Travis Scott is the future. Ask Lil Wayne, who gushed about the 26-year-old artist from the stage during his sub-headlining set at Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston on November 17. Ask Houston rap legend Bun B, who likes to talk about how “there’s something special” about Scott. You could even ask Mayor Sylvester Turner, who declared November 18, the day after the festival, “Astroworld Day” in Houston.
Scott is as relevant and important an artist as there is in pop music right now. Astroworld, his third album, was a coming-out party placing Scott on the biggest of stages and priming him for the recognition of music awards. It was also the payoff to his work early in his career. In 2012, when he was just twenty years old, Scott was making beats for Kanye West, and he quickly rose from local Houston producer to promising rapper to sought-after guest artist and producer, working on tracks for megastars like Drake, Madonna, and Rihanna, to bonafide star in his own right with Rodeo in 2015. The following year brought his first #1 album as a solo artist, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, and he spent 2017 following the checklist for rising artists preparing to emerge as major festival headliners: collaborating with similarly rising young acts (on last winter’s Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho with Atlanta rapper Quavo), dating celebrities (he and Kylie Jenner had a baby in February), and building anticipation for what comes next.
What came next was Astroworld, which established that in 2018, Scott can seemingly do anything. The album, which featured cover art of carnival-goers posing before a gold mock-up of Scott’s head, quickly ascended to the top of the Billboard album chart and helped define a cult of personality around Scott. He released a merchandise collection, which immediately sold out, quickly finding a robust resale market on sites like eBay. He landed collaborations with artists from Stevie Wonder to Tame Impala. Along the way, he’s redefining what it means to be an artist from Houston for the first time in decades. And his fans are there for it: 35,000 people bought tickets for the Astroworld Festival before he announced a single artist on the bill besides himself.
Astroworld is an album from a Houston rapper, but it doesn’t follow in the tradition of Houston rap in the tradition defined by DJ Screw and UGK and mythologized by everyone from Drake to Post Malone. Scott has a different sound, which has led to criticism of how he claims Houston as his city. Even Bun B, a supporter of Scott, expressed his surprise at Astroworld’s sound, telling Complex that he wanted the album about “to be something that was a little bit more reflective of Houston than maybe some of [Scott’s] previous music” before praising the subtle ways Scott incorporated the city’s culture into his sound.
If there’s disappointment on the ground that Scott isn’t worshipping at the sonic alter of UGK and DJ Screw, though, it wasn’t present at the Astroworld Festival. There were nods to that era of Houston music: a kiosk at the festival, made to look like a storefront, sold Screwed Up Records & Tapes; the Houston All-Stars—featuring Bun B, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Z-Ro, Lil Keke, Trae the Truth, and more—held down a prominent late afternoon set. But Astroworld was about Scott’s own vision of Houston music, one that acknowledges what came before without being bound by it.
The festival grounds were a tribute to the original Astroworld, a theme park demolished in 2006. “That’s what it’s going to sound like,” Scott said to GQ Style in August. “Like taking an amusement park away from kids. And we want it back.” The festival had an amusement park theme filtered through Scott’s own specific aesthetic, a combination of Marilyn Manson and Willy Wonka, a carousel and swings alongside jugglers and dancers in full mirror suits. There was a deliberate creepiness to it, a dark twist that made otherwise childish rides appropriate for Scott’s audience of predominantly young adults. As with his relationship with Houston music, for Scott, honoring his beloved amusement park means doing things his own way.
After walking through the same giant inflatable mock-up of Scott’s head that appears on the cover of Astroworld, festival attendees walked into an absurdist vision. There were rides and carnival performers wandering the grounds. There was an inflatable dome painted to look like Earth with a giant smiley face on it (a sign declared it “The Astro Dome”), full of psychedelic projections, pinball machines, and arcade games. There was a lineup of artists all planned according to a vision of Scott’s current moment: Lil Wayne, Young Thug, Metro Boomin, Rae Sremmurd, even fellow hyper-relevant Texas rapper Post Malone, who Scott pre-headlined for at Malone’s own Posty Fest last month. And then, of course, there was Scott’s set.
As a performer, Scott has long been a frenetic, high-energy act, darting around the stage, diving into the crowd, encouraging fans to lose their minds. But there’s something special about seeing him perform at a festival he designed himself. After the opening video about Astroworld, which started as an ad for the theme park before taking a dark carnival twist, a voice on the speakers declared, “I’m behind you.” On a stage disguised as a piece of amusement park-looking set in the middle of the audience pit, Scott emerged. Fans who’d paid an extra $200 for VIP tickets were suddenly craning their necks to watch the show, while the general admission audience had the best seats in the house. He performed songs from Astroworld and went back to his Rodeo days, and the amusement park-style set that the stage was on was revealed to be functional—he strapped into a roller coaster car as Astroworld‘s “Carousel” started and rode a loop while performing. There were flames and smoke; when a kid got onto the stage to dive into the crowd and security yanked him down, Scott instructed them to let him back up so he could make his jump. For fans watching the giant video screens alongside the main stage—where Scott wasn’t standing, at least not until later in his act—the performance offered distorted visions of Scott as though he were engulfed in flames, or split into a red and a blue version of himself, moving simultaneously, like Superman in a 1950s comic book.
Scott darted from the makeshift roller coaster stage near the back of the crowd to the main stage after about thirty minutes, and stayed near there (or on the bridge connecting the two sets) for the rest of the night. Several other artists joined him briefly onstage, but Scott didn’t need much in the way of guest hype. When fans would climb onto the stage, he’d perform directly to them for a moment as they lost their minds, bouncing up and down or crying or doing their best to rap along with him, before he’d point them to the crowd, where they’d take off for a stage dive. It was all energy, all love, and a vibrant, active performance from one of the biggest stars on the planet, who seems to be going nowhere but up.
Travis Scott was the future when he first started making beats in 2012, and he’s still the future now. As the Astroworld festival showed, he’s bringing together his music and the spectacle he builds around it—and he’s got an eye on going even bigger as his popularity grows.