Travis Scott is one of the great showmen of our time, dedicated to stagecraft and extravagance unrivaled in hip-hop. Even before he was selling out arenas, he would still do things like perform in a tree and ride around on a massive animatronic eagle while opening for Kendrick Lamar. Scott's Astroworld – Wish You Were Here Tour in 2018-19 took things to another level, with a stage incorporating a roller coaster and carnival games in front of venues, along with pyrotechnics, massive video boards, and other hallmarks of modern concert design.
Lately, however, Scott has hit some stumbles.
In pursuit of Wagner-esque live entertainment glory during the rollout of his Astroworld follow-up, Utopia, he attempted to organize an album release concert at the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. The show never happened. Scott had his performance license canceled by the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate. A follow-up show at the Circus Maximus in Rome resulted in reports of dozens of injuries and concerns over damage to cultural properties, with some even saying the 60,000-plus crowd made the ground shake as if it were an earthquake.
Sixty thousand people for one show is significant, and Utopia was a commercial hit, debuting at the top of the Billboard 200. But there are indications that Scott's appeal and ability to cultivate spectacle are diminishing. Ticket resellers have reported "low demand" for his Utopia Tour, which stops at Kasaya Center in downtown Miami on Monday, November 27. (The second date scheduled for Wednesday, November 29, has been moved to January 28, 2024.)
Scott has also courted controversy for his support of Kanye West (lately calling himself Ye mononymously), disgraced after his embrace of Trump-era conservative politics and a litany of anti-Semitic statements. West worked extensively on Utopia, which rap music site No Bells speculated is culled heavily from his own old, repurposed production demos, and Scott has gone as far as declaring, "There is no Utopia without Kanye West. There is no Travis Scott without Kanye West."
There is also, of course, the specter of the Astroworld Festival disaster. Ten people died and more than 300 were injured as a result of a crowd crush during Scott's performance at the festival in Houston in 2021. Although Scott and the other organizers, including concert promoter Live Nation, avoided criminal charges over the incident, more than 500 lawsuits have been filed since the event, some of which have been settled.
video apology, widely seen as insufficient and disingenuous, sparked further backlash and generated reactive internet memes. There was even a brief Satanic panic over the crush, with TikTok users generating conspiracy theories stating the show was part of a demonic ritual sacrifice. (It wasn't, obviously, but that didn't stop Egyptian officials from citing "peculiar rituals" in their license denial.)
Still, such a hysterical reaction tells us something about who Scott is and why he's suddenly struggling to rebound from the tragedy. In many ways, Scott represents the triumph of pop, consumerism, and the commercial music industry over the historically radical elements of American music.
When Scott, born Jacques Webster II, rose to fame in the early 2010s, it was thanks to a novel synthesis of hip-hop and trap with elements of punk and psychedelic rock, all genres born in moments where political strife and music intertwined. His major innovation — or degradation — was stripping these movements of politics and emphasizing the aesthetics. Throughout his discography, Scott has distanced himself from expressing actual thoughts or telling stories about his life. He's instead relied on cliché and spectacle in lieu of craftsmanship in his writing, building songs that function as hazy, frictionless realms of drugs and sex that read as psychedelic and transgressive, but only on the surface.
On the opening track of Utopia, "Hyaena," he shoehorns a sample of the famously caustic poem that opens Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" ("Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time/For y'all have knocked her up") into a song namechecking celebrities and the Met Gala. Even when he does attempt to mythologize himself, as on 2015's Rodeo opener "Pornography," he farms it out to T.I., who introduces him as "a young rebel against the system/Refusing to conform or comply to the ways of authority/He chose the mood of 'Fuck this shit'/At that moment, the one known as Jacques turned to Scott."
"Fuck this shit" isn't a political slogan. It doesn't have a target or express any action other than a general, nihilistic dissatisfaction with everything. But Scott's music is still political in its negation of what hip-hop has represented for most of its history, the creative expression of a politically disenfranchised Black America. The genre's greatest moments, from Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" to modern records like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, have always been mindful of the legacy of racism that continues to infect the United States, blending the personal and political to extraordinary effect. At the height of his creative power and influence, even West was decrying the embrace of luxury consumerism by hip-hop on "New Slaves" and analyzing his fatigue and discomfort with celebrity on "No More Parties in L.A."
None of that is remotely present in Scott's work. Out of all the prominent rappers of the 21st Century, he's the one whose actual personality, not his artistic persona, is hardest to trace, and that's what makes him enticing commercially. He's a perfect cipher for the music industry to completely penetrate and defang hip-hop, a genre once rife with radicalism and politics. He has all the aesthetic signifiers of rap and rock but none of the ideological underpinnings, and he is totally comfortable, enthusiastic even, with collaborating with major corporations. He's the guy who started the celebrity McDonald's meals, after all.
Yet, after Astroworld, that fundamental emptiness has become a burden. Fans have begun to realize that Scott's concern for them begins and ends at the edge of the stage. Ultimately, one figure cannot substitute an entire culture or community, and this is why, for a genre like hip-hop, Scott's success and the reliance on figures like him for relevance represent an end state and an augur of doom. The rough edges have been washed away, resulting in a floating world of commodity fetishism — the all-consuming spectacle, as defined by French theorist Guy Debord. As Jason England wrote earlier this year in Defector, the celebrations of the genre's 50th anniversary and the intense press coverage surrounding it symbolize the absorption of a once countercultural form of folk art into mainstream (read: white) American culture: "At best, it was absorbed into the world — and here the 'world' means mainstream America. Hip-hop assimilated. And that always comes at a cost."
That cost seems to be a rapid loss of relevance and creative energy. No rap releases were nominated for any of the Big Three categories at the 2024 Grammys, and until Doja Cat's "Paint the Town Red" peaked on September 23, no rap releases hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 this year. The longest-running, number-one song of 2023 was Morgan Wallen's "Last Night," a country song. If Scott represents what hip-hop has become, then it seems as if people are beginning to leave it behind. Travis Scott may be a great showman, but every show has to end sometime.
Travis Scott. With Teezo Touchdown. 8 p.m. Monday, November 27, at Kaseya Center, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-777-1000; kaseyacenter.com. Tickets start at $56.75 to $246.75 via ticketmaster.com.