Last week, Travis Scott released his latest full length studio album, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight. Now I have to say that before it dropped my hype levels weren’t huge. Rodeo was a pretty lukewarm effort, and while a sophomore album generally indicates an improvement or refinement of skills, hopes weren’t high for Birds. So when my phone politely bleeped with a notification around the time of release, I plugged in my headphones somewhat reservedly. The first beats of the ends trickled through. Scott’s heavily auto-tuned voice belted from the ambient synths, announcing “2 AM howlin’ outside/Lookin’ but I cannot find.” My hopes were beginning to rise. André 3000 dropped in for a verse (not as stunning as his verse on Frank Ocean’s latest, but still solid), and the opening track painted a pretty great picture for the rest of the album.
However by the time that the closer rolled around, some 54 minutes later, Birds was wearing thin. The rapping was still as strong as ever, with subtle lyricism and flow that is hard to improve on. It showed that Travis Scott was a competent story teller, and a class-A rapper. The incredibly heavy use of auto-tune was bold (or safe, depending on who you’re talking to), and it mostly paid off (there were a few moments when it could have been scaled back, or even ditched). Production-wise, that’s another story.
The entire album is full of the most stereotypical trap/hip-hop beats you could imagine. The old kick-reverb-distorted-bass combo is there, along with that (increasingly insufferable) tick-tick-tick noise (AKA Rolling Hi-Hats) that seems to be in every amateur rap song released in the last year. There’s no variation. Only the intros and outros of each track offer any sense of musical deviation from the bog standard, and even there it’s only one or two bars of a different synth before the drums kick in. It’s frustrating to listen to, even more so on repeated spins. No matter how amazing the rapping is, it’s ruined by such generic and, ultimately, boring production. And the sting is made worse by the fact that there’s so much good production out there. Like, a lot.
One need only look as far as Kanye West to see how production is done right. Sure, he was a producer before he was known as a rapper, but that’s besides the point. Production is one of the most important aspects of hip-hop, and Kanye, among many others, gets it so right. Every one of his albums has had its own distinctive style, with the production lending a sense of cohesion to the album as a whole. Yeezus was so well produced that many people consider the rapping secondary to the beats (but we’ll save that debate for another day). It was harsh, daring and above all, exciting. It’s this quality that Travis Scott lacks on this album. Cut and paste beats aren’t good enough to support his rapping. Good production is what elevates a great rapper to legendary status. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may have been one of Kanye’s more “traditional” rap albums; it’s the production that’s contributed so heavily to its place among the greatest hip-hop records of all time. His use of auto-tune was smart, with Runaway using it more as a vocoder than a vocal enhancement or a veil. The beats were layered and complex, often utilising creative samples and new sounds, rather than wheeling out the same, vapid trends that we’ve all heard before.
Other great examples include both Run The Jewels albums (El-P is without doubt one of hip-hop’s greatest producers), and Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly. Not only a stunning hip-hop album thematically and lyrically, but the musical backing, as unorthodox as it is, similarly contributed to it immediately becoming a timeless masterpiece. It’s the experimentation with new sounds, cross-genre blends and unusual, challenging rhythms that make these records sound so good. El-P toys with heavy, almost industrial beats and post-apocalyptic instrumental layers which add feverish power to he and Killer Mike’s already dextrous verses. K.dot’s ability to conceptualise an album so dense, over beats which blend jazz, soul, electronic (not just any electronic either, but Flying Lotus, who originally gave those beats to Kendrick) and so much more, is quite simply astounding. The jazz-inspired musical style was revolutionary in the world of mainstream hip-hop, and propelled Lamar from a place of quiet success to one of the biggest names in the industry. Even Action Bronson continues to collaborate with the likes of Mark Ronson to produce some of the smoothest beats this side of Queens, and ScHoolboy Q can deliver an extremely heavy gangsta rap album with soul, melodies, and dynamic hooks. In a world where Vince Staples can release an album bookended by James Blake productions, and where De La Soul can release something so surprisingly funky as And The Anonymous Nobody so late into their career, how can we justify the hype surrounding hip-hop where the beats fail to match the lyrics?