"Let's bring it back to the SOB days," Travis Scott said a few songs into his musical concert-slash-traveling circus-slash-performative Instagram experience at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. Hmm, I might be misremembering things, but I don't recall seeing huge fireballs, makeshift rollercoasters, and frantic laser light shows the last time I stopped by the humble Varick Street music venue. But those are all crowd-pleasing elements of Scott's massive "ASTROWORLD: Wish You Were Here" tour, which blazed through NYC this week for two shows made up of the most impressive hip hop pageantry this side of Drake's flying Ferrari.
Wait, did you think I was kidding about that rollercoaster? Let's skip straight to the apex of the evening's performance: toward the last third of the show, the crowds parted and a contraption was lowered toward the middle of the Garden (connecting the two stages Scott had set up for the performance). Scott and girlfriend Kylie Jenner were then strapped in (she seemed a little nervous about it), and he proceeded to perform two songs ("Can't Say" & "Antidote") while their car moved back and forth above the crowd toward a ring of light that was basically the Eye of Sauron.
Despite only having one top ten single in his relatively brief five year career (and having under 1 million album sales), Scott is now performing at the level of the most popular rappers alive—by playing MSG, the reverb-drenched Mozart of autotune joins the ranks of rap luminaries and veterans like Kanye West, Drake, Eminem, J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay-Z, at least in terms of what kind of crowd he can command. And as was on display in full force last night, whatever he's seemingly lacking in world-conquering hits he more than makes up for in pure spectacle and crowd enthusiasm.
The "ASTROWORLD" tour is a sort of recreation of the now-shuttered Houston amusement park Scott visited growing up. The tour then is part homage, part populist exercise with enormous production values, and part wish-fulfillment. Did Scott grow up dreaming of singing while riding a ferris wheel upside down? Did he also dream of then allowing a few select fans the chance to take selfies while doing the same as Scott rapped a song appropriately titled "Carousel?" And simultaneously having fireballs spouting left and right from one of two stages? We'll never know, but that is what came to pass last night, as you can see below.
There were video projections happening in the background throughout the night that accurately reflected Scott's psychedelic sound, including a recurring motif of butterfly wings flapping in different colors. During "Mamacita," there was an image of horses on fire running toward infinity; during "Skeletons," even the regular video screens following Scott became all warped and gauzy around edges. At one point, a tent came down so Texas iconography and carnival-inspired symbols could be projected. Eventually, it switched over to a giant live feed of Scott dominating the arena.
There was also some sort of narrative about a young boy and girl who get separated by authorities, and the girl grows up to be a bald, naked computer lady who lives in bubbles (?) and the boy grows up to a very well-dressed rapper, but it wasn't quite as effective as when the screen instructed the crowd to singalong to "FUCK THE CLUB UP."
Rap shows in 2018 have an element of karaoke singalong to them: most nuance in the actual music is sadly lost, and for someone like Scott, whose best songs are filled with beautiful & jarring production and textures, you'd think this would be a real problem. Indeed, the best musical moment of the night came during a stretch of songs from new album Astroworld, especially the outro of "Skeletons" which saw Scott crooning "standing in the ocean" through autotune over warm, thick keys. But the most successful hip hop shows these days seem content with sacrificing some musicality in favor of bone-crushing bass and a shouty audience singalong. And this particular audience—which included a lot of teens just looking for a chance to stagedive—was wildly energized by Scott.
Scott has also brought a bunch of up-and-coming rappers along for the tour, including Sheck Wes (who already seems to be eclipsing some of the others), Trippie Redd (who was suffering from strep throat and apologized to the audience for his voice) and Gunna, who joined Scott for "Yosemite." The biggest surprise of the night was when Kendrick Lamar himself strolled out for his verse on one of Scott's best songs, "goosebumps." Nothing screams success in 2018 like thousands of teens raising up their iPhones in unison: