Travis Scott headlines his own Astroworld Festival. (Photo @astroworldfest)
Kanye West was Travis Scott's surprise guest. (Photo by BrannDann Art)
Travis Scott's disembodied head welcomed festival goers. (Photo by AB Gonzalez)
The Houston All-Stars included Paul Wall and Slim Thug. (Photo by Roger Ho)
Megan Thee Stallion brought the energy at Astroworld Festival. (Photo by Branndann Art)
Rosalia was the highlight of the festival. (Photo by Melodi Ramirez)
Pharrell captured the spirit of Astroworld better than anyone. (Photo by Greg Noire)
North Carolina rapper DaBaby brought da heat early. (Photo by Greg Noire)
Swae Lee surprised the crowd during Travis Scott's finale. (Photo by Branndann Art)
The grand finale included fireworks. (Photo by AB Gonzalez)
Capture all the nostalgic thrills and chills. (Photo by Kirby Gladstein)
Welcome to Astroworld. (Photo by Kirby Gladstein)
The oft-quoted line from the 1953 Marlon Brando rebel-without-a-cause vehicle The Wild One is so ingrained into the cultural psyche it’s a cliche, but it persists because of its sharpness. Brando responds to the question of, “What are you rebelling against?” with, “What have you got?”
It’s a thought I had during Travis Scott’s headlining performance as his second annual music extravaganza, Astroworld Festival, wound down past curfew Saturday night. More than once before a song he’d tell the audience to stick a middle finger in the air.
I can get with that. Then, stick the other middle finger in the air. Cool. Who we mad at?
There was no follow-up any of the times he asked the crowd to do this. Rock, rap and pop musicians have lived off the angst of young people for decades but the “rage” (Scott’s fans are referred to as “ragers”) behind a Travis Scott show can feel unspecified. What’s this all about?
For the Astroworld Festival’s second year, I made the trek to NRG Park to squeeze alongside more than 50,000 fans to see what Scott and his team had given a city that finds itself without a music festival to call its own. I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of Scott’s lineup.
From legendary shock rocker Marilyn Manson, to the Houston All-Stars (consisting of Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Bun B, Trae tha Truth, Lil Keke, and more — a needed staple for any H-Town festival at this point), to Spanish pop-singer Rosalía, Astroworld expanded to deliver “thrills and chills” equal to that of the dearly departed Houston Six Flags theme park.
Manson in particular was a stroke of curatorial shrewdness, a thought echoed by Manson himself onstage, stating: “I bet you wouldn’t expect to see me here at Astroworld. That’s because Travis Scott is a genius.”
In the second half of this decade, as rap’s stars have become younger, everyone from Lil Uzi Vert to Trippie Redd has cited the rockstar as an inspiration. Manson’s post-industrial pop-influenced metal held its power and biggest reach in aesthetics. Every year in the late ’90s and early ’00s Manson appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards to shock an easily shook audience of suburban parents while delighting their children.
The mythology of Manson (the stuff that kids lie to each other about like, Manson was in The Wonder Years, he had surgery to remove his ribs, etc) was no different from the mythology of Freddy Kreuger. He was someone who took his vast media spotlight and subverted it into something weird for a generation who grew tired of Blink-182’s fart jokes.
Mythology is integral to hip-hop, so it’s only fitting that generation would cite the man as an influence.
In a way, the angst and rage of Travis Scott is a logical end to the influence of Marilyn Manson. The music is loud, it sounds pretty good, the spectacle can take your breath away, and it’s immediately attractive to teens who feel music and culture in their gut more than adults.
Manson’s six-song set was a riot, from his iconic “Sweet Dreams” cover to the propulsive “Beautiful People” that ended the set in a mix of sweat and moshing. The aesthetics were beautiful, but if you thought about it too hard you missed the point.
Elsewhere, DaBaby, the most omnipresent rapper of 2019, and his set, which I witnessed onscreen as I packed into a crowd of thousands anxiously awaiting Houston’s own Megan Thee Stallion to perform, was a ton of fun. The North Carolina rapper oozes charisma, and he played his signature song “Suge” twice, alongside other bops like “Baby Sitter” (with Offset) and “Cash S***,” a duet with Megan herself.
While DaBaby’s stage presence is formidable, it was unfortunate to find him barely keeping in time with a backing track, which was true for a number of acts who took a stage across the day at NRG Park. Also, teens could not lift the man over their bodies as he attempted to crowd surf unsuccessfully.
