How Travis Scott Defied the Rules of Celebrity to Become King of the Youth
From his secret Tenet project to his dream of buying Astroworld, the rapper explains his unorthodox route to success and influence.
Photography by Adrienne Raquel
August 18, 2020
Jacket, $4,330, sweater, $870, and pants, $1,350, by Tom Ford / His own sneakers, by Nike x Travis Scott / Watch, his own
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If you are over the age of 25 and want to understand the appeal of Travis Scott, there's no better place to start than Fortnite. What was once a free video game has, in recent years, evolved into its own contained universe in which hundreds of millions of players spend hours a day talking to their friends and pointing sniper rifles at strangers. Tweens and young adults are more intimately familiar with the landscape's nooks, crannies, and favorable Slurpy Swamp roof inclines than they are with their own bedrooms.
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Travis Scott gets all of this; he's one of the few people alive who understand the particular predilections of those vast millions of young people populating Fortnite's outstretched provinces. And so in April, as musicians around the world were canceling their concerts, Scott, glimpsing a different kind of opportunity, brought his live show into the game. In a series of animated concerts, he appeared in 3D, rapping as a literal god: a giant shape-shifting deity who reconstituted the map to his liking and whose presence disappeared all the guns so partygoers could bang their heads in peace. Out of the chaos, a brief utopia.
Of all the goofy streaming experiments tried by celebrities during quarantine, it was Scott who came up with something that actually felt innovative. Like something underneath our feet actually shifted. Meeting the youth where they are proved to be a shrewd business move: 27.7 million people (or more than the population of Australia) attended his shows, his accompanying Cactus Jack x Fortnite merch quickly sold out, and his music catapulted to the top of the streaming platforms.
Scott is too sly to say it outright, but it was also the presentation of a vision: a tour through the trippy fantasyland he's curated in his mind as one of the more potent culture movers of his generation. His woozy, digitally distorted sound has already shaped an era of hip-hop, but his influence has extended beyond music and into art and fashion. He's enlisted highly sought-after artists like David LaChapelle, Nick Knight, and KAWS to create his album covers. And he's used his grunge-meets-high-fashion personal style to build partnerships with brands eager for his help in decoding the frequencies of the moment—labels as venerated as Helmut Lang, Saint Laurent, Dior, and Nike. (A pair of Nike x Travis Scott SB Dunk Lows are selling for upwards of $2,000 on the resale site StockX at the time of this writing.)
He exists as a kind of strange unicorn in the culture, someone who's fluent in the language of the youth (mostly young men who spend a lot of money on clothes and want to turn up) but who talks very little about himself. He's regarded as both omnipresent and a bit elusive, on a wavelength that resists a lot of the contemporary notions of celebrity. Though he shares a daughter, Stormi, with a Kardashian-Jenner, for instance, he's withholding and private and refuses to talk about their relationship. To Scott, mystery is a powerful form of currency. You could say he's almost shy, obscuring his face in photos, the opposite of most modern “influencers”—and yet he's quietly one of the most influential people on the planet.
When we meet, he's mostly just eager to play me the music he's been working on since the lockdown. It's early July, and we're inside the Cactus Jack office in West Hollywood—just vibing, listening to a few unfinished beats that he's been tight-lipped about, when Scott suddenly realizes he's made an error. “Ah, wrong one!” he says, leaping into the air to slam his hand on the keyboard, putting an abrupt stop to the record. “Sorry!”
The track is for Christopher Nolan's enigmatic thriller Tenet, and it sounds like a brain-liquefying trip through time and space. It's Scott's first foray into writing music for a film, but his contributions, says Nolan, were crucial. “His voice became the final piece of a yearlong puzzle,” the director tells me over email. “His insights into the musical and narrative mechanism [composer] Ludwig Göransson and I were building were immediate, insightful, and profound.” The track is still untitled at the moment (and is currently known as “Travis mix 16”), which is a fitting accompaniment to an indefinitely delayed film that no one knows anything about.
“I can't even explain it,” Scott says when I ask him to tell me anything about the film. “You literally just have to watch it. It's very fire.”
