Migos is free to do whatever it wants.
“I’d rather be rich than famous,” declared Takeoff on the intro of Migos’ Yung Rich Nation, but its fans clearly didn’t get the memo. Has any fan base in history been as devoted to getting its heroes on bigger and bigger stages? There was a petition to have the group perform at the Super Bowl instead of Lady Gaga. Donald Glover featured Migos on his show Atlanta and shouted it out at his speech at the Golden Globes. Migos even gets compared to the Beatles. The praise seems half-jokey, playing into the group’s inherent goofiness – these are the guys, after all, with the hit single whose chorus is simply “Versace” repeated ad nauseam. But given how influential its triplet flow has been on the rap landscape, it makes a certain amount of sense.
Besides, why shouldn’t these guys be compared to the Beatles? Atlanta rap is widely despised: “mumble rap,” it’s called, loathed for its shortage of storytelling, political import, internal rhymes and – inevitably – lack of “talent” among its practitioners. Yet mumble rap accounts for some of the biggest music in the country. Most critics, weaned on indie rock and less concerned with messianism and technical skill than rap purists or classic rockists, have been warm towards Young Thug, Gucci Mane and their ilk. But it must be frustrating to be part of a thriving tradition that’s oft dismissed as barely even being art.
If everyone in rap is rocking the Migos flow, how is that any different from every Brit band ripping off the Beatles during the Invasion? The difference is that the Beatles were the biggest band in the world. Migos isn’t, and catapulting it to an international stage might just make the difference. “Bad and Boujee,” from its second album Culture, peaked at number one. This could soon be the biggest rap group on the planet.
Culture opens with a genuinely pissed-sounding DJ Khaled, far from the avuncular teddy bear he plays on Snapchat, decrying everyone who ever “doubted the Migos.” The culture is referenced throughout: “They rep the culture from the streets,” explains Khaled, and at one point, the group’s breakout star Quavo explicitly sneers, “You talkin’ ‘bout modern-day rap but don’t know the culture.” Culture implies refinement, order, sophistication – things that critics who dismiss Southern rap and racists who dismiss black art as a whole wouldn’t associate with this music. Migos shouldn’t have to ask for its music to be considered art, but here it is.
This is an uncompromising album, a pure distillation of Migos’ art. There are no plays for accessibility as on its last studio album. “Bad and Boujee” is the hit, but that’s mostly because it’s the one Glover shouted out. Most of these tracks could have been hits, and the ones that couldn’t have been are surprisingly experimental; “What The Price” begins with nearly a minute of Funkadelic guitar burbling before the drums hit, and Zaytoven is allowed to indulge his ivory-tickling talent for surprisingly long stretches of the two cuts he contributes.
These songs aren’t weird like ones on, say, Young Thug’s Jeffery or Future’s more mind-bending tapes. Instead, they’re risky and kind of pretty. Migos is not one of the more eccentric Atlanta rap acts, though it’s distinctive and extremely funny. This really is a hilarious album, its punchlines (“White boys in the gang/ Call ‘em Andy Milonakis”) hitting all the harder because they’re not the focus. As with much of the best Atlanta rap, the listening experience is holistic: Migos’ rhyming skills and flow are formidable, but the words can disappear into background noise as you focus on that funny little bell or whistle in the back.
Words are important, but nearly as important are the ad-libs. When a space between two bars isn’t taken up by an ad-lib, we feel something’s missing, and it creates tension. Then a bar later, someone goes “skrrrt” and the other shoe drops. If you want to hear how in sync Migos is, there’s a wondrous video of it rapping a children’s book about a llama in pajamas. At one point, two of them ad-lib “llama” perfectly in time, playing off each other like a jazz band.
There’s no filler and only one bad song, “Deadz,” a blustery symphony that recalls horrorcore and breaks with the good-natured goofiness with which Migos generally talk about slinging cocaine and counting their money. This is all the more impressive given that Culture is 58 minutes long, risky when your songs are more or less variations on each other. The absence of slinky single “Cocoon” may disappoint some, but it doesn’t really fit with the album’s vibe. “Cocoon” is liquid, psychedelic, while most of Culture is rock-solid. It’s hard to miss it too much given the wealth that’s here.
It’s a cushy position to have suddenly catapulted to success beyond your control while doing almost nothing to your core sound. Much of Culture was recorded before Migos had any idea how big it would become, and it’s possible that after the critical and commercial failure of Yung Rich Nation, it was preparing to coast and release something good rather than something big. Culture is Migos’ best album and it will probably move an obscene number of units. With a fan base that likes it for exactly who it is, Migos is free to do whatever it wants. The thought of what it will do next makes the mind wriggle with delight.