Art by Charito Yap
Abe Beame might still go “woo” on a bitch.
At this point, it’s something of a cliche to call the rap group dead. The halcyon days of humble duos like Mobb Deep, the Jungle Brothers, Gangstarr, Outkast, Smif and Wessun, EPMD and Pete Rock and CL Smooth are gone. It’s almost impossible to believe entire collectives like Tribe, De La Soul, Brand Nubian, Black Moon, N.W.A., Souls of Mischief, Goodie Mobb and the Wu-Tang Clan once dominated rap. This shift in emphasis from group to individual mirrors the self obsessed times we live in. For the most part young sports fans no longer root for the laundry, they root for LeBron and Giannis and James Harden and Kyrie.
And why not? In this increasingly dense market composed of billions of voices, faces, ideas and entire platforms vying for our attention, it’s much easier to build a rapport with an unfamiliar fan base, to establish identity and voice as a solo act. Now when artists collaborate, in the parlance of our times, it’s casual hookups rather than lifetime commitments. The one off collab album between two heavyweights is a glorified right swipe before the artists return to their separate lives.
You could argue an ingrained fealty to one another hurt the literal family members of Migos early in their respective careers. Quavo, his cousin Offset and his nephew Takeoff all kind of blurred together when they debuted in 2012 as yet another babbling, swaggering trap act out of Atlanta with an unlikely anthem that purists were appalled by. They said the name of the departed designer Gianni Versace 91 times in a single song about nothing and perhaps as a result of the slavish devotion to repetitions, and triplets, and similar sounding registers at least in these first moments, it was difficult for many to tell them apart. For the Boom Bap set the collective represented nothing less than the decline of Western Civilization. Three kids from the Nawf in ATL who crawled out of Harmony Korine’s nightmares.
I had friends at the time who would listen to the song obsessively like they were trying to find the true value of Pi, tearing at their hair shirts and screaming to the heavens, “VERSACE DOESN’T RHYME WITH VERSACE!”
Well as it turns out, it doesn’t have to. The three Migos continued working and developing and armed with a talent for setting trends, became the best and most interesting rap group of this decade, albeit amongst lean competition. But what’s remarkable is each rapper could at least lay a claim to a spot in this series, though they’re never as good apart as they are together. On “Versace” and many subsequent jams, the crew employed repetition like Lennox Lewis employed his jab, a kind of dulling mastery that became its own type of distinct artistry. And three kids from Atlanta became three of the most influential artists of this century.
Migos are a fellowship of the pocket. To call them on beat would be like saying Dustin Hoffman kind of enjoyed watching The People’s Court. Despite presenting as some of the weirdest, Dadaist oddball rap superstars I’ve ever encountered, they deliver highly disciplined metronomic math-rap. I’ve heard their music described as mumble, a derogatorily named genre suggesting a form of laziness or sloppiness, or a lack of thought or care, but what they do is so incredibly challenging in its writing and delivery that it says more about you as a lazy critic than it does about these artists and their very precise, mapped, fully imagined and perfectly executed vision.
Quavo is the consensus favorite for casual fans and it’s easy to understand why. From the outset he had the most distinct approach. He doesn’t do it anymore, but there was this cascading shouty cadence I would call a kind of signature he would employ on nearly every Migos mixtape for several years. His register is more nasal and musical than Takeoff and Offset and I also think, somewhat crucially, Offset was in jail for two separate important eight month stints in 2013 and 2015. Migos’ iconic “Look at my Dab” is a tag team of Quavo and Takeoff recorded during one of these periods.
But I love Offset because to me he’s the pure, perfectly distilled embodiment of what the Migos are after. He raps with a minimalism that at times approaches the speed and inflection of casual conversation, delivered methodically on beat with multisyllabic rhyme schemes. He is the most unhurried, unimpressed, conversational MC we’ve seen since Jay-Z stopped rapping like the Fu-Schnickens. Quavo has morphed into a congested Saturday morning cartoon version of a brilliant rap superstar with a love for Post Malone adjacent melody in his bars and Takeoff has become a particle accelerator, cracking consonants like ribs on a side of beef in a meat locker, but Offset is the guy who has found the punk rock end of their rainbow and is doing the most radical, fascinating shit with the Migos house style and ethos on a regular basis.
It would be an abdication of my duties to not mention the role Donald Glover and Cardi B have played in the atmospheric rise of the group. In 2017, “Bad & Boujee” was popular, but after Glover name dropped the song at the Golden Globes it became a fucking moment. In New York, and I’m sure many other places in this country, it went from a popular rap song to an emblematic article of (sorry) Culture. It’s this clout that probably appealed to Cardi B, one of the most social media savvy, brilliant PR opportunist pop artists we’ve ever seen. Leading up to that moment, Migos were widely viewed as in the midst of a prolonged slump.
Young Rich Nation, the official debut following years of cred building and putting out an incredible glut of work following the “Versace” breakthrough was a critical and commercial dud. They were still occasionally hitting with minor mixtape shit but it wasn’t the realization of the talent and potential many had been holding out for following their introduction to the mainstream.
