Jesus Christ, the music industry won't stop trying to make this dude happen. Not only do they let him leech off actually successful and talented acts, they even deny the obvious order of things (Young Thug >>>>>>> Travis Scott, under any criteria imaginable) in promoting a new co-headlining tour as "Travis Scott and Young Thug: The Rodeo Tour." Uh, excuse me if this is stating the obvious, but doesn't everyone know that he's a shameless biter?
It's depressing that there aren't that many germane results when you Google "Travis Scott biter." The first result, thankfully, is critic Andrew Nosnitsky's straightforward tweet: "travis scott is a biter." Then come a handful of message-board arguments about his two full-length projects, 2013's Owl Pharaoh and last year's Days Before Rodeo, where his detractors level the charge at him and his fans shout them down. Yet there isn't anything definitive on the subject of Scott's blatant, unrepentant biting from any publication or website of note. So let's try to fix that, shall we?
Despite the push among music-biz trendsetters, Scott still flies under most fans' radars, so some background information is appropriate. He's a 22-year-old rapper/producer from Missouri City, Texas, a suburb of Houston. As he lays out in this interview, his family is very well-educated. But while he says he graduated high school early at 17, he went on to surreptitiously drop out of the University of Texas sophomore year to pursue his rap dreams. Instead of leveling with his parents, he asked them for money to buy books and other supplies, and used the money to buy a ticket to New York City, where he planned to grind his way to the top, armed with only with his ideas and some couches to surf and cars to sleep in.
Now, the story of how he hit it big from there is purposely vague; it requires a little projection to make sense of. According to that same interview, one of Scott's couch-having friends was Mike Waxx, a Connecticut-born, Brooklyn-dwelling fellow dropout who founded Illroots, a rap blog that followed the mid-to-late-'00s ethos of loose track aggregation.
This is Scott's first mention on Illroots, a January 2012 post about his song/video "Lights (Love Sick)"; the next comes two months later in March, posting "16 Chapels." That one mentions that Scott had migrated out to L.A. to work on his Owl Pharaoh EP; a month later, Illroots again catches up with Scott, this time putting up "Animal," which features a guest verse from none other than T.I. It goes on to mention that Scott was now "down in Atlanta making major moves," even recording a song with Future.
Now, how, in the span of mere months, does an otherwise anonymous kid from Missouri City head up to NYC to make it big, wind up basically homeless, and then all of a sudden get flown all over the country to record with some of the biggest mainstream rappers around? For further insight into Scott's curiously charmed life, we have this interview with Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg, wherein the rapper got pretty detailed about his come-up:
For as many answers Scott gives about his meteoric rise, there are still so many questions. He mentions that while in NYC, he often recorded music at Stadiumred, one of the biggest studios in the city, famously the stomping grounds of one Just Blaze. How did some no-name kid finagle his way in there? And the fortuitous industry connections didn't stop there. After his short stay in New York, Travis talks about how he decided to go stay with a friend out in L.A.; as soon as his plane lands, his phone blows up with texts from T.I., and in no time at all they're on a track together.
Another helpful acquaintance: Anthony Kilhoffe, a producer/engineer with decades of experience and a direct line to Kanye West, who in short order invites Scott to contribute to what turns out to be G.O.O.D. Music's 2012 Cruel Summer album. From there, he gets face time with label boss L.A. Reid, heads out to Hawaii to work with Kanye again on Yeezus ... even the look on Rosenberg's face as this tale unfolds tells you how unbelievable all this good luck is.
Are we seriously to believe that Scott went from zero industry connections to meeting virtually every rap bigwig in a matter of months, all on the strength of a couple songs that otherwise no one knew about? How many artists are introduced to listeners through high-profile collaborations with A-Listers without building any kind of local audience to speak of? Did anyone like Scott before the industry told us to?
At times during their talk, Rosenberg makes a couple weak gestures at pressing Scott on his serendipity—again, you can tell he doesn't really buy the official story—but he just as quickly backs off and accepts Scott's vague answers:
PR: Here's what I don't understand. No matter how you cut it—and I'm not taking away from the fact that it was scary, like, when you were out there on your own—but you had a very quick ascent. Like, there are people who grind for years and years and years. Like, how did you get—like what hap—like, you really did seem to catch some breaks, right? I guess that video really resonated with people.
TS: I've been really trying to put people onto, like, my sound since I was like 17, 16. So it was like, I graduated when I was like 18 or 17 and a half, and I was just out there immediately. But you know, it was kind of like a good [unintelligible] man. You know, God willing, man. I thank God about that every day, you know. But, I mean, I don't know, man—I guess it's like, talent."
