Review: Migos: the modern, mainstream kings of “Culture”
Migos, a hip-hop group based in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, was formed in 2009 by Quavious Marshall, Kirshnik Ball and Kiari Cephus, who are respectively called Quavo, Takeoff and Offset on stage. With hits like “Versace” and “Hannah Montana,” the group’s third mixtape, “Y.R.N.” (2013) secured its place on top music charts. Migos is, perhaps, most famous for popularizing “the dab,” a dance move that originated on the Atlanta hip-hop scene, in 2015.
“Culture,” which was released on Jan. 27, is only Migos’ second studio album, arriving on the tail of years of mainstream media coverage and success for its mixtapes, hit singles and legal troubles. The album represents a return to the mainstream spotlight for the group after a tenuous year. The first shot fired off this unapologetic trap album came in November 2016, with the massively popular “Bad and Boujee,” featuring Lil Uzi Vert. The track included Migos’ signature triplet flow, placed over a sharp snare and electronic beat typical of the song’s producer, Metro Boomin.
Common themes throughout the album’s tracks include drug dealing, beautiful women, firearms, making money and beating the competition. These topics, while obviously problematic for their possible role in promoting sexism, violence and drug use, are nothing new to the genre of rap, or, indeed, to the music industry. Anyone who argues that Migos promotes a culture of criminality in a new, ‘more explicit’ way than before clearly never listened to Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. or even earlier rock legends like Johnny Cash who referenced gun and drug use. Though following established tropes within the genre does not justify sexist or dangerous behavior, I would argue that the lifestyle promoted by Migos often makes extreme compromises between extravagance and mediocrity in a manner that approaches satire. The women may be “bad and boujee,” terms that in this instance mean attractive with expensive tastes, but, to make enough money to subsidize his womanizing, Offset must continue “cookin’ up [crack cocaine] in a crockpot,” an act that is inherently unglamorous.
For even more ridiculous content from Migos, one need look no further than the group’s music video for the song “T-Shirt.” Directed by DAPS and Quavo, the video places the trio on a snow-covered mountaintop. The first 30 seconds of the video evoke a scene from “The Revenant,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio is replaced by three young black men with gold chains and sunglasses. Clad in wolf and bear pelts, the three travelers enter an igloo where an old, white frontiersman is huddling around a fire. “Welcome,” he says. Takeoff responds “Seventeen five, same color t-shirt,” in reference to the price and color of the cocaine they have been buying. Takeoff then proceeds to drop a pelt bag stuffed with stacks of $100 bills at the man’s feet. At this point, the electric blare of the beat begins, kicking off a classic trap music video, complete with guns, scantily fur-clad models and moving snowmobile sequences. The video makes little sense, but if one stops attempting to look for meaning and instead embraces the grandioso, unrelenting melodic fun of Migos, it becomes easy to see why the group is such a success.
With “Culture,” Migos successfully created the perfect intersection of trap and pop music that earlier rappers have often struggled with. The rappers are young, cool and not worried about their futures. Their swaggering, serpentine bars flow around bouncing snare beats and sad piano melodies; any silences during verses are quickly filled by enthusiastic echoes or “skrrt” adlibs. Their lyrics are often superficial, but they are spoken with emotion, occasionally offering great insight into the young men’s minds. In the album’s closing song, “Out Yo Way,” Quavo raps, “Now that this fame came, I can see the hate on you / Mama told me stay strong, grandma told me stay on / Now she looking down, throwin’ blessings.” Here, Quavo espouses the importance of integrity and family, a bond that is particularly important to Migos, whose members are all related. Even in blindly enjoyable pop-trap anthems, deep, heartfelt messages can be found for those who care to look.
Donald Glover recently gave Migos a shoutout during his speech at the 2017 Golden Globes.
“I really want to thank Atlanta and all the black folks in Atlanta,” said Glover, while accepting the Golden Globe for Best TV series for his FX hit, “Atlanta.” “Just for being alive and for doing amazing and for being amazing people … And I really want to thank the Migos. Not for being on the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’ Like that’s the best song ever.” Glover is also a rapper, comedian, singer, songwriter, and writer. His unique brand of cross-medium success makes him a strong authority on popular culture, and his public recognition of Migos’ recent hit only reaffirms what many Migos fans already knew: “Culture” refers to trap culture. But, as its somewhat enigmatic name suggests, this culture, like the band itself, has become an integral part of mainstream American culture.
Highlights: “Bad and Boujee,” “Brown Paper Bag,” “What the Price,” “T-Shirt"