Listening to that fallow period now they just sound stuck. I’d like to think part of this was due to how little actual studio time they got with Offset. They consistently worked with great producers and had a knack for picking beats but their style became formulaic to the point of obviousness. At their cores, Migos are wonky technicians, obsessed with meticulously constructed 16s and at least at this time were unconcerned with lofty concepts like songwriting. Much of their mixtape work contains the thinnest possible veneer for something you could actually qualify as a song.
On mixtapes like Rich N**** Timeline or the Streets On Lock series a “hook” is a simple phrase chanted over and over again with Shamanic intensity before the baton is passed to the next furious verse ostensibly concerned with material desires but really is just about the continued experimentation/unethical treatment of the English language, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the heyday of the Diplomats. You can hear them putting in their reps and improving verse by verse, logging their 10,000 hours and gaining the confidence to move away from manic, highly disciplined nerding out, into the wavy headspace they’d land on in Culture, but much of it should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. If you’re listening for pleasure rather than research after a while it all just kind of bleeds together.
As such the Migos career trajectory has followed a very postmodern arc, very of this moment in rap where a Golden Globe co-sign during a Best Comedy Series acceptance speech can turn your mixtape rap outfit into a phenomenon. To be fair, there were mitigating circumstances. Migos didn’t just make this leap, they positioned themselves to do it. Consider Coach K, their manager, who also is the Zelig/Puff Daddy/Robert Moses of the 21st century in Atlanta Rap. He managed the modern evolutionary scale: Jeezy then Gucci Mane, and now Migos (If you want to talk about a combo of savvy positioning and an incredible gene pool, he’s also his client Alvin Kamara’s Uncle).
Migos saw the potential for Atlanta when it was just an internet rapper who was also on Community’s wacky spec script. Loaning themselves out for a cameo probably didn’t hurt Glover’s desire to shout them out on that stage in 2017 (and to be clear, it was a symbiotic reference. Just as Migos got wide recognition from a public who knew little to nothing of their work, Glover got street cred as a friend and fan of Migos).
And then of course there was the work. Conveniently, everything clicked for them popularly and artistically at the perfect moment because Culture was the album they’d been working towards for the better part of a decade. All the well placed shout outs in the world wouldn’t have helped them if “Bad & Boujee” wasn’t a fucking jam. It’s also one of the most interesting, progressive singles you will hear in this mixtape series. It’s so spare it barely exists, a kind of Rorschach that can be anything you want it to be. You can’t really dance to it in a traditional way. It’s slow and metronomic enough to be hypnotic. And it’s just undeniable.
Migos took their own language obsessed weirdness and tied it to pieces of Wayne and Jeezy and the Pop Trap pioneering of Travis Scott and made something entirely original. The song is abstract, bizarre and shouty and every single iconic line is something an entire club would rejoice in as they repeat it back in unison. The ad libs are as important as the lyrics, it’s the most fun you can have listening to a pop song.
Today, each member of Migos is an industry unto themselves. Each has had solo success and their own collab projects, they at least present as exorbitantly wealthy and each are culturally significant one name rap superstars. The idea of a home base for rap is somewhat antiquated but if it exists, Atlanta has officially supplanted New York and Migos is its most significant export. But as far as I’m concerned, no amount of solo success can compare to the base pleasure of listening to the family rap together. Hearing them do mystical and extraordinary things to words reminds you of the joys of the group experience, the disparate tones and styles of artists who like working together clashing and melding and adding up to something more than the sum of their parts as they engage in the most elegant three-man weave this decade in rap has to offer.
ROD: Migos- Rebels of the Neon God
- Top down on da NAWF (Culture II, 2018)
- Taste (ft. Tyga) (2018)
- Too Hotty (Quality Control: Control The Streets Vol. 1, 2017)
- Young Rich N***** (No Label 2, 2014)
- Versace (ft. Drake) (Young Rich N*****, 2013)
- Met Gala (ft. Gucci Mane) (Droptopwop, 2017)
- How Bout That? (Quavo Huncho, 2018)
- Migos Origin (Yung Rich Nation, 2015)
- Transporter (ft. Lil Baby) (Harder Than Ever, 2018)
- Act A Fool (Juug Season, 2011)
- Black & Chinese (ft. Travis Scott) (Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, 2017)
- Bando (Young Rich N******, 2013)
- Hot Summer (ft. DJ Durel) (2018)
- Hit Em (Rich N****** Timeline, 2014)
- Clout (ft. Cardi B) (FATHER OF 4, 2019)
- Stir Fry (Culture II, 2018)
- Ric Flair Drip (ft. Metro Boomin) (Without Warning, 2017)
- Hannah Montana (Young Rich N*****, 2013)
- South Africa (Quality Control: Control The Streets Vol. 1, 2017)
- Bad and Boujee (C U L T U R E, 2017)