Matthew Ramirez
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Travis Scott vs. Vince Staples

Travis Scott vs. Vince Staples
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Travis Scott at Engine Room. Photo: Todd Spoth

 

Two rappers — who outwardly appear to be similar — performed in Houston this past Monday and Tuesday. First was Houston’s own Travis Scott, and Tuesday night was Vince Staples, a 22-year-old rapper from Long Beach. Both have fanbases that skew way young and reach outside a typical hip-hop audience. For Scott, it was a homecoming, a free show at a small club just 24 hours after opening for Rihanna. But dig deeper and the rappers are quite different: Scott, a Kanye protégé, makes party anthems and long, drawn-out maximalist epics. Staples’ 2015 album, the excellent Summertime ’06, was a double-disc record, but only ran an hour long. It was an experience, not an indulgence. Staples has a novelist’s attention to detail and storytelling instincts, as well as a subversive sense of humor — whereas the best songs by Scott mostly succeed despite his presence, not because of it.

This was reflected in their two performances: Scott’s on Monday night was at the tiny Engine Room, an invite- and sweepstakes-winner-only event, with the club sporting a line around the block featuring a ton of kids who were under 21 and sponsored by 1800 Tequila. The concert, dubbed #BacktotheBlock, had all the bells and whistles of a branded event: waivers upon entry, a hashtag urged to be spread across social media, and the intimate setting with ample free alcohol — a recipe for respectable mayhem. This all works in Scott’s favor: a small club where 200 people are moshing to songs like “Antidote” and “Mamacita” is preferable to standing in Toyota Center 400 feet away watching a lanky guy jump up and down. Fully expecting a rushed, 20-minute set, I posted up at the front of the VIP pit (sorry to humble brag) while Scott performed about six feet away from me. It turned out to be a real concert, about an hour long. The crowd was into it, I got into it, the claustrophobic, dense sound of signature Travis Scott productions translates well into a similarly claustrophobic, dense setting. I left with sore calves, a hoarse voice and ringing ears.

However, there’s still a nagging feeling in the back of my mind whenever I attempt to enjoy Scott’s music: it can be, frankly, derivative. He calls himself “La Flame,” a lamer version of Gucci Mane’s “Gucci La Flare” nickname. His “straight up!” ad-lib is taken directly from Future, who’s been using it for years. And Scott’s most famous production, which remains Kanye West’s “New Slaves,” three years later still sounds like a blatant B L A C K I E ripoff. The stuttering drum pattern, the dark chords, the defiant minimalism — pure B L A C K I E.  Whether or not Scott is a fan of B L A C K I E is up for debate (although according to the man himself, Scott definitely knew who he was), but to my ears anyway, it’s undeniable, and to take from a hometown original’s unique sound and identity to bolster your own and Kanye’s profile is problematic. Scott is full of these weird little discrepancies and ultimately his music feels empty.

Yet, much like his assistance on Rihanna’s banger “Bitch Better Have My Money,” artistic politics matter less in the right setting. I drank all the free liquor I could and enjoyed myself, but days later I feel the same way about Scott as I did before seeing him. His vow to bring back Astroworld was a plug for an upcoming record, Astroworld. Which is cool, until you stop to consider this: the Sauce Twinz, my favorite local group, refer to Houston as Splashtown, and have created their own slang around “dripping” and “splashing” and “sauce.” It’s all based on everyone’s favorite waterpark off 45-North. This is just another incident of questioning, how real is Scott? He’s a “Houston rapper,” but his associations to the city are mostly tenuous, a biographical detail, not a source of inspiration (unless it’s B L A C K I E). So it makes sense that the Sauce Twinz have claimed Splashtown, and Scott has claimed Astroworld. Only one of those places stands in Houston. Authenticity may not matter in 2016, but soul still does.

The next night presented an askew — but not alien — counterpart to the previous night’s rager. Staples is the better artist, rapper, and personality, but how would he stack up as a live performer? Something both rappers have in common is a bristling attitude: Scott, arrested for inciting a riot at Lollapalooza, has punched fans at shows, and even kicked a photographer offstage Monday. Staples is more defensive — he understands rap is a young man’s game, so he’s skeptical of anything that comes between his art and profiting from it while he can. He doesn’t have time for bullshit. He tweeted moments before taking the stage, “I’m about to clock into work.” It wasn’t meant to predict a lifeless performance, but rather, Staples views this as a job. He’s a professional, not a zombie.

Staples is famously straight-edge and battles with asthma, so he chided the kids in the front row for smoking weed. The small space of the Studio at Warehouse Live contained some tension, evident in the way Staples avoided eye contact with the crowd, wondered aloud how the Cavaliers/Raptors game was going, and, toward the end of his set, appeared visibly upset with the audience for getting pushy at the front of the stage. (He later tweeted about this.) The show ended without signature songs like “Lemme Know, ” “Summertime,” and “Hands Up,” which led many to believe we were due for an encore. The lights stayed low, the crowd shouted “VINCE! VINCE! VINCE!” and a few minutes passed before a roadie came out to dismantle the DJ equipment and the lights came on.

What kind of climax each artist delivered defined both shows: Scott is all turn-up mayhem, where the shamelessness of his shtick doesn’t matter in a room full of people standing on top of tables only to have those tables crumble beneath them. I left Scott’s show feeling like I had a great time, though I was exhausted and taxed. I left Staples’ show with a different set of emotions: chilled out, slightly disappointed, but overall, satisfied. Staples’ music contains elements of animosity, which does two things—either it prods you on, like the chaotic brutality of “Blue Suede,” or it makes you contemplate what it is you’re consuming.

Both crowds, representative of Houston’s population, were extremely diverse, but it’s a funny feeling hearing Staples rap live, “all these white folks chanting when I ask ‘em where my niggas at,” (from the fantastic  “Lift Me Up,”) ONLY TO ACTUALLY HEAR WHITE PEOPLE RAP ALONG TO THIS LINE IN PERSON. The irony isn’t lost on Staples. Mirroring something that also happened Monday night, I am still taken aback when I discover how cavalierly non-black people use the n-word at rap shows. While he appeared at times disinterested, Staples is a tactical, patient student of rap music and crowds: it’s beguiling when he demands everyone to yell, “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police.” (Even I joined in.) It’s elaborate, engaging performance art — how can I get these comfortable people to relate to me?

This is what makes Staples an effective artist. He doesn’t shy away from these uncomfortable moments to illustrate something about how rap is consumed, understood, and enjoyed. Scott provided the spectacle; Staples the catharsis. Away from Drake, Kanye, Kendrick and other big names, these two performances in small venues presented the perfect snapshot of the different classes happening in rap right now.