Travis Scott's description of Tenet also happens to be a convincing working thesis for describing Travis Scott himself. In person, as onstage, he's all energy and instinct, a ball of id that might get injured from stage diving off a lighting rig. He leans in close to the speakers to confirm he's playing the correct version before he launches into a series of high jumps. Suddenly, the rapper who calls himself La Flame is in full Rage Mode—his eyes are tightly shut, and he's flailing his limbs to the beat and spinning in circles around his studio.
By the end of the record's playback, beads of sweat have dampened the collar of Scott's violet Stüssy crewneck, which he's paired with black cargo shorts and the low-top Air Jordans that he designed last year. He removes his do-rag to let the cool air run through his braids and sinks into a couch. He's incapable of sitting still. Even when he's at rest, I notice his right heel stomping the studio's Astroturf carpeting to a beat that lives only in his head.
Travis Scott Breaks Down His Top 4 Style Heroes
“Energy” and “Mostly dudes” are the defining features of his live shows, which are frantic and raw, with Scott egging on the bedlam like a pied piper of the mosh pit. He's spent years refining his sound for his devout “ragers,” with brash bangers like “Antidote,” “Goosebumps,” and “Sicko Mode”—a ferocious left-of-center anthem with three beat changes, no discernible structure, and a Drake verse that abruptly cuts off as if someone tripped over the power cord.
He is not really a lyricist. He's mostly known for exhortations like “Straight up!” and “It's lit!,” which functionally cut to the heart of the Travis Scott ethos. His real brilliance is in his ability to use his body and sound to create a mood, to animate powerful unconscious impulses. It's the kind of buried inner primal-ness one might summon should they need to lift a car to save a child.
“It seems no one wants to give us this result we've been looking for—for years—and our voices need to be heard.”
The inside of Travis Scott's office is all sleek minimalism. The place could pass for any millennial start-up, with its clean white walls, low-slung couches, and neatly organized glass-door fridges and Reese's Puffs cereal boxes on which a miniature Travis Scott appears, clutching a spoon. He's crumbled a few fat nuggets of Chemdog into a Backwoods wrap that he's balancing on his knee as we talk. He moved in a year ago, after touring the world in support of Astroworld—his third studio album and the one that cemented his status as one of the most popular artists on the planet.
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Where does one go after ‘Astroworld’? I ask.
“You go to utopia. That's where we go,” he answers.
What does utopia look like? Feel like? Sound like?
“You ever googled it?”
I have, but I think we all have our own—
“So imagine my version,” Scott says. He lights a second blunt and begins pacing the room while laying out his idealized future. He sees “a place where we could just all sit across from each other and one side stops looking at the other side and where we all realize we're equal. As just humans.” Scott's utopia has crazy, futuristic highways and “fire” engineering and design classes. “We got buildings, flying cars,” he continues. “Like everything's just moving. And as people, we don't want nothing from each other but just to see each other happy.”
He pauses. “But with that comes dystopia.”
These days, to be Black and brown in America feels like living in a dystopia. Federal stormtroopers have landed in cities across the country while protesters are maimed for marching against racial inequity under the order of a president who has demonized Black Lives Matter groups. We are in a moment of serious reckoning during a critical election year, and it's all happening amid a global health crisis that has erupted into a civil war against basic science.
Scott has felt the urgency of the moment and has been moved by the outcry against police brutality. “It's a point where there has to be some acknowledgment, like, ‘This shit is not cool,’ ” he says. “We've been through this for how many years? It's a fight that we've been fighting for, and it seems no one wants to give us this result we've been looking for—for years—and our voices need to be heard.”
Travis Scott on a Joint Album with Kid Cudi Christopher Nolan's Tenet and Utopia
Travis Scott on a Joint Album with Kid Cudi Christopher Nolan's Tenet and Utopia
He's been trying to figure out how he fits into the big picture. He's been talking with the mayor of his native Houston about how he can get more involved in the community beyond pledging money, and he wants to do things that have a lasting impact beyond the pandemic. The big dream is to bring back AstroWorld, the nearly 40-year-old theme park that defined his youth before it was shuttered in 2005. He doesn't have a clear grasp on what exactly he wants to do with it, and that's okay. The idea of building a community has been at the front of his mind, especially right now.
