Despite a few unnecessary detours, "JACKBOYS" provides the rush it aims for.
It’s hard to know what to expect from a record label’s compilation project, especially when the label is still in its nascent stages. Cactus Jack Records is far from fully-fledged. Many may even struggle to name the artists that belong to it. Perhaps that could be the purpose of one of these projects: to introduce the roster. Other times, the collective has already proven its potential, but comes together to claim or reassert dominance over the game. JACKBOYS aims to both present its members and convince the world that they are on top - an ambitious endeavour that may also be the only acceptable way to make an entrance in hip hop.
In 2017, Travis Scott launched Cactus Jack Records, his own imprint on Epic Records. The following year, he signed his first artist, Harlem rapper Sheck Wes. Wes was already buzzing off “Mo Bamba” and he cashed in on that buzz by delivering his debut, MUDBOY, at just the right moment. Despite his album being well-received, he became a peripheral character in 2019. The diversion of his trajectory may have had much to do with his ex-girlfriend and recording artist, Justine Skye, publicly accusing him of abuse in February. Cactus Jack’s second signee came later in the year.
The signing of Don Toliver didn’t become public knowledge through an official announcement, but was a contingent discovery upon first hearing Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD. As you tried to compile your one-listen review of the album, you took note of the slew of uncredited features. While you were capable of discerning vocals from Drake and Frank Ocean and 21 Savage, one voice remained unidentifiable, yet incredibly captivating. Your intrigue drove you to do research into the matter… or you just consulted your Twitter feed and saw a bunch of people talking about some guy named Don Toliver. He was the mysterious Houston artist with the standout verse on “CAN’T SAY”, with the nasally tone and soaring warbles. Whoever this was, Travis struck gold. Toliver dropped his debut mixtape, Donny Womack, a day before ASTROWORLD, so for all those craving more of him after hearing “CAN’T SAY”, they had somewhere to turn. While this was surely an ingenious strategy, a Don Toliver takeover didn’t follow.
JACKBOYS, the first compilation project from Cactus Jack Records, can be seen as Travis’ mentees auditioning for lead roles in 2020. The competition becomes all-the-more heated when the outside guests who are brought in have already secured spots at the table. The EP opens with a remix of Travis’ “Highest In The Room”, his highly-anticipated single that shot to No. 1 in October. We finally receive the leaked verse from the ever-consistent Lil Baby and an additional treat from the future of pop, Rosalía. There is a sublime moment when Travis and the Spanish singer’s breathy vocals intertwine in the first verse, but the choice to commence JACKBOYS with features from two non-CJR artists is an odd one.
Turns out that song wasn’t the opening, though. It was a trailer that preceded the main event. This program is communicated by “Highest In The Room (Remix)” being followed by the cleansing instrumental “INTRO” that trickles into “GANG GANG”. Off the bat, “GANG GANG” seems like a concept that is far past its expiration date, yet the song proves at several points that it’s worth your time. The beat from VOU and WondaGurl is a slow burn that leaves plenty of room for the artists to approach it as they wish and leads to a diversity in performances. Sheck Wes tries on a disaffected drawl. Don Toliver counters him by bursting with colorful character. Travis provides neither a verse, chorus or bridge, but he’s omnipresent. His ad-libs and haunting croons swirl around the track like a watchful father. Luxury Tax 50 fulfills the same role of the secret, show-stealing verse that Don Toliver did on “CAN’T SAY”. Not much is known about the Inglewood rapper other than that Travis has hinted at signing him and he left a memorable mark on JACKBOYS.
“HAD ENOUGH” is Don Toliver’s time to shine. He’s at home over the soulful sample in the chorus, belting out melodies that make perfect sense of why he has a mixtape named after Bobby Womack. He shows how swiftly he can translate his singing to rapping when the beat morphs into a trap template. Quavo and Offset contribute solid performances, but most importantly, their presences confirm that Toliver can thrive when surrounded by heavy-hitters. “WHAT TO DO?”, on the other hand, isn’t about him thriving. It’s about how well he and Travis complement each other. On this dramatic duet, they both effusively sing about being really fucked up. It’s the kind of grandiose ode to banal circumstances that Travis has made his trademark. With Mike Dean at the helm, these drug rap symphonies become spectacular and psychedelic. The theatrics of “WHAT TO DO?” reach a peak with the synth breakdown, washed-out guitar solo and, of course, strings.
The project is capped off with “GATTI”, whose explosive energy would have made it more suitably placed after “INTRO”. If Pop Smoke - who is not signed to Cactus Jack Records - weren’t the one busting out the gates on “GATTI”, it probably would have been placed there. He commands the track for almost all of its first two minutes. It’s hard not to draw a parallel between Pop Smoke and Sheck Wes. Pop Smoke, who hails from Brooklyn, had a massive hit that steamed off the streets this summer, “Welcome To The Party”. In 2018, Sheck Wes had “Mo Mamba”. They’re both raucous tracks that inaugurated artists prepared to shake up the scene. While the futures of both their careers remain open, Pop Smoke certainly made a bigger bang on JACKBOYS.
So, what do we take away from JACKBOYS? Travis Scott has a grand vision, big enough to host other artists to play around in it and produce some great music. Since JACKBOYS possesses similar sonic motifs as Travis’ solo work and he is pretty much everywhere on this EP, it can feel like a Travis project with a load of features (not too different from ASTROWORLD). Whether Travis intended to come across as the captain of a ship or a nurturer of new talent is up to interpretation. JACKBOYS is another wild ride curated by Travis, a man with a relentless thirst for maximum thrill. What remains to be determined is whether the artists he’s placing in the passenger seats are bold enough to grab the wheel and keep us just as enraptured as he has.