“Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness”. H.P Lovecraft.
Off Loop 610, the 40 mile freeway that surrounds the inner city of Houston, Texas, a bridge crosses into a parking lot, the only evidence that Six Flags Astroworld ever existed. The theme park was open for 37 years but is now a dormant, sprawling wasteland after the land was sold for real estate – a development that didn’t materialise – depriving Houston’s kids and families of a beloved destination.
According to local news, the area is now “just a dirt field used for parking when the rodeo comes to town; no more roller coasters, no more fun. The few reminders of what was here are tired, old, and almost past any useful life”.
YouTube is awash with low-engagement eulogies to Astroworld – drone operators flying their machines around the open space engulfing what once was, people uploading grainy handheld footage of a family day out, or automated voice commentators deciphering why one of the world’s biggest rappers rebuilt Astroworld in his head and used it as the foundation for his platinum album of the same name.
“The most beautiful thing about the park was how animated it was,” says Travis Scott. “Being a kid, everything felt humongous. That park brought my imagination to life, [the ride] Greezed Lightnin’ [was] my fucking favourite.”
Travis Scott’s third studio album is a remarkable rap record that maintains a consistently creepy sound, despite a glut of high-profile features such as James Blake, Drake, Frank Ocean, Tame Impala and… Stevie Wonder. Icy synths decay like toys running out of batteries, heavy autotune gives the vocalists a layer of macabre impersonality, while the opening chords of “Sicko Mode” – the album’s arguable hit song featuring Drake – sound like the tinny, hauntological loops that weave around amusement parks across the world.
“Sun is down, freezing cold,” goes Drake’s opening line.
Scott enlisted David LaChapelle to design the album cover – a giant, golden sculpture of the rapper’s face that’s the entrance to a theme park, and a reference to the Texas Cyclone ride that once graced Astroworld. But LaChapelle didn’t just create an album cover, he built a world. Scott’s penchant for digital art and the aesthetic of gameplay came in useful when Dazed Beauty approached him to be on the cover – he had a 3D head scan lying around from the work he’d already done.
“We were on a mission to bring to life imagery of what I had going on in my head,” says Scott, of the artwork that is reminiscent of a videogame universe – notably the rapper says that his favourite video game worlds are God Of War and Metal Gear Solid, but he’d most like to live inside Super Smash Bros, Nintendo’s famous fighting game where the objective is to knock your opponents off the stage.
Scott’s Astroworld does not feel like a happy place. It's a paranoid paradise that invites the voices of the future to revisit and rebuild the past. “They tore down Astroworld to build more apartment space,” he told GQ last year. “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.”
Pop’s search for meaning and beauty in the modern age seems to turn up nihilistic results, with artists consistently landing in melancholy and minor key, building their own self-reflective universes. Post Malone opines about the perils of being rich, successful, and a rock star, Drake’s personal brand is loneliness, while Lana Del Rey’s intoxicating, tortured pop sells out stadiums. Artists appear to be looking inwards for the answers in this era of self-care, personal growth, and wellness.
But Travis Scott is firmly aware of the beauty of teenhood, and what it means to connect with that, to look outward to the people that help define you. He has an open dialogue with his fans (who he calls Ragers), and last year gave away $100,000 to his fans that commented their favourite Trav song on Instagram, because he “knows that life is hectic”. For the Astroworld tour, he built a rollercoaster onset and invited fans onstage to ride with him, and in November hosted the inaugural Astroworld festival in Houston, bringing a stellar lineup, moshpits, and theme park rides to a city that lost something when Six Flags shuttered an attraction that would have celebrated its 50th birthday in 2018.
“They make me feel, like, alive to be honest,” says Scott. “I drive off the fans, because I was once one and still am to certain things. So I know what that feeling is like, to look up to something.”
Scott is also famous outside of the rap world, just as likely to be known by reality TV obsessives on account of his relationship with Kylie Jenner, the seventh-most followed person on Instagram, CEO and founder of Kylie Cosmetics, a beauty business valued at $900 million by Forbes, and mother of their child Stormi, who Scott describes as the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. Scott and Jenner's relationship is the source of much tabloid chit-chat, mainly driven by a demand to know when they’re getting married.
Despite operating in different cultural arenas, Jenner is clearly onboard with Scott’s artistic vision, renting out Six Flags Magic Mountain in California and filling it with Astroworld aesthetic – including a rollercoaster cake – in celebration of Scott’s birthday in April 2018. She also made merch for his tour, a kit containing three lipsticks that came in a box that has printed on the front “I went to Astroworld and all I got was this f**kin’ lipkit.”
Scott and Jenner are both accepted by different ends of the beauty spectrum – Scott recently returned as the face of Saint Laurent and landed the cover of 032c, whereas his girlfriend occupies a much more mainstream space - outside of the subcultural cache he is afforded through his personal style, which represents the ultimate intersection between rap culture and luxury fashion – a space that has been burgeoning for the past decade, but has now exploded, with no clearer symbol of the shift than Virgil Abloh’s appointment at Louis Vuitton.
Voted GQ’s 5th best-dressed man in 2018, Scott is widely considered No.1 in the rap game when it comes to style, and his mixing of high fashion and grunge looks (he admires and looks up to Kurt Cobain) appeals to his moshpit-ready Ragers, as well as established fashion houses such as Helmut Lang, who enlisted him for a collaboration in 2017. His idiosyncratic looks eschew the typical codes of cool, preferring to rely on something far more organic, innocent, and anarchic.
Despite his own immense accomplishments across music and fashion, on Astroworld’s final track “Coffee Bean” Scott sings: “Your family told you I’m a bad move. Plus I’m already a black dude. Stressing over award shows. She’s stressin’ over her wardrobe. Bought the mansion on foreclose. No matter how many tickets your tour sold.”
It’s a brave move, to close a record laying out what it is about love that keeps him awake at night, and a set of lyrics that represent the sweet kid that’s inside him, still searching for meaning and acceptance in a world teeming with conflict.
“The ugliest thing about life right now is hate, so many different kinds of hate,” he says. “We as people have to find better ways to connect with each other through other avenues other than anger. The word beauty means a lot to me but it all comes down to who you are as a person. It has a lot to do with your heart, how good you are to others.”