“Times are weird for people, and they're trying to figure out what to do,” he says. “Seeing what's going on in the world is keeping me motivated. Figuring out ways to make it better, that's really keeping me motivated. And whether it's with music, or whether it's trying to go change stuff in the inner city—I'm just trying to turn it up on all levels.”
Three days before we meet, Scott and his mentor Kanye West dropped “Wash Us in the Blood,” a dark new single that happens to be the most overtly political record Scott has appeared on. The track feels like a return to the abrasive edge that informed Yeezus, Ye's most sonically challenging album, which is also the foundational core of Scott's warped sound. They recorded it earlier this year at West's ranch in Cody, Wyoming, and it was released with a convulsive music video from award-winning visual artist Arthur Jafa, who spliced together footage of Black Lives Matter protests, doctors treating Black patients having difficulties breathing, a dancing Breonna Taylor, a jogging Ahmaud Arbery, Grand Theft Auto, and West's Sunday Service Choir. Between the new record and West marching in the streets with Black Lives Matter, it seemed as if the old Ye was coming back to us.
That Kanye tapped Travis for “Blood” is telling. The production is guttural and raw and haunting—uniquely Travis. And the track operates on one of those dark, untranslatable frequencies for which Scott is often the interpretive medium, whether he's laundering a mood for sneaker brands, indefinitely delayed sci-fi blockbusters, or his own personal heroes.
Like countless other Black men, Scott grew up influenced by West's music, but unlike the rest of us he went from fan to protégé to basically brother-in-law. When I ask Scott about his relationship to his mentor's fluctuating political views, he says, “Everyone's entitled to their own [opinion]. I just tell him how I feel. How people feel about this shit.”
Do you feel a responsibility to say something to him?
“Yeah,” says Scott thoughtfully. “That's my big bro.”
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Travis Scott, who was born Jacques Webster, has been rapping and making his own beats since he was 13. His production is notable for injecting punk energy into icy, ambient beats culled from the chopped and screwed rap of his native Houston—all with a dash of Kid Cudi's lo-fi vibe and Kanye's artful grandiosity.
He was raised in his grandmother's house in Sunnyside, a primarily Black neighborhood in southern Houston, before moving a few miles southwest to the suburbs of Missouri City with his parents. He's from a family of musicians—it was his pops who taught him how to play the drums—and his stage name was inspired by his uncle Travis, who played bass. By high school, Scott was serious about a career in music. As his friends saved up for the latest Jordan drop, he was putting all his money into studio equipment that filled his room. “Just watching him work in his bedroom studio, making music, there was just so much assurance,” says his close high school friend Dozie Kanu. “I remember him looking me dead in my face and saying, ‘I'm going to work with Jay-Z one day.’ ”
Kanu, a Nigerian American visual artist currently based in Lisbon, met Scott at a varsity football game. He was a freshman at Elkins High School, and Scott was a year older: cocky enough to make a bad first impression on a shy kid like Kanu, who wasn't used to being around someone with that much bravado. “And then, just by coincidence, we got actually paired together as partners in a home economics class and became friends,” says Kanu, laughing. “Everyone called his bedroom the Pit because there was no AC, so it got really, really, really hot. After that first time coming to the Pit, I knew that something special was happening.”
For years Kanu and Scott blasted rap blogs and record labels with cold emails, hoping someone would check out the music. (“We were some kids from the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Nobody's checking for new artists from this area, ever,” Kanu recalls.) Scott dropped out of the University of Texas at San Antonio after his second year because he wanted to focus on music instead and took the cash his parents gave him for school to book a plane ticket to New York City—a decision that upset his mom enough that she didn't speak to him for months.
Travis Scott on a Joint Album with Kid Cudi Christopher Nolan's Tenet and Utopia
After Scott quit school and his parents cut him off financially, he floated among his friends' couches in Houston or slept in his car as he hustled to get his music heard. He reached out to the producers and engineers he studied from the liner notes of his favorite albums. “He used to DM me on Twitter a lot and send me music and stuff,” Kanye-affiliated producer Mike Dean tells me. Dean, who has worked on all of Scott's projects and has also shaped records from Beyoncé, Madonna, The Weeknd, and Frank Ocean, says he was taken aback by Scott's ability to produce and engineer music all by himself at such a young age.
