Travi$ Scott is unusual. Take his music video for “Don’t Play,” a single off his mixtape Days Before Rodeo.
Horseback riding. Mechanical bulls. Strippers. (Did I mention he’s riding a horse?)
The song, which features Big Sean and The 1975, has a frantic beat, and is part of a sound that is becoming distinctly him. Scott has already made a name for himself on the production end of things, working on major projects including Yeezus. But fire up the video for “Don’t Play” and something much more dynamic happens. Scott is a gifted visual creator, and his videos for “Don’t Play” and “Upper Echelon” have transformed him into the must-watch young artist in hip-hop.
A bizarre cinematic production, “Upper Echelon” amounts to something incredibly mysterious. It is Beasts of the Southern Wild _meets _Yeezus. Scott enters something like the Forbidden Forest with the sounds of growling animals and ominous underscoring all around him. 2 Chainz is down there (playing himself?) and so is T.I., who is Scott’s antagonist in the video.
If you need plot, the music video can be interpreted as a battle between T.I.’s gang and Scott’s. But that doesn’t do it justice. The atmosphere of the music video overwhelms any semblance of narrative. The camera follows a paranoid young man convulsing as he struggles to find a signal for his a walkie-talkie, overweight strippers dancing in a kiddy pool and an old white guy in a suit-and-tie yapping on a cell phone. Plot does not seem to be a tremendous focus for the music video.
The final stanza of the film is Scott’s band of misfits against T.I.’s. What they are fighting over — money? territory? the right to exist? — is terribly unclear. And it’s wonderful. The conflict of the video is animalistic, something like the battle between tribes of early hominids in 2001: A Space __Odyssey. And by the video’s end, Scott’s character fleas the forest, which his gang has set ablaze, on a row boat as a crooning, robotic voice plays him off.
Who else is making this stuff?
During an interview with Peter Rosenberg this summer, Scott said his story is simple. “I just grew up in Houston, Texas, like, my whole life.. and then I left to do this rapper shit.”
Leaving Houston for Scott meant spiriting away to New York, all the while convincing his mom that he was still attending university in Texas. At that point, Scott released the video that instantly propelled him to notoriety in the inner circles of influential rap, “Love Sick.”
Watch that video. Do it again. It’s not just a mind-blasting combination of 808s & Heartbreak and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Watch the music video for “Love Sick” and you realize the genius is in its bravery. Nobody is making videos like that, let alone an artistwho couldn’t legally purchase beer in the United States at the time. (Oh yeah, and Scott was stranded in Los Angeles when he made that video, living out of his car for days at a time.)
The past three years for Scott has been a whirlwind. He signed to Grand Hustle in early 2013, and Epic Records after that, while keeping an excellent report with Mr. West. After his work on Cruel Summer _and _Yeezus, Scott is being hailed as something like Kanye West’s new protégé, a title Scott is not running away from.
There doesn’t seem to be anything forced about Scott. He is very much open about his roots, coming from a middle-class home in Texas (that explains his horseback riding in “Don’t Play”). He didn’t live in the hood, and in interviews like the one he did with Grantland’s Amos Barshad, Scott articulates his stance on what it means to be a modern hip-hop artist.
“__My grandma, she stay in the hood. I got family that live in the hood. That ain’t tight. That ain’t no type of place to claim, or wanna be from. You know what I’m saying? You put on for your hood, in the right way. There’s mad kids like me. Creative. It’s not about your location, it’s your mind.”
Scott represents a new kind of rapper in America, with peers like Kid Cudi, Childish Cambino and Tyler, The Creator coming to mind, as an artist that is concerned first and foremost with creation, and one that is not concerned with keeping up a worn out rapper persona.
For Scott, this is uniquely voiced during his interview with Rosenberg when talking about mixtapes. Scott, who at times throughout the interview seemed nervous and mumbly, transforms into an improv comedian when Rosenberg asks him to expand his thoughts on why he disapproves of the modern mixtape. Scott has no issue with providing free music to his fans — Days Before Rodeo was free and is considered a mixtape — but Scott shakes his head at rappers who throw every piece of the puzzle on Twitter and call the scrapheap of material a mixtape.
That’s not Scott saying he’s better than the whole thing; that’s Scott wanting to make the whole thing — hip-hop — better.
On a brief aside, that’s where he and Tyler, The Creator have diverged this summer. The Odd Future star, who is only 23, famously said to Larry King this summer that he hates rapping. In context, Tyler is saying that he hates being treated as “just a rapper” when he can do so much more artistically — and specifically in film. Tyler told King that he wants his name to go down in history next to Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, and not the giants of rap.
The interview felt like a much (much, much, much) more concise version of what Kanye West has been saying for the past year, that hip-hop artists are put in a box and blocked out of other artistic endeavors and capitalist projects. It’s a well-made point, and one that does not start-and-begin with rappers, but affects all artists. At what point can any creative person lose the freedom to try something new after reaching so much success in a particular area?
What does that have to do with Scott? It seems like Scott is choosing to fuse his passions for music and film from the get-go. That might make it easier, in the long run, for him to avoid being boxed in as just one thing. While his comments about preferring the process of the studio album appear, at first, just to be a bias, he is speaking to a larger point which is that many rappers could make higher quality projects if they spent more time working on them. The archetypal underground rapper character he debuted with Rosenberg is real, and rap would be better off if more recording artists cared about the production end as much as Scott.
As for Tyler, The Creator potentially leaving hip-hop, it probably is the right move for him. In fact, it’s not all that fantastic to believe someday West will make the full-time switch to fashion and bigger business. And Scott, who is only 22, could do a million things over the duration of what seems to be a very promising career. There’s no way to know what the future holds for these artists, but with someone like Scott, the only thing to do is keep watching.
Joe Mags (@thatjoemags) is the Editor-in-chief of The High Screen. He is also a staff writer for pickinsplinters.com, a contributor to USA Today Sports and a staff writer for the Watertown Daily Times.