Super Bowl fallout notwithstanding, it’s a good time to be in Atlanta. Most of the country spent Sunday rooting for the Falcons; Stone Mountain native Donald Glover is at the helm of television’s most exciting new comedy, Atlanta; and among a relatively unexciting new class of hip-hop freshmen, Migos — the meme-obsessed trio of relatives Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset — are the latest local artists to be thrust to the vanguard of pop superstardom, thanks at least in part to Quavo’s appearance on Atlanta and Glover’s shoutout of the band during his Golden Globes acceptance speech.
Their latest album, Culture, sits atop the Billboard chart, and its thesis statement is apparent in the opening seconds. Rap’s resident meme-maker DJ Khaled begins with this: “They try to play us, they play themselves/This the intro/For all you fuckboys that ever doubted the Migos/You played yourself! (Another one)/Fuckboy, bow down.” If you’re trying to unpack Khaled’s koan, stop right now. Non sequitur is the basic building block of Migos. Everything is all about how fun life is now; why focus on anything else?
To be fair, it’s worth focusing for at least a second on where they came from. The trio came into mainstream relevance after Drake’s remix of their single “Versace” became mandatory listening for hip-hop fans in late 2013. Such a rise was unsurprising to Atlanta’s rap intelligentsia, a spiderweb in which Migos is enmeshed: They’re managed by Coach K, former handler of Atlanta trap godfather Gucci Mane, and they frequently collaborate with fellow Southern rap architect Zaytoven, who produced their regional hit “Bando,” off 2012’s No Label. Later hits “Hannah Montana,” “Chinatown,” and “F*ck 12” were all nods to their hometown’s cutthroat mixtape community: explosively produced, teeming with lyrical energy, and utterly listenable.
From the beginning, the trio has been adept at creating social ephemera. Memes, they call them. “Look at My Dab,” from 2015, was the first track to popularize a craze that still exists in suburban middle school classrooms. “Bad and Boujee,” Culture‘s first single, has been buoyed by memes created by Twitter users inspired to insert a second verse of their own. It’s the latest chapter in a growing trend: singles deriving their successes from social media.
Music is deployed in order to make someone money, and now, apparently, so are memes. Do the facts that (1), the music industry’s primary purpose is to make money, and (2), a meme is a product of organic social behavior, constitute some kind of a disparity? And, if so, it begs the question: Who “owns” a meme? The person who created it? Or the person who profits off it the most?
Migos probably doesn’t give a shit about these kinds of questions, though, because what’s immediately apparent is that they’re making oodles of money off the meme-ification of “Bad and Boujee” — quite the come-up, considering that the song is one of the least memorable singles they’ve released, bereft of any of the restive energy and Mamet-esque interplay between Quavo and Takeoff that defines their best work, which on Culture comes through in the soporifics sprinkled between mostly forgettable viral singles.
Quavo shines in the initial bars of standout “Kelly Price,” the young superstar showing off a taunting brood that should make Future nervous. The album tends to shine when wearing its influences on its sleeve. A good-natured humor familiar to Zaytoven’s mixtape heyday permeates one of the album’s singles, “Call Casting” — the soft tinkle of piano keys dancing over the boom of 808s, the sound of Sprite fizzing over the rattle of ice cubes. Gucci himself makes an appearance on “Slippery,” reminding the trio of the progenitor of their dark humor: “Drop the top on College, nigga, I ain’t with no nonsense/And I’m a murderer, nigga, but I don’t promote violence.”
The trio’s Atlanta influences come to a head on Culture‘s closer, “Out Yo Way,” a soulful track confected from the same sound kit that produced the capacious, synth-driven beat behind Rich Homie Quan’s “Flex.” But instead of riding the bounce into another anthem, Migos opt to flip the model on its head, with Quavo eking out the album’s best hook, a lament drowned in Auto-Tune, and the closest Culture comes to sorrow.
There are quite a few forgettable tracks on the album. “Get Right Witcha” runs into “Big on Big,” which melds with “What the Price,” which stumbles into “Brown Paper Bag”; any attempt to stray from an easily consumable single can be thrown away. “What the Price” is especially uninspired, finding Takeoff unable to shake the torpor that inevitably surfaces any time the group reaches outside solipsism: “Tell me what the preacher preach about/Tell me what the teacher teach about.”
This is, by all means, the album we expected: It’s rapped with blatant disrespect for iambic pentameter, laden with non sequiturs and impeccable ad libs, and it’s a look into a kind of Bizarro-superstardom that only Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset can call their own. It’s packed with everything that has made the group the most promising act to come out of Atlanta since Future, and nothing else.
It’s an album that has no intention of amounting to anything greater than the sum of its parts, because it’s the parts that matter the most. We should applaud Migos for finding success however they can, but not without tracking how we define the word itself. What does it mean when even a “good” album was marketed better than it was crafted? Is fracture and packaging the only way into our minds anymore? How quickly were we inured to the pop music machine’s co-opting of what is, in its purest form, supposed to be a directionless, democratic endeavor?
Also, how do you cook up dope with an Uzi?