“The South got something to say.”
Andre 3000’s infamous response to a hostile Manhattan crowd at the 1995 Source Awards tends to be remembered as prophecy. The quote rarely gets cited directly, but you can hear its puckish echoes anytime someone declares Rae Sremmurd the best duo since Snoop and Dre, or defends Rich Homie Quan forgetting Biggie lyrics, or proclaims Migos are better than the Beatles. There’s something perpetually vindicating about the South, especially Atlanta, eclipsing New York, Los Angeles, and rock, as the epicenter of rap, of music, of culture. Donald Glover’s Atlanta plays this game quite adeptly, fueling Atlanta’s mystique even as it sneers at the sus beliefs that keep that mystique alive. What’s lost in the jokes, the trolling, and the thinkpieces, though, is that Andre 3000 wasn’t prophesying: he was picking a side in a culture war.
Culture wars in rap are both high-stakes and utterly insignificant—East vs. West, Lyrics vs. Personality, Written vs. Freestyled, Underground vs. Mainstream, Street vs. Club, Mixtape vs. Album, Thrift Shop vs. Swimming Pool, Detroit vs. Everybody—but the thrust of each skirmish is who, what, or where gets to define rap, for perpetuity, or for the moment.
Another Migos moment is underway, with the release of their latest LP, Culture, and it’s startling how starkly it contrasts the Migos moments of the past. Migos ended their debut album with a cautious reflection on their success. “Now I’m having recognition,” Quavo crooned on “Recognition,” more surprised than triumphant. Back then, that surprise made sense. In 2013, on the strength of “Versace” Migos spread like e. coli in a water park, infecting rappers high and low. But there was skepticism from the start, from dunderheads like Ebro, who openly mocked Migos in an early interview, to backhanded love from places like the Washington Post, where “Versace” was deemed a “flukey success,” and the Fader, where Migos were described as getting “by on drive and force of personality more than anything else.” In 2014, Migos persisted, signing a distribution deal with Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment, churning out five mixtapes, and riding high on singles “Fight Night” and “Handsome and Wealthy,” both of which cracked the Billboard Hot 100. But even they had begun to be touched by the skepticism. “How long you think we gonna last?” Quavo asked an interviewer toward the end of the year.
By the time Yung Rich Nation was released in the summer of 2015, Migos seemed to be edging toward the periphery. Offset was in jail again following an incident in Statesboro, Georgia, and the album itself was strangely contained, trading the mania and grit of their previous work for polished tracks with slower, bouncier deliveries. Plus, it lacked a strong single. They found their stride in dabbing, making a third song about it (“Look at My Dab”) and eventually embarking on the Dab Tour, but even as dabbing spread to athletes and politicians, the moment felt marred by how clearly Migos needed the attention. Y.R.N. 2, released in early 2016, was just as longing. “We the ones came up with dabbin’, we put ‘em on trap fashion,” Quavo scoffed on “YRN 2 Intro,” still seeking recognition.
Culture comes at a time of ubiquitous Migos appreciation, from Donald Glover, from the charts, and from social media. Riding high on “Bad and Boujee” Migos has earned a platinum certification and grassroots calls to replace Lady Gaga at Super Bowl LI are emerging. If Migos were looking for an opportunity to sneer down from the mountaintop, to definitively declare themselves better than the Beatles, the doubters, and the biters (especially biter-supreme Drake, who took seven years to score a No. 1 single as the primary artist; Migos took four), now would be the time. But Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset aren’t cynics. Culture is welcoming and assured, above the fray and beyond the conversation.
The album is introduced by DJ Khaled, who appears in full pundit mode to denounce fuckboys and doubters, but his cameo is satirical. “Culture album coming soon,” Takeoff says, as if the album will be released in some distant future. Quavo and Offset act just as indifferently, punching in and out with a few bars apiece. Khaled’s made a career out of blurring the line between self-parody and calculated branding, but Migos choose a different route. Uninterested in either the highs or lows of the culture wars, Migos opt out, leaving the gassing to the blowhards. It’s a subtle move and it immediately lowers the temperature in the room, allowing Culture to settle into casualness rather than stiffen into belligerence. The album is a city-sized no flex zone.
Musically, Culture doesn’t take many quantum leaps from Y.R.N. 2, but there are some tiny refinements. Migos has been injecting more dead air into their songs since Yung Rich Nation, inserting pauses between rhymes and lightening the density of the vocal layering. This approach pays dividends on songs like “T-Shirt” and “Brown Paper Bag.” On “T-Shirt” Takeoff’s opening verse is both choppy and fluid, backed by Auto-Tuned harmonizing from Quavo, which treads along the synths without disturbing Takeoff’s punctuated ad-libs. Previous songs (see “Trap Funk,” “Night Time”) would have filled all that empty space like a slumlord in winter. The chorus of “Brown Paper Bag” is just as porous. “Brown (brown), paper (paper), bags (bags),” Offset calmly says. “Bad and Boujee” is the greatest testament to this tweak. The verses are full of choice gaps that give the song a blasé feel despite its blitzkrieg rhyming. “Yeah, that way,” Quavo raps after a flurry of rhymes.
The other upgrade is a constant shift in performance order and a few tracks where not everyone contributes. Before Back to the Bando, which was recorded while Offset was incarcerated, the bulk of Migos songs began with Quavo and ended with Offset, with either Quavo or Takeoff handling the chorus. Unequal contributions within a group are acceptable when there are real gaps in skill (see Ratking, Odd Future, Wu-Tang, etc.), but it’s always a triumph when gaps are closed. Quavo still handles most choruses, but Offset and Takeoff really hold their own here, their strengths on full display on songs like “Call Casting” and “Deadz.”
Overwrought bores like “What the Price,” “All Ass,” and “Kelly Price” bring the album to a lull, but even that’s forgivable, more sedate than nauseating. Migos lack the audacity of a Kanye, or the ambition of a Kendrick, or the cunning of a Drake, so it doesn’t make sense to judge this album based on how it does or doesn’t transform culture. Migos aren’t disruptors or visionaries or auteurs and they don’t have to be. They’re workmen, punching in and punching out, finding success not in leaps forward but in measurable steps.
We tend to think of culture in terms of objects and events, inventions and discoveries, but culture is also defined by repetition, reiteration, recurrence. Migos built a career out of consistency. Let them have their moment.