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The colliding worlds of 'Astroworld' and '808s & Heartbreak'

Trey Alston

 // Aug 7, 2018

Apple Music

Fifty thousand people came to the newly opened AstroWorld during the weekend of June 1, 1968. It was advertised as "The Wonderful World of Fun" that existed directly south of Loop 610 in Houston, Texas. The park was bought by Six Flags in 1976 and spruced up with new attractions; Thunder River, Ottinham Village, Sky Screamer, and WaterWorld, all came after the switch. Its amusement park technology never really left the 1980s, according to theme park veteran Justin Surguine in his discussion with Theme Park Insider. A vista of wholesome family entertainment, it became more than a park for many, especially those that grew up in the decade before its untimely end. In 2004, it was the eighth-most attended Six Flags park in the country. On September of 2005, Six Flags CEO Kieran Burke announced that the park would be closing because of parking issues with the Houston Texans and performance woes. It shut down a little over a month later on October 30. Since then, the vast area that once was a leisurely escape for Houstonians has been naught but an enormous parking lot.

Travis Scott turned 26 in April. This means that when AstroWorld saw its final sunrise, he was only thirteen years old. Fresh from the age when action figures and remote-control cars were main outlets of puerile enjoyment, amusement parks and other worldly destinations were the pinnacle of good times. Seeing the demolition of an escape from the everyday monotony of his life impacted him tremendously. "They tore down AstroWorld to build more apartment space," he revealed in an interview with GQ Style. "That's what it's going to sound like, like taking an amusement park away from kids. We want it back. We want the building back. That's why I'm doing it. It took the fun out of the city."

Last Friday, Scott released his third album, ASTROWORLD, named after the park that resides in his memories. He'd been teasing the album since May of 2016; he released his second studio album Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight that September as a way of sharing some ideas that he "just had to get off real quick." Astroworld is a mesmerizing experience that sounds unlike anything in contemporary hip-hop, designed to sound, and feel, like a timeless amusement park. Its creative process, and the imagery at the center of the album, harkens back to the ideas that Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak expressed nearly a decade before.

808s & Heartbreak came out on November 24, 2008. Kanye's mother, Donda West, had died a year before on November 10, 2007 from complications following a breast reduction and tummy tuck procedure. "I lost her to Hollywood," he revealed to Telegraph. Around this same time, he'd been catapulted to a new level of fame following the release of his third studio album Graduation (released September 11, 2007). He'd also ended his engagement with designer Alexis Phifer, having dated on and off for nearly six years. The resulting casualties of his mother, innocence, and romantic relationship played integral factors in the sound and creation of the album.

First and foremost, both albums read as intimate portrayals about loss. However, the way that the two go about expressing their remembrance of the important factors in their lives is starkly different. Kanye's primary form of grief comes through painful reflection; since the grief was fresh, and it came in the midst of celebrity, he hadn't been given time to cope. Of the seven stages of grief, on 808s & Heartbreak, he's at the third. "Welcome To Heartbreak" chronicles the death of his innocence, which also translates as the yearn for it as well. "Chased the good life my whole life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?" he croons on the track, with some of the most heart-wrenching vocals we've heard from him in his entire career.

Scott's relationship with loss is similar, yet slightly different. The timing of his loss (accompanied with how symbolic the institution was in his childhood life) amounted to the death of AstroWorld leading to the casualty of his innocence as well. But it's been nearly 13 years since the park was demolished; while he's eager to reclaim its stature for the community, he's come to terms with its absence. Now, his grief comes in the form of honoring its memory. To that end, ASTROWORLD is an enormous, winding ode to the sheer craziness of the Six Flags amusement park. The laundry list of surprise guest features and warping tracks lends to the unpredictable nature of the former park's glorious days in the 1990s when it introduced attractions such as Batman The Escape, TOGO Ultra Twister, and Dungeon Drop; there was never any way to predict the array of experiences that one would encounter once entering the park. "STARGAZING" is an enormously loud and confident opener that describes psychedelic trips, while not naming the park explicitly. But from the air of energy and craziness that comprise the description of the event, and also since Travis has never been one to explicitly lay things out, it'd be reasonable to see this as a representation of entering the park's doors, being enveloped in the funky music and sounds that encapsulate the moment.