Riiight. Talent. (My theory: Houston veteran Mike Dean, who Scott mentions working with when he was in school and has been something of a right-hand man to Kanye from Late Registration on, is Scott's mysterious benefactor.) The fact that the industry—so desperate to unearth the Hot New Thing yet simultaneously so clueless as to how to develop hot new talent, and thus almost totally reliant on the ephemeral, illusory internet hype cycle—decided to cling to and thrust up, Simba-style, some kid with good connections itself isn't necessarily the worst thing. This has long been a reality in the blog-dominant rap world, where savvy labels and managers cynically do their best to play that hype cycle against itself. Through ad-buying or outright bribery, get your artist in good with one blog, which leads to another blog thinking that artist is important and scrambling to keep up, and on and on until the echo chamber has turned a faint PR-driven hum into a full-on, quasi-organic buzz. No matter that none of it was built on any genuine fan interest; all that matters is that the right people say this artists matters, and voila, it becomes so.
The bigger problem here, unfortunately, is that Travis Scott has stolen whole cloth basically every idea he's ever expressed on a record. Mostly, he's stolen these ideas from two people: Kanye and Kid Cudi. (The latter is Scott's favorite artist of all time, and an acknowledged influence, at least.) It's shocking how anyone in his targeted demographic—ranging from late high schoolers to early post-collegiate types, kids who've grown up on Kanye and followed his lead (to varying degrees) down the rabbit hole of alternative, underground rap—can hear a single Scott song and not crash their cars in shock. His enunciation is pure Kanye; his flows are almost always jacked from 'Ye or Cudi. For instance, everything about Scott's "Mamacita" ...
... from the sound to the vocal effects to the cadence to even the topic of the song ... it can all be found in Kanye's "Drunk and Hot Girls":
Another example is Scott's "Zombies" ...
... which sounds like a song left on the cutting-room floor during one of Cudi's Man on the Moon sessions. Everything about it, from the beat to the verses, screams Kid Cudi. The sing-songy flow ... the dark, synthy beat ... the chanting hook ... it's all Cudi. Oh, plus the "Kids sing!" part, which is straight from College Dropout's "We Don't Care."
Nor does Scott stop with those two. Take "Basement Freestyle," where he follows up a Kanye/Cudi-biting opening salvo with a second verse that openly apes Big Sean. (That "Later on got a ring, ring, ring ring" part is exactly how Sean would say that line). Or, take "Backyard," another swagger-jack gumbo. The first verse's flow is straight out of Drake's Take Care era (think "Look What You've Done"), the first part of the hook sounds just like the Weeknd, and the second part of the chorus—the "Backyard we chillin' / Backyard we drinkin' smokin' / Homie brought out the liquor" part—is in that textbook Kendrick Lamar patter. Go back to the second half of the second verse of "Zombies," and he shifts from imitating Kanye to imitating Chief Keef, at one point mimicking Keef's own voice; Scott's two biggest songs, "Upper Echelon" and "Quintana," likewise pay a suspicious amount of homage to Keef, Future, or both at once.
Then comes the matter of Scott's two most (in)famous ad-libs: "Straight up!" and "La Flame," both of which you'll find in "Upper Echelon." Future has used "Straight up!" as an ad-lib that exact same way for years! He even put a song with that title on his first album! And "La Flame"—a nickname of sorts Scott has given himself—sounds suspiciously close to "La Flare," as in Gucci Mane La Flare, one of that fellow Atlanta rapper's longtime nicknames. (Gucci has both an old album and an old label called La Flare.)
Production-wise, too, Scott's music sticks to the basics, from Lex Luger/Young Chop clones to the darker atmospherics of Kanye and Cudi. And while Scott gets most of his props based on his production, in the liner notes he's usually listed only as a contributing hand alongside more established beat-makers. It's unclear whether Scott himself even has much to do with the sound his fans credit him with creating in the first place. Everything he's allegedly good at has either already been done (and done better) by much more talented artists or isn't even being done by Scott at all. The result is what you'd get if a Drake Pandora station achieved sentience.
By now, some Travis apologists among you may be thinking, Whatever, man, he's just influenced by the music around him—and if it sounds good, who cares if he's biting? First of all, there is a clear distinction between stealing from someone and being influenced by them. Influence—even heavy influence—takes a sound or a style and twists it, contorts it, adds new dimensions so that the original remains recognizable but distinct. Tyler, the Creator is a good example of this: You can smell the Neptunes influence on his beats a mile away, but none of them sound exactly like something the Neptunes would make—only something that someone who listened to a lot Neptunes beats would make. Or take Scott's new tourmate, Young Thug: you can't listen to a Thugger song without conjuring the image of Lil Wayne, but instead of a clone, he sounds like the freakish offspring of the original Martian and the local Southern styles that bubbled up in Wayne's wake.