Megan Thee Stallion’s performance was short and sweet, as she pumped out her most well-known songs: “Cocky AF,” “Big Ole Freak,” “Simon Says” and of course, “Hot Girl Summer.” She was keyed in and attentive, bringing girls onstage to dance, and came with more energy and focus to a half-hour festival slot than many others bring to a full headlining night.
During a day that also saw Manson and the street rap of Young Dolph and Sheck Wes, Megan’s set was the rowdiest.
Playboi Carti’s hyper-impressionistic rapping style was a welcome reprieve after a harried afternoon of moshing. Carti and Travis have a lot in common. A large amount of the appeal of both is in how cool you find them, and their rapping fits into their music like another instrument, as opposed to the songs having a strong lyrical emphasis.
His songs, like the raucous anthem “Magnolia,” are a blast to listen to at full volume, but during a day when a lot of performers forced the “clear out let’s have a mosh pit” angle so teens could mosh to, like, “Bad and Boujee,” there was something ineffable about how understated Carti was.
Spanish popstar Rosalía was my favorite performance of the day. Slotted at primetime, just before Travis was set to play (not having artists overlap is the coolest thing about Astroworld), but at the smaller stage, Rosalía held a captive audience.
Even more so than Manson, her appearance signaled the breadth of Scott’s taste, as Rosalía is in the sweet spot at the moment where she can do no wrong. Her star is on the rise — and she’s yet to overplay her hand on the way to over-saturation. Her setlist was excellent but arranged awkwardly, with a lot of slower ballads at the top of the hour and back-loaded with hits performed after a lot of the crowd grew restless.
Her voice takes flight and the songs translate live in thrilling color. Kylie Jenner stood in the front row, entranced by Rosalía’s bold moves, swinging ponytail, graceful voice, and the electric flamenco rhythms that underline her music, especially on bangers like “Malamente” and “Con Altura.” Giving Rosalía such prime exposure was a bold move, and I’m not sure it completely worked, but I want Astroworld to take similar steps in curation next year.
Pharrell was a human jukebox, as he breezed through everything from Clipse’s iconic “Grindin” to “Drop it Like it’s Hot” to Kelis’s “Milkshake,” and, of course, Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” Pharrell was the adult in the room. As he wrapped up his set, he took a moment to thank the crowd and compliment their energy.
“This is the only place you get this kind of love,” he said. “Only in Texas.” The crowd got louder as Williams smiled. “It’s a mixture of anarchy . . . and peace.”
If the festival has anything close to a mission, it must be that: Travis Scott and the ragers bring the indeterminate anarchy, but the festival’s Houston roots give it a peace, vibe and love that soften the edges and inspire everyone to just get along. It’s hard to imagine this crowd booing Drake off the stage.
An introduction by Dave Chappelle (who is in Houston every other week now it seems), who reminded the crowd Scott hurt his knee a few weeks ago but nonetheless “the show must go on,” was a cool unexpected tee off to Scott’s headlining performance. He stopped to say “free Rodney Reed,” in a moment of perspective.
Scott’s performance was an engaging hit parade, and Mike Dean goes all out with his synths live, giving the songs a more woozy, lush feel than on record. But it can also feel a little muddy, which is why Scott’s string of guests was so needed.
There was Roddy Ricch, who performed his viral hit “Ballin’“; Gunna coming out to do song-of-the-summer “Hot” with Young Thug (whose set during Astroworld was awkwardly abbreviated); Migos debuting a new song with an unprintable title and lots of gusto; and Swae Lee who helped close things out on “Sicko Mode.”
But it was all building to the moment Scott brought Kanye West out onstage. To the strains of “Follow God,” Kanye in a blue hoodie emerged all smiles. As my friend said, “When he came out, all my reservations about him fell to the side.”
After a set rife with unfortunate electrical outages, Scott’s injury preventing him from truly raging (he performed perched atop a crane), and a sleepy midsection, the warm, opening soul sample of “Follow God” was a blast of sunshine. Kanye performed “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” afterwards to a crowd that drowned out him and the backing track, a stirring reminder of how much fun music festivals can be.
Everything that could begin to feel codified in a crowd of 60,000 came into focus. This is why we’re gathered here in Houston. To live in these moments.