Aside from the thematic similarities that bind the album's unspoken narratives, further similarities can be found in their disregard for genre. In Rolling Stone's review of 808s & Heartbreak, they referred to it as an "introspective, synthpop album." Kanye himself revealed before the album's release that strictly rapping wouldn't be enough for him to get out the melodies that resided within him. "When I was a shorty, they taught us stuff with a melody, like the ABCs. So, I'm about to express my stuff with melody. It's a fine line, where you know or don't know if it's rapping or what it is," he said on the blog of KanyeUniversecity.com shortly before its release. 808s's sole rap verses came on "Heartless," with the rest circling around different versions of R&B and retro 80s pop with alternative stylings sprinkled in. The blending of the styles was seamless, as Kanye had previously proven himself as an explorative artist unafraid to experiment with expectations.

Scott operates in a similar manner. Rodeo and Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight hinted at his ability to blend together sounds and influences masterfully. ASTROWORLD is the full realization of these clues, with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala and Stevie Wonder being two of the mediums that Travis refracts his steadily warping sound through. Like Kanye did on 808s, Scott's use of Auto-Tune is his version of breaking the rap mold and connecting the genres he traverses. "SKELETONS" could pass for alternative rock, with balls, thanks to the heavenly collection of voices that massage the guitar on the backend. Being that Scott's entire musical shtick is inspired by 808s-era Kanye, it would make sense that his most fantastical body of work reimagines the album that birthed his image.

This speaks to whether the albums narratives are intertwined, or if Scott's body of work is just a big budget rehash of 808s & Heartbreak. ASTROWORLD is much more than Kanye's most vulnerable album on Xanax. It's a large, vibrant project about thematic loss in line with what Kanye explored nearly a decade ago on 808s when he lost three things important to his sanity. Scott's loss was engrained in his upbringing, a symbolic death of innocence that crafted his worldview. As an artist that frequently reflects on the circumstances of his upbringing (see: "Oh My Dis Side" from Rodeo), this is wholly in line with the character that we've seen so far. After all, rap was founded largely on the reflection of childhood and the hard times that its artists had to endure. Scott's work, though stylistically and thematically similar to Kanye's artistry, is of its own kind: an ode to innocence lost that comes from a place of acceptance. 808s & Heartbreak covers fresh loss, and its much darker tones reflect it so. Innocence and death aren't equals, but time heals both the same. Kanye couldn't make ASTROWORLD, just as Scott couldn't make 808s. But their conversation and unique backgrounds paint a collective picture of coping and how grief leaves an imprint on the mind that can only be fixed by time.

ASTROWORLD has been lauded as Scott's best work by far, and it's largely because of how bold the music is. Each track is luxe, daring work; the only threads connecting each disparate idea are the use of Auto-Tune and the carnivalesque atmosphere. On the surface, the themes of the album seem to be a repeating cycle of drugs, women, and money, but reading through the lines shows catharsis that comes with acceptance. Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak, fresh with grief, lacked this purgation, being much more defensive overall. But the music was enlivened with peppiness on occasions such as the 80s-like "Paranoid" and enthralling "Robocop." It's no coincidence that these two songs were some of the best; Pitchfork's review for the album named the two, as well as "Coldest Winter" and "Street Lights," the best cuts from the album.

808s & Heartbreak was snubbed at the 52nd Grammy Awards; many believed that the incident with Taylor Swift at the VMAs played a large part, but the stark change from his older material was important as well. Still, the album's influence rings true to this day. Travis Scott's Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight was also snubbed, something that Sickamore, his A&R, said in an interview with Rolling Stone gave them a chip on their shoulder. How will ASTROWORLD, an album similarly about loss, fare in the long run? Will it matter that it's implicit with its themes versus explicit like 808s? The similarities between both albums, while not immediately apparent, are striking. Regardless of whether ASTROWORLD wins any awards or not, like 808s, it helps to paint a picture of grief that transcends music. How listeners identify with its narrative will depend on their own experiences with the different stages of grief – just like 808s and Heartbreak before it.


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