Wish You Were Here: 'ASTROWORLD,' Nostalgia, & Learning to Enjoy the Ride

As artists, there can be few greater frustrations than putting in endless hours and years of work into crafting the perfect album, only to have fans ask, “What’s next?”
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“We listened to the golden age of hip-hop, unaware at the time that we were living through a golden age.” —Zadie Smith, Swing Time

In the two years leading up to his third studio album, ASTROWORLD, Travis Scott couldn’t post on social media without his comments being flooded with fans demanding that he “drop astroworld.” Although he toured throughout those years on the strength of his sophomore album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, Travis' fans seemed more preoccupied with what would come next, not with what they had at the moment.

Of course, Travis may have left the door open for a convergence of trolls and stans, as he announced ASTROWORLD months before the release of its predecessor. As an artist who clearly spends his time crafting each album with the intention of creating an experience, it’s no wonder Travis had the blueprints created for ASTROWORLD before he ever allowed his mechanical bird to take flight. Yet, while his live show was spreading its wings—his stage energy is, at least in part, what launched him into the superstar stratosphere he inarguably entered this year—the love for Birds was grounded by the anticipation for ASTROWORLD.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but the need for instant gratification became too real to be laughed off as mere paranoia reserved for older generations. After all, when Kendrick Lamar dropped DAMN., fans misinterpreted a tweet from Top Dawg producer Sounwave to mean another album would follow just days later. The theory took on a life of its own, fans christening it NATION., explaining away its imaginary relationship to DAMN., and forcing Kendrick to eventually clarify that, no, there was not a second album on the way. 

As artists, there can be few greater frustrations than putting in endless hours and years of work into crafting the perfect album, only to have fans ask, “What’s next?” DAMN. certainly fared well as 2017 unfolded, but for Kendrick, the album's initial release weekend must have felt like attending his high school graduation party and only being asked about his post-college plans. Travis fans posting “drop astroworld” became the social media equivalent of concertgoers yelling “Free Bird!” at rock shows the world over.

The irony of the impatience for ASTROWORLD is that Travis’ fans are known to immerse themselves fully in the raucousness that is his live performance. For skeptics of the artist, his live shows function as a baptism for all who approach his stage. For believers, they are a night for reckless abandon. As if he needed a record to prove it, Travis was arrested last year for inciting a riot at a show in Arkansas, and a fan in New York jumped—or fell—from three stories, later suing the artist and possibly being immortalized in song on “STARGAZING.”

"It ain’t a mosh pit if ain’t no injuries / I got ‘em stage divin’ out the nosebleeds" —"STARGAZING"

A Travis Scott show is a place to be wholly present, the energy from the artist and the crowd feeding one another and growing a monster with as many heads as there are people in the room. To date, my only live experience with Travis was when he opened for The Weeknd’s 2015 The Madness Fall Tour in his hometown of Houston, Texas. Although Travis easily aroused the stadium crowd during his set, there was a palpable tension when he left the stage after only 30 minutes without playing “Antidote,” his first massive hit. Midway through The Weeknd’s set, when Travis sprinted out onto the stage to perform their collaboration, “Pray 4 Love,” the crowd came alive, only barely holding out for what we knew would follow. As soon as “Antidote” began, it was no longer The Weeknd’s show: Travis was home, and the crowd was his.

The release of ASTROWORLD was the anticipation for “Antidote” on acid. When the album finally dropped in early August, its numbers seemed to surprise many, claiming the most pure sales in a first week this year. As an album that takes its title from the now-defunct theme park in Houston, ASTROWORLD captures the spirit of its namesake. Around every turn, there are new thrills, every high and low balancing the other.

There is something about this nostalgic ride through Travis’ childhood theme park that perfectly captures the millennial generation that Travis represents. Those of us who never visited AstroWorld are nostalgic for a place we likely only know through Travis, and for the people—from DJ Screw to Big Hawk—who we’ll only ever know through their lasting contributions to and impressions on hip-hop. Our generation’s nostalgia is not so much rooted in missing the experience of these places or people firsthand; as long as we can know them through a memory, a sound, or a sample, we can feel like we were there with them.

In this summer’s Eighth Grade, comedian Bo Burnham’s debut feature-length film, the anxiety of an entire generation was on display as middle schoolers lived through their screens because what was in directly front of them was too frightening—or too real—to face. What Travis captures on ASTROWORLD is the spirit of our times—longing for the thrill of the ride but dreading the giant drop. It’s in The Weeknd’s voice when he sings, “Please don’t wake me up / Feel like I’m dreaming,” and it’s in Travis’ voice when he replies, “Please don’t wake me up / I feel it creeping.” The dream and the nightmare, sharing the same space, neither overtaking the other but demanding we keep watch just in case.

It’s also present in “WAKE UP,” where Travis states ASTROWORLD’s central thesis: “Say you was in the crowd, I never looked.” There is something so sweet yet so sad about this lyric. We assume that the orchestrator of our wild nights is there with us, but even he wonders what it would be like to be fully here, right now, at this moment. Hence a tour called Wish You Were Here, which at once invites fans in—“enjoy the ride,” many of the shirts say—and expresses an absence from them. This isn't a statement to the fans who are not in attendance; this is measured sadness for a generation who will inevitably miss the moment even as it unfolds before them.

This is the same message Travis sends with ASTROWORLD. It’s not just a theme park to him: it’s an invitation to ride the high and the lows, to feel them all deeply, like he probably did as a child on some favorite roller coaster, daydreaming of the day he would create a thrill like this for others.

On the album’s devastating closer, “COFFEE BEAN,” where he expresses deep-seated fears about losing his girlfriend and the mother of his child, Kylie Jenner, Travis repeats a single line after many of his admissions of insecurity: “This is all, this is all.” It’s the park's closing announcement that every kid dreads: you better ride now; a return visit isn't promised.

While debating whether I should cop ASTROWORLD merch, I opened one of Travis’ tweets about new items being added to the store and noticed that, although the album was now out and in the headphones of listeners everywhere, the first reply to his tweet read, “drop astroworld.”

Of course, it was only a joke, but underneath it, there was a fan wishing for a moment that was already becoming a distant memory.

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