’t see this album having the impact of an Astroworld. It’ll likely go No. 1, because in the world where listeners are fans of the person (or the persona, rather — cults of personality abound on Elon Musk’s Twitter) more than the music, there will surely be those who “Emperor’s New Clothes” their way into convincing themselves they’re enjoying the listen. But I can’t help but wonder if, should we wait another decade, we’ll finally start to see the true influence of Utopia — even if the world itself seems further away from the concept than ever.

Utopia is out now via Cactus Jack Records / Epic Records.