A little over halfway through Travis Scott’s new Netflix documentary Look Mom I Can Fly, Paul Wall, one of Houston’s most visible rappers, bestows an unofficial and incredibly meaningful honor upon Scott. “You the big homie now,” Wall says with a thousand-watt grin, referring to the 28-year-old’s placement in the lineage of Houston hip-hop OGs that came before him. “You everybody’s big homie now, bro.”
At that moment, Scott was celebrating the fact that he pulled off the inaugural Astroworld Festival in his hometown, something he had envisioned since the eponymously-named amusement park shuttered in 2005. Scott, born in 1991, was barely a teenager when Six Flags AstroWorld was torn down, leaving Houston without a place for kids to simply be kids.
Instead of sitting on his hands and mourning, Scott, born Jacques Berman Webster II, channeled his energy into a dream: to one day bring the park back. Your average citizen would have started a petition and visited town halls to advocate for its revival. As one of hip-hop’s current and future frontrunners, Scott instead opted to create a Grammy-nominated album, ASTROWORLD, that focused on all things Houston, laying the groundwork for his chance to bring back fun to H-Town.
In the second line of ASTROWORLD’s opening track, “Stargazing,” Scott makes a reference to local staple Big Moe’s alter ego (“sipping on purp, feeling like the Barre Baby”). In the popular single “Sicko Mode,” he incorporates the voice of another Houston legend, Big HAWK, in the song’s hook. And “RIP Screw” is dedicated to Texas hip-hop pioneer DJ Screw, who changed the landscape of Southern rap by slowing down and “chopping” up songs. Scott’s reverence for Houston is a constant throughout the album, with overt and subtle hat tips that would make any Texan’s ears perk up.
ASTROWORLD debuted at the top of the Billboard Top 200 albums chart upon its release in August 2018. “ASTROWORLD was a concept I’ve been working on since I was about 6 years old,” Scott says, while being interviewed on a random roller coaster at the beginning of the documentary. “It’s some of the best moments of my life.”
Released last week, Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly traces Scott’s ascent through the recording of ASTROWORLD and beyond. In it, Scott and his co-director White Trash Tyler weave clips of him visiting AstroWorld as a child, along with fan-shot and behind-the-scenes footage of his massive, sold-out tours. Fan hysteria is a consistent part of the documentary, letting viewers know just how big Scott has become over the last few years. One after another, Scott’s supporters jump into the frame to tell him that he saved their lives; they express it earnestly, without a hint of exaggeration. If not for him, his fans say, they wouldn’t still be here. It’s one part in a string of sobering revelations that reveal the unsettling adjacency of life and death.
The shadow of death has loomed over Houston rap for decades. A timeline in the back of Lance Scott Walker and Peter Beste’s 2013 quasi-history book Houston Rap details each death that rocked the Houston community: Fat Pat, known for unforgettable verses on DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters” and Lil’ Troy’s “Wanna Be a Baller,” was shot and killed in 1998; DJ Screw, whose mixtapes have become the stuff of legend, died of heart complications in 2000; Big HAWK, Pat’s brother who was best known for “Chillin’ With My Broad” and a posthumous verse on Trae tha Truth’s “Swang,” was murdered in 2006; and both Pimp C, half of the legendary Port Arthur duo UGK, and Big Moe, known for his aforementioned ode to lean, “Barre Baby,” and “Just a Dog,” died in 2007, of a cough syrup overdose and a heart attack, respectively. This past June, Geto Boys member Bushwick Bill died of pancreatic cancer.
More deaths yet affected the city’s scene on a hyper-local level, like Big Mello, A.C. Chill, and O.G. Style. Collectively, these passings contribute to the city’s larger-than-life legacy that spans the entire state of Texas.
My older brother, Keenon, introduced me to Houston rap when I was a child. By burning CD after CD of songs that still rule Texas clubs today— like Lil Keke’s “Southside” and practically anything by UGK—he taught me about the regional and personal importance of what it means to be from the Third Coast. But when Keenon was 16 years old, just a few years older than Scott was when AstroWorld shut down, my mother and grandmother took out an insurance policy on his life. Simply put, he was acting up and they were afraid to lose him suddenly without a plan.
“If I had been born 10 years later, my life would be completely different,” Keenon, now 38, tells me over the phone. I called him up in the middle of watching Look Mom I Can Fly for the second time, because I couldn’t help but compare his life trajectory to Scott’s: They were, and are, young black men from Texas who loved and aspired to rap as teenagers, and both happen to be technological wizards. My brother, though, had no cell phone, no WiFi, no Twitter, no SoundCloud, and no TikTok. “It’s different when you have access to millions and billions for free,” Keenon explains.
While new tools and technology no doubt had an effect on his rise, Scott’s success ultimately boils down to self-direction and extreme passion, two things the documentary displays thoroughly. In one scene, Scott lays into the staff working with him during a performance, rattling off a list of critiques as quickly as an auctioneer. He has a vision to execute and he’s his own biggest fan—two features that make for a demanding artist when combined. As uncomfortable as it is to see, it’s a look into how Scott shifted gears from being a relatively unknown artist in 2014 to one of rap’s most decorated MCs in 2019.
Back in 2017, Scott hit a low point. That year, he was arrested in Arkansas for allegedly inciting a riot at his concert. “I just hate fucking getting arrested, man,” Scott says in the documentary shortly after his release. “That shit is wack.”
I was in fourth grade when my brother first began spinning through the revolving door of incarceration that many young black men in Texas are forced to enter society through. “I was 17 when I first got arrested,” Keenon recalls. “But they waited until I was 18 to charge me. I’ve been in every system in the state of Texas except TYC (Texas Youth Commission).”
Even though African Americans only represent 12.8% of the Texas population, per the Census, the Texas Tribune reports black people make up 33% of people incarcerated in prison. At 9 years old, I was too young to understand how a combination of juvenile activity (that most white people can get away with a slap on the wrist for) and targeted policing could take my big brother away from me.
By the time Keenon spun out of the system, at age 24, I was 16 years old and learning about a whole new generation of Houston rappers on my own: the likes of Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug, and Chamillionaire were in the zeitgeist. I didn’t have to look far for them because they were right there on Top 40 radio and at the top of hip-hop’s former coveted countdown TV show, 106 & Park. This wave of Houston rappers enjoyed a moment in the limelight after releasing songs like “Still Tippin,’” “Sittin’ Sidewayz,” and “Ridin,’” yet it was brief.
Look Mom I Can Fly shows Scott fighting to recenter Houston in the rap conversation. In his most grand gestures, he brings footage of DJ Screw to his Saturday Night Live performance and Big HAWK’s voice to the Super Bowl Halftime Show. In both instances—the latter of which was hotly debated—he brought authentic examples of Houston’s history to global stages. And at the end of the film, at Toyota Center, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner awards Scott with a key to the city and a promise to bring an AstroWorld-like amusement park back to Houston. “I want you to know this city loves you,” Turner says, handing it to a beaming Scott.
“Make some motherfucking noise!” Scott screams to his hometown crowd, barely containing his excitement as he launches into performing his biggest song to date, “Sicko Mode,” with the key pressed in his hand. It’s the award he’s been chasing throughout the documentary: concrete recognition of his unrelenting dedication to Texas culture, and every wild ride that comes with it.