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It’s been a slow year for rap albums at the top of the Billboard 200 — Lil Uzi Vert’s Pink Tape had been the only 2023 hip-hop set to top the chart — but this week, here comes Travis Scott‘s Utopia to make it feel like 2018 all over again.
Utopia debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this week, with 496,000 equivalent album units, and all 19 of its tracks debuting on the Billboard Hot 100. That’s within 40,000 of the 537,000 that Scott’s Astroworld posted five years ago — and nearly three times the 167,000 units of Pink Tape‘s debut frame. It’s a very impressive debut for a performer we hadn’t heard from much the last few years, particularly following the tragic events of his 2021 Astroworld Festival, which understandably overshadowed most of his then-recent and subsequent song releases.
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How was Scott able to maintain his commercial dominance? And what might end up being the biggest hit from the album? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Utopia posts nearly 500,000 first-week units, nearly tying the 537,000 units moved by Astroworld in its first week five years ago. If you’re Travis Scott, how happy are you with that first-week performance, on a scale from 1-10?
Kyle Denis: Probably around an 8. To pull nearly half a million units after a string of lukewarm features, a tepid lead single, and terrible press following the Astroworld Festival tragedy is nothing short of impressive. I think Utopia’s first-week units total is a testament to both the strength of the Travis Scott brand and his marketing savvy. In an industry as volatile as this one, any of the aforementioned obstacles could have seriously stunted Utopia’s commercial potential, yet the album posted one of the best overall consumption totals of 2023 so far. If I were Travis Scott, I’d probably be kicking myself for not picking a stronger lead single – he could have come even closer, or even surpassed, Astroworld’s first-week numbers with an actual pre-release hit.
Carl Lamarre: 9. The competitive streak in Travis will scoff at anything lower than 537,000, but to know he yanked 500K opening week is something for him to smile about. He easily trounced Uzi for the top-selling rap album this year and hit an elusive number that many artists could only dream about. To cross that goal-line twice in his career puts him in an enviable position and cements his status as one of the premier artists of the new generation.
Cydney Lee: If I’m Travis, 10 — especially given the festival tragedy, having not released an album in five years, etc. If I were him, I would’ve questioned my relevance in hip-hop over the past few years because on the flip side, it’s hard to think of Travis Scott and not think of that situation. He’s probably relieved, but I guarantee all his career wins from then and beyond have come with a feeling of guilt.
Jason Lipshutz: A 9. Following a professionally tumultuous few years that would naturally invite doubts about the commercial appeal of his first new album in a half-decade, the first-week numbers for Utopia demonstrated that Travis Scott is still very much a superstar, with the ability to pull a laundry list of household-name collaborators and an absolute ton of streaming power. Mainstream hip-hop can be fickle – plenty of artists who were notable in 2018 are not quite as ubiquitous today – but the debut of Utopia shows that Scott is not among them, and remains firmly planted on the A-list.
Andrew Unterberger: Probably an 8. Even if Scott had a normal, quiet five years in between Astroworld and this album, you’d expect some commercial slippage — particularly with Billboard changing its rules around merch and ticket bundling between the two releases, which could have had a huge impact on Scott’s sales numbers. But after five years and the Astroworld Festival disaster and all the ensuing fallout, to come within 10% of Astroworld‘s first week is definitely not something I would have been confident in doing if I were him.
2. In the nearly two years since the Astroworld Festival disaster, Scott has experienced a great deal of bad press, and relatively minimal commercial returns for his new features and collaborations. What do you think is the biggest reason he was able to still nearly match his commercial peak of five years ago with Utopia‘s first week?
Kyle Denis: I think it’s because the hype for Utopia predated the tragedy. He first teased Utopia with a July 2020 Instagram post, and, the following month, he closed out a thank you letter for Astroworld’s two-year anniversary with “Let’s keep the ride going, see you in Utopia.” Travis’ die-hard fans, the consumers that are sure to show up for an album’s first week, have been anticipating for Utopia for years, and not much was going to change that.
Travis also slyly promoted Utopia by using other celebrities – not just himself. The whereabouts of the Utopia briefcase became an engaging guessing game for fans as it was spotted with everyone from SZA’s bodyguard to Drake. The briefcase became a meme in the way that most of Travis Scott’s endeavors tend to; the album was bigger than the music before the album even hit streaming services. Just as he did with Astroworld, Travis was selling experience with Utopia, not just an album.
Of course, it also helps that Utopia arrived alongside a music film that premiered in AMC theaters across the country, as well as a slew of bundles with a collection of merch options, vinyl variants, and five different album covers.
