Migos’ second studio album, Culture, opens with a boast from perennial hypeman DJ Khaled. Maybe having DJ Khaled spit out his Snapchat truisms on a track is a symbol of the Atlanta-based rap trio’s heightened clout. But here, Khaled operates as a mediator — a middleman who handily, if bluntly, lays out why Migos matters to anyone who hasn’t kept up.
“They rep the culture from the streets,” Khaled points out in an offhand line, the first of only a few explicit references to “culture” on Culture. The trio’s influence on culture, one may recall, is plentiful: There’s the endless stream of “rain drop, drop top” memes, “Look at My Dab,” which effectively brought the dab from Atlanta functions to the likes of Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan, and “Versace,” the song that, thanks to a Drake assist, brought Migos’ trademark triple-time flow (and the luxury brand) past regional fame to national consciousness.
Migos stakes its claim on a place in the cultural pantheon with Culture, a sprawling yet unassuming showcase of the trio at the peak of its powers. Unlike “Fight Night” or “Pipe it Up” — which were destined for club play but ultimately floundered on radio charts — Culture distances itself from any forced appeasement to radio rap. Rather than flicker in and out of the 24-hour culture cycle, Migos is content burrowing into collective memory and waiting for the masses to catch up.
The trio, comprising Offset, Takeoff and Quavo, doesn’t stray here from covering familiar mixtape territory: its beautiful, salacious women, its flashy displays of excess and the assorted substances that fill its baggies and cups.
But the braggadocio that Migos built itself upon is fully honed on Culture. The raps are sharper and more substantial, both in form and content. “Slippery” showcases Offset’s dizzying flow as he hopscotches from his “wife to be” and her Italian furs to trapping in “the jungle.” He breezily matches bars with Atlanta rap deity Gucci Mane, who’s in notably good form here. On the otherwise-straightforward trap anthem “Brown Paper Bag,” Takeoff scrawls an abject tale of theft and familial duty as harrowing as the ones Clipse told more than a decade ago.
Quavo, after breaking out to near-stardom on his own through countless features, proves his growth here as a skilled marksman. If he’s not the best, he’s damn well memorable. Take his ridiculous verse on “Get Right Witcha,” where he takes on three different flows and countless ad-libs as he name-drops a gas station, references his Vietnamese plug and, through it all, proclaims “fuck the system.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of Migos’ evolution, however, is the lavish soundscapes the three rap over on Culture. The low-end heavy trap production that permeates their work has bloomed into something stadium-sized, lush and even gorgeous at times.
“Big on Big” is five minutes of nonstop flexing (“How you gon’ big on big?” asks Takeoff in the hook), but longtime collaborator Zaytoven’s string-laden arrangement reeks of money even without any mentions of Versace. The production just sounds “Bad and Boujee,” if you will. More adventurous is “What the Price,” where psych-rock guitar riffs send up the proposition that Migos is the new Beatles. Better yet, Migos somehow evokes Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” throughout the 2 Chainz-featuring “Deadz,” a stark overture to counting hundreds.
As of today, Migos’ miracle of a breakthrough single “Bad and Boujee” will bounce back at the top of the charts for the second week. Its success now might be a mere fluke, but it shouldn’t have to be that way if Migos keeps dropping records as good as Culture.
“Atlanta” showrunner and comedian Donald Glover, after paying his dues to the trio at this year’s Golden Globes, needed to clarify his statement to a reporter who couldn’t even pronounce Migos correctly. Migos, allegedly, only performed on the late-night circuit after the Golden Globe nod, long after the “Bad and Boujee” memes were gone.
Migos creates culture, from the streets, for the masses. We’re still playing catch-up.