Only Travis Scott could have made UTOPIA. At the same time, UTOPIA doesn’t always sound like Travis Scott, or even like it’s making the effort. After his reputation was tarnished by the deaths at last year’s Astroworld Festival, the rapper could have made a raw, low-stakes album that took him back to his roots in an attempt to reframe his wildman persona. The follow-up to 2018’s Astroworld really only addresses the tragedy once: “If they just knew what Scotty would do to jump off the stage and save him a child.” Not only is the rest of the album mostly just coasting on vibes, it also feels remarkably out of time and almost insular, like the whole spectacle is taking place entirely inside his mind while serving to bury it deeper. UTOPIA is not a raw, reflective album in the vein of 808s and Heartbreak. It’s polished, vague, and big enough for Scott to hide under his own shadow – or, more accurately, that of his very wide net of influences and collaborators. Unsurprisingly, it often works to his benefit.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know which other Kanye album UTOPIA is said to most immediately be channeling. But even if it sounded nothing like Yeezus, a record Scott had a hand in producing, it would still feel like a good point of comparison because Scott is so obviously aiming for the same kind of boundary-shaking event album. (West contributed production to a couple of tracks on UTOPIA, which are rumoured to have originated as DONDA demos. I guess we’re lucky it’s not that big of a mess.) But even on his most sonically expansive and innovative records, Kanye was an inescapable presence, whereas Scott is the one you have to kind of pass through to get to any of the good parts of UTOPIA. Though he does bring a refreshing amount of energy early on with the opening track, ‘HYAENA’, his flows are mostly serviceable and generic, filling the empty space before we get to the next attention-grabbing feature or jarring transition. And then there are all the lyrics you have to filter out but which unfortunately remain quotable, like: “I like a bi girl on a bicycle/ Then I bought a car, now she feel entitled/ My dick so hard, pokin’ like the Eiffеl.” Or: “I’m loyal, bitch/ I got Ye over Biden.”
You have to give Scott credit for orchestrating it all, though it feels more like an extraordinary feat of curation. As the lead single, ‘K-POP’ was a worrying sign – a collab with the Weeknd and Bad Bunny so underwhelming and forgettable its popularity seemed wholly contingent on SEO optimization. Flatly blending elements of Afrobeat and baile funk, the track both feels out of place and weirdly representative of the album’s marketable approach. The good news is that UTOPIA does, for the most part, manage to conjure the thrill of listening to all these artists and sounds come together in ways that only a blockbuster album would allow – and there aren’t too many of them these days. Beyoncé and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, on a track that stands out simply by virtue of emulating Renaissance? Vernon and Sampha, on a track with production from Frank Ocean collaborators Buddy Ross and Vegyn? What kind of fan would say no to that?
These two songs – ‘DELRESTO (ECHOES)’ and ‘MY EYES’ – are ones I enjoy, but they also give me a dystopian glimpse into a future where all of this could be achieved without a global superstar pulling the strings, just by typing commands into a text box. What if you got Drake to diss Pharrell on a song that sounds like ‘Sicko Mode’, then had Pharrell co-produce a Kanye-inspired track with a Kid Cudi feature to top it all off? What if the Weeknd was on ‘Black Skinhead’? These moments are so obvious and derivative I don’t even have to specify when they happen, which also doesn’t mean the average listener won’t go out looking for them. But even if they make a significant impact on first listen, you get the sense there’s not a lot of replay value. Once the itch has been scratched, you just keep asking what’s next, until there’s nothing. “Tensions is definitely rising,” Scott proclaims on ‘MELTDOWN’, and as maximalist as it remains for the majority of its 73-minute runtime, it never really explodes into anything truly spectacular. Why would you want to invest in the same wild, expensive ride twice if you know the payoff will be comparatively minimal?
It goes without saying that the guest stars and producers are mostly the ones carrying the momentum. The paradox is that even though most of them deliver, they still feel underutilized. Just like Sampha on ‘MY EYES’, SZA’s appearance on ‘TELEKINESIS’ gorgeously elevates the track but feels way too brief, adding more texture than dynamics. Playboi Carti’s bonkers flow on ‘FE!N’ has me intrigued about his next project more than it excites me about the track itself. It’s hard to argue UTOPIA is a mediocre album, but when you start to realize the wasted potential – collaboratively, musically, thematically – even its most invigorating moments start to feel hollow and depressing, just like the concept of UTOPIA itself. The album is dependent on and successful at keeping your attention, but tune out for a second and the lack of substance becomes impossible to ignore. Even James Blake’s soulful voice, which is lovely to hear on ‘TIL FURTHER NOTICE’, just underlines how soulless, messy, and unoriginal the ideas behind it are. “People need to see that utopia is real,” Scott has said. This one does the job better than any recent blockbuster album has even attempted, but at the end of the day, it feels as fake as it is impressive.