As part of Migos’s promo tour for their sophomore studio effort, Culture, which arrives on Friday, the group performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week, and it was awkward. There was applause when the performance started, and more applause once it was over, but in between there were necessarily brief cuts to a studio audience suspended in what read like a state of quiet confusion, the kind that comes from encountering something you haven’t seen before and aren’t all that sure how to react to. Not that this dumbfoundedness wasn’t understandable. New money does tend to do that to people.
If you weren’t aware, maybe because they sound indistinguishable and make a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, there are three members of Migos: Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff. While each is a force of nature, like the Ninja Turtles or the ThunderCats, playing favorites is allowed but discouraged: Quavo, who was the starting quarterback for his Berkmar High School Patriots, is the leader and destined star; Offset is the most canny rapper of the trio; and Takeoff’s legal last name is Ball, so he has, obviously, balled every single day of his life. They grew up in Gwinnett County, a suburb north of the sprawling Atlanta playground, and began making music in the seventh grade under the name Polo Club, which they kept until 2010. They’re also related: Quavo, the oldest of the three at 25, is Offset’s cousin and Takeoff’s uncle.
In the three and a half years since their bellwether Y.R.N. mixtape, the three have been inescapable, with a steady stream of releases, official and otherwise — seven full-lengths, a nebulous cloud of forgotten demos floating about online, and the scores of guest verses for everyone from Gucci Mane to Niykee Heaton. They were Shang Tsung–ed by Drake via the usual SoundCloud remix, had a literal gunfight on I-95, ingratiated themselves to Old Man Ebro Darden, watched while contemporaries like Young Thug and Lil Yachty leapfrogged them on the path to mainstream success, and saw Offset jailed. Twice. Somehow they’ve clung to the limelight and maintained one of the highest approval ratings in rap — do you know anyone who doesn’t like Migos? If so, who are they, and why do they hate having fun?
Twenty-first-century rap history is littered with one-hit wonders, ringtone legends, and others who didn’t last. You either get the Kanye cosign or you live long enough to see your chain snatched on Instagram Live. One too many dry releases, one too many run-ins with the law, one too many unauthorized swerves, and Migos could have easily been lost to the dustbin of Cadillac Tah, Yung Joc, Roscoe Dash — who swore off his bread and butter in 2013 — or their spiritual ancestors Travis Porter, a trio who made a song in 2014 that sounded a whole lot like "T-Shirt" but wasn’t anywhere near as good.
Since 2011’s sonically embryonic Juug Season, Migos have been a series of flash-in-the-pan moments. One could be written off as a fluke, but three are the makings of a trend. And much like that moment last weekend when you had to accept that the Falcons are Good Now, life has as we know it has been divided into a pre– and post–"Hannah Montana, the Trap Symphony Redux" reality.
2014’s "Fight Night," their biggest hit since "Versace," was another inflection point. It has since been eclipsed by 2016’s globe-dominating "Bad and Boujee," their biggest success ever, which recently enjoyed a 243 percent spike in streams following a Donald Glover shout-out during a Golden Globes acceptance speech for a show that is literally called Atlanta. The shout-out had nothing to do with their episode-stealing guest appearance; Glover just felt that they don’t get enough credit outside of their own stomping grounds. And not only are Migos still around — they’re prospering, too. You may not like it or even understand it, but you have to respect it.
In November 2014, a month before Migos would take the stage for BET’s New Year’s special, 106 & Party, the network shuttered its cornerstone music countdown show, 106 & Park, after a 14-year run. As a millennial, I concede that this is mostly my fault. We have, as a matter of course, killed almost everything else — the 9-to-5 workday, car culture and the automotive industry, the movie business, the housing market, malls, "class," time, the McWrap. We are all on the internet ignoring or immediately forgetting things, and we rarely have to leave it. We can easily consume and dismiss both new music and Bow Wow without a cable subscription from right where we are.
However, as critic Paul Cantor said, television "still harbors an old-school mystique, an allure. It is, after all, still television." Even for us. And Migos, riding their unnaturally long 15 minutes, were free and together on 106 & Party in front of what looked like one big mass of glow sticks and thundering, (probably) booze-fueled zeal, performing cuts from their great-but-commercially-disappointing debut, Yung Rich Nation. As Cantor also said of the performance, "This is like seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan."
He wrote that in January 2015. I have said this before — about a picture of Young Thug jumping on a runway to adjust a model’s outfit at fashion week and most recently about that black kid in whiteface in Atlanta — but I have honestly thought about it at least twice a day since. Cantor didn’t mean it literally, just as no one who tweeted comparisons between Migos and those dudes from Lay-ver-puhl who sold a bajillion records did. A deep dive into the Migos-Beatles jokes-that-are-actually-sort-of-serious by Drew Millard at Noisey found the earliest instance of the comparison was a relatively unengaged tweet from @Pipe_Tyson, nine days after Migos’s breakthrough Young Rich Niggas mixtape was released in June 2013.
