As counter-cultural and independent as rap claims to be, it is still a hierarchical institution. One-hit wonders hope to land a salaried position in the form of a record deal, VPs try to ambush their competition for promotion and at the top of Mount Olympus sits the pantheonic council, led and domineered by Zeus. The office of Zeus, elected by rap’s free market, is of paramount importance to the shape and sound of rap.
Each Zeus has revolutionized the genre in a profound way. Lil Wayne reshaped the constructs of flow and delivery. Kanye West, doing his best Grover Cleveland impression, held the title non-consecutively as Wayne took it from him in 2006–2008, initially moving a rigidly masculine genre toward more universal themes, changing what an accredited rapper could look like and what background they needed to have. He then legitimized heartache and self-evaluation, all the while continuously revolutionizing production. Kendrick Lamar forced the entire world to take the genre seriously. Future did whatever Future did, and Drake finalized rap’s conversion into pop.
Now that Drake is aged past teenage relatability and flaunts wealth like an Orwellian capitalist, a new frontman must be named. Traditionally, when artists ascend to this role, they are in their late 20s, young enough to connect to kids while old enough to be respected by their predecessors and the rap world at large. They must have something to bolster their image, whether that be celebrity status, intoxicating swagger or irrefutable brilliance. Most importantly, they have to sell an enormous number of records.
Travis Scott has been preparing for this role his entire life. He grew up close enough to the streets to appease Golden Age supremacists but was removed enough to create mainstream appeal. He has universal respect, garnered by his determination, hustle, talent in production and close personal relationship with Kanye. Finally, by masterfully carrying out a highly publicized relationship with Kylie Jenner, his celebrity status already rivals any rapper in history. Because of all these factors, Scott is currently the fifth highest-paid rapper, backed by enormous streaming numbers on each of his projects. He is the obvious front runner for Zeus.
However, his reign is by no means inevitable. It can be persuasively argued that Scott artistically peaked with his 2015 album Rodeo, which many regard as the greatest trap album of all time. Since then, he has put considerably less effort into musical innovation, getting bogged down in one sound and throwing in just enough off-kilter beat switches and sonic oddities to keep the songs breathing. His fire may well have dwindled.
His next album will be the deciding factor. If he enters the new decade showing a commitment to honesty and respect for rap, he will take his place atop Olympus. If he does not, and his album is any less than classic, a growing number of artists could poach that spot (I would bet Tyler, the Creator). However, if he succeeds, and the Scorpion has no “More Life,” rap will see momentous changes.
Scott is the creative love child of Sean “Puffy” Combs and Kanye West. He is able to chop samples and create beats from scratch like West, but for the most part, like Combs, he produces by proxy, instructing specialists and sound engineers to create the music he hears in his head, not necessarily the music he has the technical skill to make. But unlike Combs, his music is not all business. Scott’s ambitions extend beyond a single bottom line, and he did not inherit Kanye’s egomaniacal need to push the boundaries regardless of potential market impact.
Lyrically, Scott is like a high jumper who sets his own bar extremely low and still occasionally walks over and kicks it just because. It is slightly demoralizing. But what he lacks in depth he usually makes up for in bounce and that indescribable quality that elevates a song from mere banger to bop.
Perhaps he does not have the sharpest pen, or the most ingenious beats. That does not matter. His approach is more directorial. He has a knack for bringing out the best in his artists, coaxing landmark performances out of Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Quavo (so many times), Gunna, Future and so many more. This managerial creativity is a completely unique set of skills that could transform rap in the early 2020s.
A feature on future Scott albums could be the qualification for stardom. He may transition his projects into time capsules for different eras, inviting artists to attach their talents to the immortal canon of Travis Scott. They would be collaborative nearly to a fault and should only be revered if Scott’s management is nothing short of masterful.
However, not only does Travis put this shit together, he is also the glue. In his best and most popular music, Scott himself is the centerpiece (though hardly ever alone). He knows that without a strong primary presence, his music would be scattered and all the credit would be given to the featured artists. He is the ringleader, masterfully navigating the mania and giving his associates the stage to display their talents.
Rap certainly is a circus at this point; iconoclasts, classicists and new age fanatics are all clamoring for attention in this fatally confusing era. There is expansive overhead and inefficiencies on every floor. What we need from a front man now is the ability to slash budget, re-appropriate those funds, lay out a plan for the future and coerce other massive performers to abide by his rules. We need structure; we need management; we need the glue.
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