Carl Lamarre: He’s the ultimate tease. From lugging around that Utopia briefcase to dropping scattered nuggets about the album’s whereabouts, this marathon has been going on since 2020. What makes a storyline compelling is the buildup. A movie buff, Travis understands the importance of telling a story and building enough intrigue to propel his product to the next level. That’s what he did.
Cydney Lee: His insufferable fanbase and all that bundling he does. But in all seriousness, there seemed to have been a collective sense of curiosity amongst critics around how he would top Astroworld, how he would address the tragedy in the music (if at all) and in general, how one is expected to move on from a tragic situation like that.
Jason Lipshutz: Timing is everything: if Utopia had been released in the months after the Astroworld tragedy, that opening-week number probably looks a bit smaller. Because Scott waited for the controversy to somewhat subside, the focus of the album rollout became less about how the festival disaster would be addressed on the album (which it wasn’t, really), and more about how fans were finally getting the long-awaited follow-up to Astroworld. It also helped that 2023 has been light on blockbuster hip-hop albums, so Utopia could dominate streaming platforms, rap radio and social media upon its release.
Andrew Unterberger: To a certain extent, that’s just how big Travis Scott had gotten at the end of the past decade — building not only an obsessive fanbase, but also ensnaring the interest of more casual onlookers — which is a status not easily shed in the streaming age. And the lack of success with his one-offs and features was never necessarily going to be indicative of all that much; Travis has long been considered an albums artist first and foremost, and his first full-length set since Astroworld was always going to get more attention than any piecemeal release.
3. Unsurprisingly, the biggest Hot 100 debut for the album this week goes to “Meltdown,” which reunites Scott with his “Sicko Mode” co-star Drake. Do you think “Meltdown” will ultimately be the album’s biggest hit, or do you have your eye on one of the other tracks on the album surpassing or outliving it?
Kyle Denis: I think any song that features a Travis Scott-Drake double-billing will perform well upon release, but I don’t anticipate “Meltdown” being the album’s biggest hit when it’s all said and done. “Telekinesis” (with Future & SZA) has ample crossover potential, and its official TikTok sound has already amassed over 183,000 posts. Both “Modern Jam” (with Teezo Touchdown) and “FE!N” (with Playboi Carti) could grow into hits as well. The former’s dance-laced production makes it one of the album’s more radio-friendly songs, and the latter could ride the rage rap wave to a legitimate mainstream hit. Although it’s one of the more left-field songs on Utopia, the Beyoncé and Bon Iver-assisted “Delresto (Echoes),” could also become a sleeper hit down the line.
Carl Lamarre: I don’t think so. “MELTDOWN” was a huge “LETDOWN,” because of the magnum opus that was “Sicko Mode.” Every track in the future between 6 God and La Flame will pale in comparison, and that’s not a knock at all; it just speaks to the grandeur of “Sicko.” The song I see going crazy is “Fe!n” with Carti. The alliance between two of the new generation’s top superstars (Uzi completes the trinity) is a win for both fanbases. While Travis should tread lightly with these kinds of records, as proven by his 2021 Astroworld debacle, this song is for the headbangers craving destruction and will go off at any concert he plays.
Cydney Lee: I’m leaning towards “Telekinesis” creeping up and becoming a hit. I think Drake’s ridiculous diss towards Pharrell and Pusha T is why there’s been hype (and probably replay value) for “Meltdown,” but Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre called it “diet ‘Sicko Mode’” — which I find hilarious, because yeah. Although Future and SZA carry “Telekinesis,” the bounce and melodies on there are chef’s kiss.
Jason Lipshutz: Nope, I think “Meltdown” is it, by simply existing as a very solid sequel to “Sicko Mode.” Scott and Drake going back and forth over nasty beat switches remains a rock-solid formula for a single that hovers near the top of RapCaviar for months on end, and while Utopia includes some more potential hits, “Meltdown” sounds like a lock to power Scott through the rest of the summer, at least.
Andrew Unterberger: “Telekinesis” definitely has the early indicators — it’s maintaining pretty well on streaming services, and currently ranks in Shazam’s US top 10. Plus, it has SZA and Future, two star guests with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of public enthusiasm and goodwill, and no “Sicko Mode” precedent to constantly be compared to, which may ultimately hurt long-term perception of “Meltdown.”
4. Much has been made of the album’s resemblance to Ye’s Yeezus, with many pointing out that several of the tracks have their origins in older work with (and for) Scott’s superstar mentor. Does this significantly impact your impression of the album, or do you just see it as a natural extension of Scott’s collaborative/curatorial nature as a recording artist?
