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Travis Scott’s Untouchable Cool

The Texas rapper is too busy breaking rules and selling merch to worry about seeming unoriginal

Want to get close to Travis Scott? Try a Travis Scott condom. Five American dollars per prophylactic, plus $4.62 in shipping, will get one on intimate terms with the Texas rapper — or at least with his branding. The year 2016 may prove to be the one wherein rap merch and pop-up shops reach a saturation point; after standing in so many lines for shirts, hoodies, jackets, and even a zine, there's something a little quaint about simply going to a web store to purchase a devotional item. But Scott transcends merch fatigue because he's fundamentally working on a different level from most artists. Along with Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, he's one of the leaders of a new wave of stars who don’t limit themselves merely to being rappers, or even musicians. They’re that too, of course. But what makes Scott and his peers so compelling is that they're ultimately supreme arbiters of cool — by any medium necessary.

Earlier this month, Scott released his second studio album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, drawing its title from Quavo's guest verse on "Pick Up the Phone." In the context of the song, Quavo’s line is a fantastical non-sequitur that sounds effortlessly cool; by elevating it to the name of an album, Scott doubles-down on that ephemeral novelty. It's a fine example of one of his signature moves, which thrive on unexpected juxtapositions. On his last album, he traded lines with Justin Bieber and Young Thug on a jarring, thrilling culture clash called "Maria I'm Drunk." The title of Birds functions similarly, pairing the "high" signifier of Brian McKnight with the "low" image of "the trap," prizing surreal contrasts over exact meaning. He isn't mocking trap music or adult-contemporary R&B — he's twisting them both into his own unique vision.

Scott's work tends to lack strong thematic throughlines, aside from the consistent backdrop of drugged-out excess, but the bizarre imagery of his latest album title — represented in the cover art by a crestfallen Scott smoking in a leather coat with large, raven-like wings — sums up his approach in a way that his lyrics rarely accomplish. He can be a mythical quasi-bird creature, perhaps an action-movie hero, maybe an anguished '90s R&B singer — or better yet, none of the above. He works by collecting and rearranging influences: The creative fingerprints of Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and numerous trap rappers and producers are impossible to miss in his music. Yet Birds isn't about challenging himself or his listeners to come up with new ideas. He just wants us to fuck with his art.

Where last year's Rodeo was a bloated concept album about Southern California and the highs of fame, the new album finds more restraint on a basic musical level. Gone are the excessive intros and outros — only one track on Birds exceeds five minutes. Still, the conciseness of these songs doesn't signal that Scott is adhering to any tightly focused pop restraints. “Coordinate" and “Outside" are dark, moody stompers with no clear hooks or melody. With the exception of mid-album highlights "Sweet Sweet" and "Pick Up the Phone," he spends most of Birds making mosh-pit motivators. These songs are all about unleashing fashionable chaos, from a performer who’d rather see Supreme caps flying in the air than inspire crowd singalongs.

Birds debuted at No. 1, a milestone that Scott surely appreciated. (Last year, after Rodeo missed the mark, he told a reporter, "We wanted that No. 1 so bad. This an L.") Really, though, the album is just one part of Scott’s creative output. In the last few months, he's contributed to DJ Snake’s album Encore, helped produce Rihanna’s Anti, and made headlines for taking command of the upcoming G.O.O.D. Music collection, Cruel Winter. One of the best qualities about Birds is just how much Scott amplifies others' voices — be it Quavo’s immaculate verse on “Pick up the Phone," 21 Savage’s blank-faced appearance on “Outside," or the Weeknd’s coarse falsetto on "Wonderful." Often that reliance on others is seen as a slight on Scott’s own talents, as though he should be ashamed of needing others to make great music. But popular music is a collaborative art form, and Scott's approach is similar to the way many pop giants work in 2016. The number of producers and songwriters on Frank Ocean's Blonde, Beyoncé's Lemonade, and Kanye West's The Life of Pablo doesn't dilute those singular artists' visions — it enhances them. If you're good enough that everyone wants to work with you, why wouldn't you?

Scott's way of working fits perfectly with contemporary trends in fashion, where high/low pairings — like, say, $30 Zara pants with real Margiela shoes — are everywhere. That blurring of the lines between traditional taste categories is mirrored in a musical generation that has seen many stars rise up out of their bedrooms with fully formed styles that didn’t need to be created in an expensive studio. The fact that Scott wears his influences so plainly on his sleeve feels like less of a concern for a generation that’s used to sounds and fashions flipping and turning over in near-instants. For fans who have curated personal Tumblrs and Instagrams to fit their own perfectionist streaks, Scott’s persona follows familiar ideals.

One of the values that rap’s older guard stresses above all is originality, but Scott seems to scoff at this idea — and his fans clearly agree. When he interpolates Kid Cudi’s 2009 hit “Day N Nite" on a Birds track that features Kid Cudi, he's both celebrating one of his biggest influences and sending a snarky laugh in the direction of anyone who might question his integrity. The insular lark fits Scott’s own mission statement as put forth in “Sweet Sweet”: “Shout my town / Shout my tropes.” He knows the clichés attached to his name, but he refuses to worry about such minor concerns, and that's exactly what makes it so fun to be a Travis Scott fan.