The best jokes have a kernel of truth: Anyone who appreciates popular music has essentially been grandfathered into Beatles fandom and made to supplicate at the altar erected to their unimpeachable greatness each and every time their catalog is released on some platform it probably should’ve already been available on. As a rule, if you like music, you appreciate what the Beatles did to and for it. That Ed Sullivan performance in 1964, their first on American soil, drew a dizzying 73 million viewers, just under two-fifths of the population that year. However, in that wonderful, imaginary yellow submarine where there was love and peace and respect for the beliefs and rights of the fellow human, there was also mostly one shade of people. Moreover, a study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal does suggest they may not have been as revolutionary as history remembers them to be — riding the seismic wave caused by post-JFK helplessness and disillusionment with the Vietnam War rather than being its hypocenter. But that’s not the point here.
The point is that Sullivan performance was almost 30 years before I was even so much as a twinkle in my parents’ eyes, and while I definitely found it good and sunny and Donner and Blitzen, I can’t say I found "I Want to Hold Your Hand" extraordinary when I heard it for the first time through Koss headphones, circa 2005. Given that Michael Jackson’s version of "Come Together" exists, I don’t have much need for the original. I may have missed out on "Eleanor Rigby" (which, fun fact, a version of which was sampled in Sisqó’s "Thong Song"; play that as it lies) but I’ll settle for "They Don’t Know" in its stead. Judnick Mayard probably put it best as she wrote for Complex in 2014: "We were born in a world where the Beatles were already revered, but we’re all here to evaluate (and champion) ‘Fight Night’ for ourselves." Later, Quavo would address the comparisons in a January 2015 Vulture interview:
… And then address them again on "Street Nigga Sacrifice" that summer. "They say the Migos better than the Beatles / Paul McCartney I would like to meet him," sneers Quavo, in a verse in which he also compares himself to Elvis.
So yes, with respect and in half-jest — maybe even quarter-jest — Migos are better than the Beatles. The Beatles never wore Louboutins while playing golf and Paul McCartney never picked up the sack and took it 50 yards to the house like Emmitt Smith.
Migos have had a craterous impact on the culture at large, and one of their biggest contributions to it reads like this on a page:
Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace.
They’re hardly the first to incorporate what’s technically called the triplets flow — using three syllables in a space that’s usually meant for two or four. So on "Bakers Man": "Lil nigga smokin’ mid, give that pack back to ya uncle" swings in and out of time but ultimately lands on-beat. It’s like that exact moment the motor turns over after yanking the starter on a chain saw set to full choke. At Complex, David Drake explored this pretty thoroughly. Das EFX — bum stiggity bum, bum, bum — was using this technique as far back as the early ’90s. Triple 6 and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony carried it into the early aughts; Killer Mike used it while holding a Cadillac Fleetwood over his head in the "Whole World" video. But through their naturally un-occurring magnetism and their wielding of the triplets flow like a blunt instrument, it’s now become the "Versace" or "Migos flow," the same way that "Kleenex" is interchangeable with "tissue" or "Golden State" is shorthand for "extinction-level event."
Since Migos repopularized triplets, Jay Z and Jay Electronica have taken it for a test drive, Killer Mike unstuck the bottom drawer in which he’d kept it hidden away for a tour de force on two tracks from the recently released RTJ3, and Usher used it for a Migos-assisted check swing at a comeback record that was actually called "Still Got It." And, on the very lowest of keys, it was sort of flames.
The Migos are, and have been, for some time, what right now sounds like. Language is like a multistage rocket, jettisoning its boosters as it reaches new heights and ever finding newer ways to relate feeling and meaning without losing velocity. It is, on occasion, awkward and unsettling but it is happening. And as is usually case with sweeping change, rejection of Migos’ lyrics is about an unwillingness to understand it. You may not know exactly why Offset’s money is making his back ache or why that even matters, but you should know that it does, because every syllable is driven through you with a jackhammer.
There really aren’t any bad Migos songs, only less-realized ones, or ones that you’re unfamiliar with. Yung Rich Nation was an unsure step into prominence, and while the trio maintained their ability to bottle that feverish enthusiasm on records like "One Time" and "Cocaina," there were half-measures like the Chris Brown–featuring "Just for Tonight." Young Rich Niggas 2, 2016’s follow-up to the mixtape that started everything, still had natural gas pockets like "WOA" and "Muhf Ckn Tired," but felt at times like a placeholder release imploring us not to forget them. "Bad and Boujee" — which debuted in November at no. 76 and went unnoticed until it was ubiquitous — felt like we were being made to remember. And "T-Shirt" … well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like a superhero every time I hear it. It reminds me of that run from "Versace" to "Adios" to "Hannah Montana" — at least it feels that way.
As for the album title: who knows what anyone means when they talk about culture. There are questions of what culture is or isn’t, whether it’s something that is observed, contributed to, participated in, owned, or shared. The frame of reference in these discussions is hopelessly broad, and any would-be definitions of culture are out of date by the time they’re committed to words. But if I had to take a stab at what culture LOOKS like, YG; 2 Chainz; Ty Dolla $ign; Yachty; Chance the Rapper with a fifth of Hennessy in his hand; and both Swaggy P and Jordan Clarkson, in-season and fresh out of fucks to give, all mobbing to the same song would probably be it.
Migos are also it. They put the title in all caps and spaced it out for you too, so you know they really mean it.