The first thing you’ll notice about Travi$ Scott’s second studio album in less than two years is its peculiar title. Upon hearing that the Houston hip-hop artist’s new album was going to be called Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, my interest sparked immediately. Any time I see the name McKnight, only one person comes to mind: Brian McKnight. I wondered if this title meant that Travi$ Scott, one of my new personal favorite artists, was going to be sampling or featuring my favorite R&B artist of all-time. B. McKnight never gets enough credit for how talented he is so I thought this hypothetical collaboration would finally honor his greatness. It turns out that I was looking way too far into it. Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight was inspired by Migos frontman Quavo on “In My Hands,” a Migos-featured track on Mike WiLL Made-It’s Ransom mixtape: “I’m kickin’ and whippin’ and trappin’ the white / The birds, they’re flyin’ and singin’ like Brian McKnight”.
Quavo references that very same line in the album’s best track “Pick Up the Phone”. If you follow Migos at all, you should know what that line is talking about. But just in case you don’t: it’s cocaine, lots of cocaine. “Birds” is a common term for kilos of coke being moved through the air or at a rapid pace. Quavo claims to be as talented at serving white as Brian McKnight is at singing. Travi$’s conception of the line trades in hard drugs for adolescent duress. He explained the meaning behind his album in an interview with Billboard: “My next album is basically about all my friends and growing up here [in Missouri City]. I’m not saying that it’s a trap, we not in the f*cking projects but it’s like a social trap. It’s a social connection trap from what you want to do and how you want to express yourself. I feel like everyone gets constricted by their parents or just life.”
Reading that eliminated my hopes for a Brian McKnight feature or sample. However, the concept behind this project still managed to intrigue me. It seemed like Travi$ was ready to take the next huge creative step in his young, bright career. Coming off a debut that has some of the highest production value in recent history, I have complete faith in Scott’s musical prowess. When I finished my inspection of Birds, though, I felt slightly let down. The album opens impressively as listeners are promptly thrust into Travi$ Scott’s moody, synthetic, nightmarish element. The featured guests hit hard at the beginning. André 3000 is up to his usual tricks of being lyrically imposing and relatable at the same time. Kid Cudi’s appearance on Birds shakes up Scott’s feature catalog to give his discography yet another new and different sound. “way back” is one of the album’s most versatile songs stylistically. The soft keys lay beautifully underneath subtle warping synths, gritty, distorted bass and Swizz Beatz ad-libs. Once the beat changes halfway in, Scott’s melodic advice to his former self (narrated by countless hums and moans from Cudi) dissipates as the hypnotic bassline and crooning electric guitar round out the track.
Travi$ Scott’s music has a kind of programmed aggression to it. There is clear emotion in his voice yet he remains composed and focused. He has found his niche in the music world and is using it to expand other artists’ soundscapes such as Tinashe, Young Thug, and PARTYNEXTDOOR. On Rodeo, Scott’s ability to string various artists’ talents together and blend them with his own signature sound led to a breath of fresh air in the sphere of hip-hop. On Birds, the same formula is attempted but ultimately mishandled as a whole. Although there are a handful of dope guests like 3 Stacks, Cassie, Young Thug, Quavo, and The Weeknd, their performances are outweighed by the streaks of mediocrity stained across this album. Cudi’s “through the late night” performance is fine, but it gets repetitive towards the end. Normally, I’d just be happy hearing Cudder back to his old ways. Unfortunately, his second cameo in four songs feels out of place in the grand scheme of the project. Even the great Kendrick Lamar was forgettable. The production on “Goosebumps” is excellent and sounds tailor-made for Lamar’s current woozy, one-man-band lyrical style heard all throughout untitled, unmastered. However, this generation’s king of rap merely sufficed instead of amazed on his respective track. It’s like when LeBron James gets a triple-double with only 15 points: we have no right to say that he should’ve done more; we’re simply spoiled.
Scott’s feature selection wasn’t nearly as precise or robust this time around. He chose to go with up-and-comers on “beibs in the trap,” “outside,” and “first take” when more proven artists might have taken those songs to new heights. I do understand that “beibs in the trap” and “first take” purely would not exist without their corresponding features. Nav produced “beibs in the trap” and honestly did a great job with the entire atmosphere of the song. It’s a banger for sure. But that type of track needs to be on Nav’s album not Travi$ Scott’s. The same goes for “through the late night”. It sounds like a Kid Cudi song for a Kid Cudi album. Travi$ hardly makes an impression on either. 21 Savage nearly ruins “outside” for me. He is on the come-up right now and I can see why Travi$ wanted to work with him. But he adds no real flavor or energy to “outside,” which is exactly what that beat needs to stand out from the rest of the track listing. Murda Beatz, OZ, and Nisi’s production is bursting with life while Travi$ comes through with an anthemic chorus. 21 Savage steps in theoretically to knock it out of the park, but goes for the bunt instead.
Pairing a few dry features with an unclear conceptual theme, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight is far from a disappointment but a regression nevertheless. It does get better with multiple listens, though, allowing your ears to fully digest Scott’s smorgasbord of contemporary and futuristic expressions. His mastery of Auto-tune deserves praise as well. Few artists can use voice enhancement almost exclusively without sounding like a sellout, but Travi$ has fared nicely thus far. He’s taken Kanye’s ambitious synthesized vocal framework from 808’s & Heartbreak and birthed a glossier, more fluent counterpart. His solo efforts on Birds in the Trap rival those from its predecessor but the finishing touches are what separate the two. All in all, if this album is what Travi$ Scott has the capacity of creating in a ten-month span, imagine what he is capable of with eighteen or twenty-four. Who knows? He might just cook up something extraordinary. Until then, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight will certainly hold me over.