Since his perceived lifting of Future’s “straight up” ad-lib during the beginnings of a career marred by accusations of artistic theft, it’s proved impossible to ingest Travis Scott’s work without consideration of its context. The reappropriation of a fan’s artwork on Days Before Rodeo’s cover was questionable at least, the similarities between “Antidote” and hitmaker-of-the-moment Swae Lee’s melodic croon baffling at most. And yet, forgivable incidents they eventually became, as his output seemingly outweighed the sins. While Days Before Rodeo was driven by a dark, surrealist undercurrent for Scott to call his own, Rodeo provided a maximalist take on Atlanta trap that, in lieu of forgoing most of the identity its prequel developed in the process, provided a step-forward artistically.
Yet, with an album title lifted from a years-old Quavo verse and with various instances of outright musical plunder, the human medley of popular hip-hop has finally cashed in any remaining merit, an opportunist curator passing off as a youthful visionary no longer.
Before the release of Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, Scott stated the record would be “cutting straight down to [what] everybody want to eat,” but his decision to trim the figurative fat from his music proves to be the foundation of its fatal, ultimately revealing flaws. Whereas Scott relied on producers to develop lush soundscapes for his autotuned flow and rough, blunt-smoke distressed rasp on Rodeo, Birds’s stripped-down approach bares an utter lack of finesse behind a microphone. While the occasional joint like “The Ends” finds him riding weighty 808 kicks with a laid-back cadence that works due to its low-end complement, tracks à la “Sweet Sweet” sound downright lazy, Scott’s meandering croon better served for a ghostwriter’s reference track rather than a major label outing when not bolstered by dense or timely production values.
With his ongoing vocal lethargy, there’s little surprise that Scott channels major moments from hip-hop’s past and present with the sentimental flow of Future’s “March Madness” on “Coordinate” and the ongoing theft of “Cha Cha” advanced even further on “Sweet Sweet” through a melodic interpolation of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Cringeworthy, Kid Cudi-assisted reproduction of “Day N Nite” aside (“To seek the peace, sometimes I can’t restrain; To join a rage at night, come out and play, play”), moments like these would present themselves as conscious nods to contemporary aesthetics if not for Scott’s widely-publicized history of taking liberties with others’ work, not to mention the general severance of emotion from his various sources.
Taking his reproductions one step further, it’s telling that the highlights of Birds outright annexes work from other artists; the dancehall flavor of K. Forest’s “Guidance,” the unreleased Tinashe cut turned “Wonderful,” the Young Thug-intended “Pick Up the Phone,” all packed with tangible affection that the rest of Birds’s from-the-ground-up approach fails to provide. He may not be able to formulate a particularly noteworthy track from internal processes on the record, but when dealing with external commodities, he’s able to make significant tweaks that improve upon their origins.
This, in a roundabout fashion, loops back to the notion that Scott is a curator, that he is owed his due — to an extent, at least. It’s hard to imagine anyone else coaxing out Andre 3000’s exceptionally futuristic flow on “The Ends,” and the presence of Bryson Tiller on “First Take” is a welcomed addition of a critically undervalued voice, yet the majority of the associates he taps for features are served better in concept. The risk he takes on Nav proves rather unfruitful via a SoundCloud-worthy approach; 21 Savage delivers a woefully half-baked verse; and even when Kendrick Lamar appears on “Goosebumps,” it’s arguable that his double-time flow detracts from one of the few glimmers of artistic ambition on Birds.
Thus, the unifying factor between all of the accessions Scott employs, for better or worse in regards to the musical output, proves to be marketability. Where even the least-known artists provide substantial buzz, the best-known artists are influencers and legends alike, their consent to appear alongside Scott alone demanding attention diverted to Birds. It’s the final self-interested move of many from an artist who has adopted apathy as his defining characteristic, an opportunist blessed with a wealth of connections and resources, his jarring nothingness so mundanely exposed.