Whether or not Travis Scott’s Rodeo was your cup of tea (or pint of lean more accurately), the craftsmanship that went into the record was undeniable. Instrumentals were massive, moody, and orchestral and on many tracks they even underwent several permutations. Scott, despite never being the most engaging MC, had a few quality verses and more importantly shined on hook duty, while the revolving door of A-listers (Kanye West, Future, 2 Chainz, Justin Bieber, etc.) picked up the rapping slack.
Scott’s latest, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (he explained the title to Billboard…it didn’t help) doubles down on the star power, but feels significantly more rushed, meaning that the final product is less like Scott bringing us into his perpetual midnight of drugs and partying as he did on Rodeo, and more like a Garry Marshall holiday movie where a bunch of famous people are gathered for no clear reason and serving no higher artistic purpose.
“Through the Late Night” is fashioned to be a nocturnal turn up anthem, but it is so flat and listless that it feels crafted by insomniacs. Kid Cudi, one of Scott’s idols, seems ready to wyle out, dropping a verse laden with LSD references and boasting of substance-fueled amnesia not witnessed since The Hangover. Scott, conversely, seems so awed by the presence of Cudi that he wastes the opportunity to go full “Antidote” and do what he does best. He starts by mimicking Cudi’s signature flow from “Day ‘N Nite” (a reminder of how impressive Cudder could be when painting with a similarly muted palette), then reels off bars that sound like they were written for a Lil B parody Twitter account. “Play no games like the NBA / Throwin’ checks like the NBA / You a ring, you a ring / We shootin’ shots like the NRA,” he raps. Scott coats the rest of the track in his trademark Auto-Tune moans, and after hearing his verse it’s hard not to wish he’d handled that the same way.
“Biebs in the Trap” works a tired white-pop-star-as-cocaine metaphor, with Nav guesting and making fueling a girl’s cocaine addiction sound as scandalous as a trip to the pharmacy. There’s nothing wrong with debauchery rap, artists like Danny Brown and Pusha T traffic in it flawlessly, and two of Scott’s best tracks (“Upper Echelon” and “Antidote”) fall into the category. The problem with “Biebs” (and much of Birds) is that the experience sounds absolutely joyless, and instead of taking the time to examine the fatigue associated with his lifestyle Scott plows stoically ahead, bleary-eyed and drained.
Fortunately, not everything on Birds lacks vitality. Quavo and Young Thug show up for “Pick Up the Phone”, which is an absolute riot and plays like a promethazine-powered response to “Hotline Bling”. Scott never sounds more juiced than when he’s working with Thugga, and the two have a natural chemistry that Scott has yet to mimic with any other rapper. Quavo’s 16s have been inimitable for years.
Cassie breathes life (and some much needed feminine energy) into “Lose”, and the bombastic strings feel like a pointed and purposeful shift from the synth swirl that populates most of Birds. Scott uses the track to explore some of the anxiety that accompanies his success, which is a welcome thematic shift.
Opener “The Ends” features some of the best rapping of Scott’s career. He steps his game up, perhaps because of André 3000’s presence, and delivers some clever rhymes (“Fuckin’ out my room I been racking up incidentals / Cookin’ on a tune, I been cheffing up instrumentals”). Dre’s verse isn’t Valyrian steel sharp like his turn on Blonde, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Kendrick Lamar pops up on “Goosebumps”, although his verse, which includes a funny but inexplicable falsetto breakdown, is one of the least memorable from his recent stretch of scorched earth rhyme spitting. If nothing else, at least “Goosebumps” is sonically unique in the canon of strip club suitable love songs.
Still, that leaves a lot of tracks (“Outside”, “Coordinate”, etc.) that neither cover new ground for Travis nor showcase him doing anything particularly well. Scott is perfectly capable of making decent filler, but there’s enough of it on Birds that listening straight through feels laborious.
Scott told Billboard that the album came to be amid frustrations over bureaucracy slowing his creative process. That’s a noble sentiment, but the results here are highly mixed, and he might simply be the kind of artist who should take more time on his releases, even if that extra time isn’t completely his choice.