Scott's big break came in 2011, when an email to Kanye West's engineer Anthony Kilhoffer led to working on the GOOD Music compilation Cruel Summer. Soon afterward he landed a record deal with Epic Records and a production deal with West, and T.I. signed him to his Grand Hustle imprint. Before releasing his 2015 debut, Rodeo, he'd produced tracks for West, Big Sean, and (yup) even Jay-Z.
It might seem like a distant memory now, but there was once a time when Travis Scott's popularity was polarizing. Though he had the Midas touch as a self-made producer and had emerged as an exciting new voice in hip-hop (thanks to his mixtapes Owl Pharaoh and Days Before Rodeo), when he first started blowing up, critics and rap fans accused him of not having a distinguishable style of his own. He was seen by critics as more maestro than M.C., dismissed as a cultural plagiarist whose artistry was dependent upon whom he surrounded himself with. He was seen as derivative of his heroes: too much like Kanye, too much like Cudi, and too reliant on his collaborators.
“He was good. He still needed to find his own sound, which he did eventually,” says Dean, who saw a kid trying to develop a sonic signature, and wanted to help him get there. “He had a lot of good music influences. You could tell he grew up listening to me and Kanye's productions and stuff.”
And then, in 2018, Scott dropped Astroworld, a masterwork that reshaped his entire narrative and marked an artist coming into his own. With its ambitious concept and kaleidoscope of sonic intricacies, it was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year. He had refined his sound and created the most interesting record of his career. Astroworld launched Scott into orbit, and he went on a victory lap that included a slot at the Super Bowl Halftime Show, his first Grammy nominations as a lead artist, an arena tour, and a music festival staged near where the actual AstroWorld once stood. In a relatively short amount of time, he'd achieved the dream he'd had since he started making music in his bedroom.
“It's crazy. It's a lot of things I wanted in my earlier career—it was just like it had to come in time,” Scott says. “No matter how long it takes, you just stay on it. It might take one album or two albums. It might be your third, it might be your fourth. I feel like since Owl Pharaoh, I've been just like, ‘Yo, what is the sound?’ Astroworld was kinda like being able to make a lot of things come to life.”
I ask Kanu what he believes makes Scott special. Why he's been able to capture a generation the way he has. It comes down to two things, Kanu explains. First: “He has really strong instincts and conviction. You can see it when he hears a beat. His body language completely changes when there's a beat that catches him. He knows that this one has something the other ones don't. And when he's coming up with melodies and rhymes, he knows when he's caught something, because his body tells him. It's something you have to watch to understand.
“And the second thing is he gives a lot of respect and attention to how other people are experiencing what it is that he is bringing. You go to a live show or watch a music video, and he's really invested in how people are taking it in.”
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“Travis dropped right into the Kanye, Pharrell, Virgil, Drake world—this blurred line between fashion, music, sports superstar culture.”—StockX cofounder Josh Luber
It wasn't until I first saw Travis Scott live that I began to understand his allure. This was back in 2017, when he opened for Kendrick Lamar, and he spent much of his set suspended in the air astride a giant animatronic bird. The last time I saw him play, in 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z were in as much awe as the rest of us as Scott performed a chunk of the show while riding a makeshift roller coaster. Underneath the spectacle, rage and chaos are strongly encouraged. His fans gleefully risk bloody noses and broken bones moshing and swan diving from the stage, and Scott himself was once arrested for inciting a riot. (Those charges were dismissed, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.) “He brings the rage,” Dean says. “All the kids in his demographic go wild for him—more than they do for anybody else, and that's unexplainable. It's the gift that he has.”
A conversation with Scott can feel like attending one of his concerts. He's thoughtful and charming and has an incandescent presence that reveals itself in the way he speaks with the entirety of his sinewy five-foot-ten frame. His words tend to race out of his mouth in rapid, rhythmic bursts, especially when he's excited.
