When the annals of our present day are written and they examine the anthropological underpinnings of our culture, this will be one criterion: Was it made into a meme? Specifically, for the Winter 2016-17 season, the meme du jour is the delightfully bizarre act of taking a piece of media and then, following the title, saying “but…”, and this “but” signals that the media will be edited in such a way as to obscure all context save for a buzzword or two. Most popularly, the subjects are Smash Mouth’s eternal “All Star” and the cult-favorite Bee Movie, but anything that’s viral is prime for inclusion. Case in point: Migos’ biggest song to date and the defining song of 2017’s first month, “Bad and Boujee”.
Much ink has already been spilled over this slow-burning star that has since turned into an O-type, but the general consensus about its perfection is spot-on. “Raindrop, drop top” has become millennial code, and Lil Uzi Vert’s annoying-then-endearing “YAH, YAH, YAH, YAH, YAH, YAH”, which has become the subject of the aforementioned meme, will never leave your head. Metro Boomin, after being the best producer of this decade’s second half thus far, has finally scored his well-deserved number one. But the real stars here are the Migos, a group who for a moment looked to be on the Chief Keef trajectory — score a couple of hit singles, but by and large exist for the acclaim of Music Twitter with little widespread recognition. On their second studio album, C U L T U R E, the Atlanta trio escapes the missteps of their debut, Yung Rich Nation, and the bloated nature of many of their mixtapes for their most impressive work yet.
Not only are Migos setting some of the most popular trends in contemporary rap, they’re eschewing them, too. Even with members of the trio missing from songs, like on “Bad and Boujee”, they still routinely push the upper limits of four-minutes-plus, and C U L T U R E is no different. Save for the DJ Khaled-featuring opener, every song eclipses the normal length of radio fare, and for listeners who have come to the group thanks to their zeitgeisty hit, it may drag at first. But be patient — just as Meaghan Garvey explored Future’s many personas in her masterful profile for MTV, each part of the triad has his own special function. Quavo, the breakout star by virtue of the highest-profile out-of-group appearances, is known for his charisma both on- and off-stage, but his true gift is the way his Auto-Tuned croonings provide a melodic look at the trap. Whereas Quavo elongates his words like taffy, Offset is quite punctual and his omission of syllables is a direct forefather to Madeintyo’s 2016 his “Uber Everywhere”. Takeoff, rounding them out, is technically the strongest, at this point emeritus status of the triplet flow, cramming as many internal rhymes as possible without distorting the message. If there’s an analog for a sufficient statistic in their music, this is it. What makes C U L T U R E such an engrossing listen is how all three are at the tops of their game, aware of and shaping the moment simultaneously.
The opening four tracks are designed to act as a first-third flex on the rest of the game. A serviceable DJ Khaled brag-fest is not necessary, but instead, serves as a status symbol; were this 2007, DJ Drama would undoubtedly be playing this part. From there, three of the singles come in succession — “T-Shirt”, with its video-of-the-millennium contender, “Call Casting”, the best non-Zaytoven Zaytoven beat I’ve heard, and the inescapable “Bad and Boujee”. “Bad and Boujee”’s placement is smart, as it signals the end of their non-concession radio grab section and the beginning of mixtape Migos that first brought them such love.
In the era of Trump, those in opposition to his presidency need a source of joy — this was a topic discussed on the latest episode of Chapo Trap House — and while Migos (as far as we know) cannot solve issues of constitutional magnitude, listening to them speed through verses over some of the most optimistic production they’ve had under them since the all-out bliss of Y.R.N. and the best-intro-of-their-career from No Label II can certainly act as a welcome distraction. And sometimes, doing what you do best is enough to create a compelling work; while Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff are not deviating from the formula that got them here, their synergy is uncanny. As evinced by the surreal Llama Llama Red Pajama reading/freestyle they did for Power 106, the ad-libbing is perfect even when they don’t know what the other will say yet. They have a real skill in getting words stuck in your head, and even the longer hooks of songs like “Slippery” featuring Atlanta kingmaker Gucci Mane or the semi-rhetorical follow-up “Big on Big” will worm their way in after just a listen.
This isn’t to say that everything is sunny for rap’s current biggest group. Standout track “Deadz” featuring an in-the-pocket 2 Chainz (“Gang bang / Slang ‘caine / Heroin / Half a ton / Purple Haze / Cam’ron / Plays off a Samsung / Get the job done”) was reacted to by Music Twitter the same way Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” was, as a diamond in the rough on an already improved effort. It’s doubtful that the funereal pomp will be able to play on Ellen like the latter song, but for anybody looking to get a shot of adrenaline, the somber horns should do the trick.
Really, Migos could have taken “Bad and Boujee” and their stellar appearance on one of our best shows of 2016, Atlanta, and called it a successful season. But what fun would that be when you are the culture you’re looking to dominate? So few major label rap albums make it this far without glaring errors and disappointing radio-baiting features (just see the unnecessary Chris Brown appearance from their debut), but C U L T U R E is that rare work, one where an artist’s aesthetic is funneled into every track, where you can sense the trajectory from their previous works to this one. By being made into a meme, Migos have ensured their lasting presence; even without it, however, this album will stand as a worthy artifact.