Kyle Denis: The similarities between Utopia and Yeezus do not significantly impact my impression of Travis’ record. Both Travis and Kanye are curators as much as they are rappers and producers, and that has been clear for years now. You don’t get albums as expansive as Astroworld or Donda solely relying on the myth of singular genius. Hip-hop has been a collaborative culture since its inception. For me, the similarities become interesting when contextualized in the timeline of Utopia’s creation. Travis has been teasing the set for years, and in a 2021 interview, he said that he was in “new album mode where it’s like psychedelic rock.” Given that psychedelic rock is far from the dominant sound of Utopia, I am interested in learning how the record evolved over the past few years, particularly in relation to Scott’s curatorial nature and how closely he and Kanye work together.
Carl Lamarre: As someone who only partially appreciated Yeezus in 2013, I admire Travis’ direction, with Utopia being ten years older. While Kanye should deservingly remain in the doghouse for his controversial behavior over the last few years, I can’t ever knock him when it comes to being a visionary. Like Trav said last night in Rome, there’s no him without Kanye West. Those creative leaps and boundless attempts at doing something different came courtesy of Mr. West, which is why Travis can take those chances today.
Cydney Lee: The latter. Travis has been under the wing of Ye since what, the beginning of his career? Being influenced by a mentor seems inevitable when you’re working closely with them and are studying their every move. He has also cited Kid Cudi as an inspiration for his artistry and while that might not be as apparent sometimes, Travis seems to have taken what he’s learned and witnessed from his mentors and developed his own sonic world. There is a fine line between mimicking and influence but even if the tracks do take from older throwaway tracks, is that not one of the more admirable things about music and artists? Their ability to take something old and make it new again? At least Utopia doesn’t lean heavily on super-recognizable samples.
Jason Lipshutz: I actually think the Yeezus influence on Utopia has been a little overstated – aside from “Circus Maximus,” of course, which functions as “Black Skinhead” for a new decade. While Ye’s 2013 album has obviously impacted the darker, more abrasive streaks of Scott’s overall musical output, Utopia contains enough sonic deviation that I don’t consider the album anything close to a spiritual sequel.
Andrew Unterberger: I also think it’s been a little overstated — yes, there are some sonic similarities and maybe some recording session overlaps, but I don’t think of Yeezus all that much when listening to Utopia, if only because the two sets’ characters are so different. In any event, that the two albums would come from similar production lineages is unsurprising for any number of reasons; I’m not so bothered by that. (That said, I do wish Utopia felt a little fresher in general.)
5. Much has also been made this year of the lack of blockbuster album releases in hip-hop, with Utopia posting nearly triple the first-week numbers of any other rap album so far. Do you see the resounding debut of Utopia as a good thing for 2023 hip-hop, a bad thing, or a little bit of both?
Kyle Denis: It’s hard to say that Utopia’s debut really means anything for 2023 hip-hop. Travis was in such a singular and precarious space leading up to this record’s release that it feels odd to make a judgement on the genre based on this album’s performance. Nonetheless, the album’s first-week numbers do prove that hip-hop is still more than capable of producing “event” albums that can truly dominate the zeitgeist and spark weeks’ worth of discourse and debates. Sonically, Utopia also signals that rage rap is headed for a new era of heightened mainstream presence and commercial success, if the instant success of “FE!N” is anything to go by.
Carl Lamarre: While I’ve enjoyed the success of female rappers in 2023 and the golden age we’re undergoing on that side of the ball, the genre desperately needed a mainstream win. With Travis pulling in blockbuster numbers, it’ll restore some faith in the space, especially knowing that Drake, 21 Savage and Future, amongst others, are looking to close the year out strong with their pending releases.
Cydney Lee: Tough question. Maybe a bit of both? Good because a win is a win. Maybe bad given the context of Travis recently, his lack of being a bit deeper and this overall debut symbolizing that hip-hop’s consumers (or maybe just his fanbase) are more concerned with vibes rather than lyricism/storytelling.
Jason Lipshutz: A good thing. No hip-hop diehard wants a total drought of significant commercial releases during a calendar year, and while Utopia is an imperfect project from an embattled artist, Scott’s latest at least gives the genre a much-needed juggernaut that will likely stick around the top of the Billboard 200 chart over the next few months. Mainstream hip-hop is constantly evolving, and whatever you think of Utopia, a win is a win.
Andrew Unterberger: Mostly a good thing. I think if the album had tanked — which was never all that likely — it would have been looked at as a cause for major concern, given how few big rap albums this year have lived up to expectation. So in that sense, I’m sure it’s a relief to many that an A-list rapper can still produce such A-list numbers. It would be great to have a rapper who’s still on the rise post numbers in this orbit, though, rather than one who’s superstar status was already well-confirmed five years ago.
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