So it doesn't surprise me to hear that he doesn't have a routine most days. “I just get it going…I just go,” Scott says. Thanks to the pandemic, this is the longest he's been in one place, and he's relishing being home with Stormi. “It's amazing just to watch my daughter grow,” he says, and I can almost see his chest puffing with pride. “I'm keeping her aware of what's going on in the world. As a parent, I'm always instilling knowledge, even at this age.”
A personalized jersey with “Stormi's Dad” emblazoned on the back hangs above the couch in his office. Travis is tossing around a basketball while pacing in a circle in front of a glass-topped desk. “I should really put this in a case,” he says, holding the ball up so I can see Michael Jordan's signature scrawled in gold Sharpie across its surface. It was a birthday gift, as was the life-size metallic black cactus statue flanking the doorway. Propped on the floor, underneath some hooks still poking out from the wall above, is a photograph of Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner locked in a shirtless embrace.
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Scott reclines on a thick wedge of recycled foam that's sandwiched between two slivers of metal and held together by ratchet straps—a custom piece by Kanu, who told me his furniture designs are inspired by “the lack of material expression within the history of Black America.” Scott is staring at the focal point of his office: a stunning black-and-white portrait of his grandmother Sealie that stretches the width of the wall behind his desk.
“My grandfather used to sit right there, on that back bench,” he says, pointing toward a tiny wooden pew in front of the modest single-story home in the picture. “I can clearly see him there. He passed away before that picture was taken, but he sat there every morning. I used to be with him all the time. I cut that grass for him. A lot of my early childhood is right there. That lady right there—that's the one that instilled the faith in me. I need her always looking over me, and I feel like whenever I'm sitting there, I know she's behind me.”
Has becoming a father changed your relationship with your parents?
“No, not at all, man. It's actually cool, because now we have things to relate on, right? Just raising a daughter. I'm always talking to my parents. They try to remind me of how I was when I was a kid.”
And how was that kid?
“I was energetic. I was super energetic. Jumping off of the walls…”
That hasn't changed, though.
We both laugh. “Nah. It's so funny to my mom,” he says. “She'd be like, ‘Yo, you don't get tired?’ ”
It was Scott's mother who got him into fashion. He'd thumb through her copies of Vogue and Architectural Digest, and he speaks with wonderment about her collection of bags and trunks from Coach and Louis Vuitton and Prada. “Every Christmas she would always have me in a full Nautica fit or a full Purple Label Ralph Lauren fit or some RRL. She's putting me in this, and I'm just going with the flow,” he recalls. “A lot of this stuff is expensive. My mom, she did a lot and worked very hard to get us what we wanted.”
He doesn't remember the first time something he wore mattered to one of his fans, but now he can't post a fit pic on the Gram without sparking collaboration rumors on Hypebeast. The Travis Scott Nikes he's been doing since 2017 are so coveted that a few shops made public pleas to his fans to stop calling and emailing about their availability. “Travis dropped right into the Kanye, Pharrell, Virgil, Drake world,” says StockX cofounder Josh Luber, “this blurred line between fashion, music, sports superstar culture.”
Scott struggles to articulate what exactly it is that he thinks has drawn people so intensely to his gear. “I'm trying to just cook, trying to create,” he says. “It's so hard to speak for people, because I'm always moving forward like, ‘What are we cooking next?’ ”
He has, however, put a lot of thought into the messages he's trying to send in his work with fashion brands. “I do have a mission statement,” he says. “Everything is for the performer and the performance athlete. Performing is a sport, and it's a drive. It's so dope to play on the same fields as sporting events. So the whole mission is just to create—whether it's footwear, or whether it's apparel—for that mindset. For just living your life on the go.”
He goes on: “If you want to just hoop, if you want to go to work, if you want to go out to a party, if you want to go to a meeting, if you want to go look at some art, if you want to do anything. It's so amazing to even see people reacting and liking what we have offered.”
“He's touching so many different levels and different fields of art,” says Tenet composer Ludwig Göransson.
Much of what drives Scott's interest in fashion collaborations is creating access. I ask him to elaborate on that strategy, if there is one. “I try to do things with people I know or someone I have a connection with,” he says. “Sometimes a lot of these companies are so big, they kind of forget about the people who walk the streets every day, [the people] that keep everything moving. So it's just about giving people that access, giving something that caters to them.”