Whereas outright biting has always been a grave offense in any form of expression, this is particularly true in rap, where stealing another person's style is akin to stealing their very essence. Especially from within the traditionally poor, urban environments that birthed the genre, the one thing a rapper could claim to truly own is his or her style: It's the outlet through which you express yourself to the outside world. All of these detested, feared, ignored people channeling that negativity and pain into creativity; that distinctive rap voices continue to emerge from areas like New Orleans's Third Ward or Chicago's South Side is a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. That there's money to be made in stealing this creative expression, smoothing it out just enough to erase any cultural specificity, and rendering it more easily digestible to outsiders is a terrible message to send to rap listeners, and an even worse one for the people who come from those impoverished areas.
That's what's so messed up about Scott's ascension. The hip-hop media was quick to call out what many considered the cultural appropriation of Iggy Azalea, yet Scott's biting goes largely ignored. But really, Azalea taking urban rap music and recontextualizing it for teenaged suburban white kids is less disconcerting than what Scott does, and who he does it for. Most of his listeners consider themselves committed fans of hip-hop; they're the very people who should know the tenets of hip hop and enforce them. Instead, they're lured in by Scott's ability to take the music they grew up on (like Kanye and Cudi), mix in newer artists they already like (Drake and Kendrick), and breathe an all new vitality to it by adding the energy of the underground Southern rap many of them were ideologically opposed to back during the Great Backpacker Wars of the early 'aughts. These are the same type of people who would decry the violence of Chief Keef, ridicule Young Thug's "nonsensical" verses, and laugh at anyone who considered Gucci Mane lyrical ... yet they turn around and bump Days Before Rodeo without a second thought.
Travis plays into this contradiction himself. Talking with Rosenberg, he repeatedly touts how "artistic" he is, as if differentiating his music from the music his music sounds exactly like. In another interview with Hot 97, which you'll find immediately above, he talks about being influenced by the Southern rap he grew up around, but only in terms of sound, not content. The mindless thugging, the gang-banging, the false bravado ... this, he seems to say, is not what Travis Scott is about. He aspires to the honesty and vulnerability and middle-class-at-worst woes of Kid Cudi and Drake. Rather than parse Young Thug's lyrics about killing Crips for the universal expression of loyalty to his community—or acknowledge that Chief Keef's quick-tempered, murderous aggression is a reaction to his hopeless environment—many rap fans would prefer someone else came around to copy the sonic quality and the energy of that music, gussy it up with more bourgeois concerns, and sell it back to them in a language that's easier to relate to.
This is what makes Scott's biting so successful, and so pernicious. And maybe the worst part of all of this is that his music doesn't even address any real emotions. While he talks a big game about artistry and honesty, almost all of his songs are basic party anthems; he big-ups Drake's honesty but gets on a track with him ("Company"), waits while Drake drops a verse with concrete images demonstrating his selfish approach to relationships, then kicks a bland verse about doing drugs and hooking up with a completely amorphous girl. The true pathos of the guys he's stolen from, even if it's harder to stomach for some, is completely absent here. The only thing he's capable of moving is a few albums, maybe.
None of this is Scott's fault, per se. He comes off like a smart, probably talented kid struggling to make music that's unmistakably his own. And everyone copies to some degree when starting out. In saner times, he would've brought those Owl Pharoah tracks to his uncle or someone similar, who would've laughed and replied, "Youngblood, I've heard all this before; come back when you're making Travis Scott songs."
The fact that Scott never got past that first young-artist imitation step but keeps moving down the industry assembly line anyway is much more the music industry's failure than it is his. The industry is so concerned with trend-hopping that it can't understand how Young Thug—who, despite seeming like he came out of nowhere, has actually been on the mixtape grind for years—and his singular, unmistakably hood vision can translate to a wider audience, while a perfectly crafted but soulless retread like Scott can fall short. Also bearing blame is the influential sect of hip-hop culture, where people in the blogosphere and even guys like Rosenberg—who fancies himself the Last True Hip Hopper On The Radio while maintaining a very narrow scope of what he considers the True Hip Hop worthy of protection—are content to ride the buzz wave rather than inspect its origins.
Luckily, things tend to turn out the way they should. Only one rapper on the Thug/Scott package tour is truly on the ascent: the one with his own identity.