26 Jan 2018
The Atlanta-based hip-hop trio Migos was one of the dominant forces in popular music in 2017. Together and separate, they were omnipresent, with guest features, mixtapes, high-profile tour appearances, Internet memes, and their first #1 hit, the inescapable "Bad and Boujee". Their album Culture carried domination in its fabric, through their triumphant trap-house-to-luxury tales, and the way they saw themselves as embodying hip-hop culture overall and carrying it forward.
A big achievement of Culture, as an album, was the way it took the wild tendencies of Migos' three rappers (Quavos, Offset, Takeoff) and polished them without diminishing them. As weird, funny and energetic as they were on their breakout mixtape Y.R.N. in 2013 and on their debut album Yung Rich Nation two years later, they seemed even more so on Culture while projecting star status. Like so many of the best recent hip-hop, their presence was that of larger-than-life superstars (the rock stars of today) but with specific personalities and idiosyncrasies. Culture's word-associative trap anthems are riddled with odd juxtapositions and allusions, plus ad-lib vocal riffs somewhere between cheerleading and Michael Winslow effects, flowing forth as endemic to their style.
On Culture, when you get past clear singles "Bad and Boujee" and "T-Shirt", you reach stretches of songs where Migos ride a consistent groove – songs with a repeated hook, a low-key, steady track, and verses that feel like revisions of each other. As an album Culture felt less a collection of 13 attempted hits, more like an overall sound and feeling that they were exploring and owning. It felt like an aura they developed and were selling the world. Completely in tune with their city, community and musical peers yet out in front drawing new onlookers moment by moment.
Culture II picks up the Migos story in that place. Culture brought its own vibe, walked its own steady walk. Its sequel doubles down on it and expands it outward almost to infinity. Twenty-four tracks and 106 minutes long (ten minutes shy of doubling Culture's length), it's begging us to call it a bloated sequel. And so far critics are taking the bait, emboldened by the idea (perhaps correct) that its length is a business decision in our streaming-counts era. (Vulture headline: "Culture II Isn't an Album, It's a Data Dump".)
As long as the album is, its consistency – how deeply they dive into the sound they perfected on Culture -- makes it a different beast than the long for long's sake slodge you might imagine. To complain about Culture II's length is almost to miss its point of being. Last year they put themselves forth as the kings of hip-hop culture; representing it, caring about it, living it. On Culture II they're trying to take their ownership of that crown to the next level – expanding the Migos sound outward until it's taken over everything. This is their next imperial push, an amorphous one not based on innovation but sheer growth.
As good as Culture's hits were, its deeper album cuts had a powerful impact too. Culture II will too have its hits. "Motorsport" featuring Nicki Minaj and Cardi B is already moving; "Walk It Talk It" featuring Drake is another clear contender. But it also feels like they've taken those deep cuts and built them into an album. (The one literal example of that is "Open It Up", a sort of continuation of "Deadz" from Culture.) Migos allow themselves to glide, to bask, even while they push forward.
There is experimentation on Culture II, but it's subtle. It'd be easy to listen and consider this just another Migos album, even as they try to impress with scope and confidence. But the music isn't the same old thing. There are interesting twists and turns; they just don't smack you in the head. Examples: the horns lazing their way through the background of "BBO (Bad Bitches Only)", featuring 21 Savage, and "Too Playa", featuring 2 Chainz; Pharrell's bright-funk production in "Stir Fry"; the almost-buried ghostly vocals from a Bob Marley song in "Crown the Kings". And so on – the expanse of music here means more details will emerge the more we listen.
Migos' lyrics on Culture II are similar to the music – not unfamiliar, very much in their lane, but they still hit some sharp notes that embody their strengths, and they still manage to surprise with a turn of phrase (mostly a sports allusion or another new way to describe jewelry). The guest MCs scattered about feel rightly placed, not just advertising hooks meant to get our attention. They too represent the place, geographic but also artistic, that Migos is coming from.
While not all of these 24 songs are equally impressive, nothing about Culture II feels like they're going through the motions. And as often as they seem to be stretching out one musical approach while fixating on the luxuries of success (cars, diamonds, plentiful cash), there's very little about Culture II that feels shallow. These songs are rooted in experience. The same song where Offset imagines the mirror of Snow White telling them they're the richest of all is one where Quavo dedicates their music to his "grandma watching in the sky". Songs that musically resemble 'typical' Migos songs still resonate with rich, deep sounds and grooves.
The "culture" concept itself feels more intentional and rewarding. Compared to last year's intro (featuring DJ Khaled, doing his thing), this time they start with a pledge to go further. "Higher we go / Beg and plead for the culture." On the final track, "Culture National Anthem", they get introspective (again with some late-night jazz behind them) about the relationship between their everyday lifestyle and the culture they represent. You might think of them (and other rappers of their ilk) as bragging about a lifestyle that's unreachable to most. But the bridge Quavo sings at the end, with references to 'taking a knee' and the divisiveness of the moment, shows they're paying attention to the world while making their name in it. To end the album (more or less), Quavo sings, "Mama told me, 'Break out of these chains, son, and you'll go far'". Far they've gone, but they're still pushing forward.