At one point Scott excuses himself to answer his phone, which has been buzzing incessantly. He ignored the last two calls and offers his apologies to go take this one. Houston, we have a problem: About a month before, Scott reportedly dropped $23.5 million on a 16,700-square-foot Brentwood mansion that's wrapped in a curvaceous sheet of metal to evoke the lines of a modern yacht. The custom bed he ordered for his room, from the fashion designer Rick Owens, might not fit, and Scott's designer wants to know if they should even try. “That shit weighs like a building,” Travis says with a laugh.
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“Let me show you something, but you can't tell anybody,” Scott says, flashing the widest grin I've seen during our two days together. I follow Travis Scott, who might be the fastest walker alive, up a staircase—he took the steps three at a time and I lose him quickly—and we emerge into an upstairs lounge, where a chef has a cheeseburger waiting for him. A few members of team Cactus Jack are hanging out in the kitchen watching television. Hulu's WuTang: An American Saga is playing, and Scott bolts over to the screen. “Yoooo, I was supposed to be in this shit!” he shouts before putting his burger down and calling Epic Records head Sylvia Rhone to ask what happened with the meetings with RZA.
After the call, he shows me the secret project he's been working on, a collaboration so “duh” that it seems like it should have happened already. “Tell me if you're fucking with this,” he says, handing me the prototype. It's an obligatory move when you hit a certain plateau of rap stardom to create a [redacted], but it's a savvy way to extend the Travis Scott brand beyond music and fashion and art. He doesn't need my approval, but Scott eagerly waits for my reaction, studying my face for hints and clues. “Fire, right?” he asks proudly.
I'm holding just a tiny part of the vision he has for Cactus Jack, the imprint he launched in 2017 that serves as his creative arm for any and all things attached to his name. He's working to grow the shop into a “well-oiled machine” that puts its hands “on whatever we see fit.” The secret to Travis Scott is that he sees, before anyone else, how everything connects. “He's touching so many different levels and different fields of art,” says composer Ludwig Göransson, who collaborated with Scott for Tenet. “The way that he connects with art is not in a singular form. He has so many tentacles, and they're all electric. So when we talk about feeling, [whether that's] listening to a song or talking about a movie, he can visualize things in so many different fields. So it's a very special ability. It's like his own magic power.”
We conclude by heading back into the studio. He's excited to play more of the music he's been tinkering with during lockdown. “I feel like I've learned so much. I think with this next project I'm just embodying all of the knowledge I've taken in and trying to make the best form of it,” he says. During his Fortnite takeover, Scott unleashed “The Scotts,” a sinister banger he made with Kid Cudi that debuted at No. 1. Travis is hesitant to offer details, but he does confirm that they've been working on a joint album—apparently they've already cut a bunch of records together. (When I ask what he and Cudi have in store for the project, he says, “Man, a lot. Some fireness!”)
He hits play on one of the tracks. It doesn't have a title yet, but it's the craziest thing he's played for me so far. “I know where I'm going / I know when it's time,” Cudi hauntingly croons over a smooth beat. Scott is doing a two-step in front of the soundboard before the beat morphs from a bouncy summer groove to a menacing riot that sends him thrashing about. He's back in Rage Mode, his eyes tightly shut as he floats around in the utopia of his mind.
Gerrick D. Kennedy is a Los Angeles-based journalist who profiled Quavo and Saweetie in the August issue of GQ. His next book, ‘Exhale,’ about the life of Whitney Houston, will be published next year.
A version of this story originally appears in the September 2020 issue, with the title "Fearless".
Behind the Scenes with GQ's September Cover Star Travis Scott
PRODUCTION CREDITS:Photographs by Adrienne RaquelStyled by Mobolaji Dawodu with Mackenzie and Alexandra GrandquistHair by Yazmin AdamsGrooming by Marcus P. HatchSkin by Amber Amos for The Only AgencyTailoring by Yelena TravkinaSet design by Heath Mattioli for Frank RepsProduced by GE ProjectsSpecial thanks to Wright Ranch Malibu