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Okay, just for a second—as a thought experiment—let’s treat Culture as the sophomore album from the Migos. In this reality, it marks a sharp improvement from the North Atlanta trio’s debut, 2015’s Yung Rich Nation, an album that showed a tremendous amount of technical dexterity, but stiffer writing and only half-formed pop instincts. The Migos are better now, we’d say. They really grew.
In the real world, of course, Culture comes in a long, long line of hits, mixtapes, and one-offs. Since “Versace” and Y.R.N. (Young Rich Niggas) marked their breakthrough in 2013, they’ve been one of the most influential acts in hip-hop, and frequently one of the best. Their most obvious mark on the culture has been the tight, triplet-laced flow they resurrected and perfected. They also brought the dab to the world at large, and injected a handful of slang terms into the syntaxes of aspiring rappers from coast to coast.
So Culture arrives in what feels like the second act of a long career, by rap standards. The Migos came out as young upstarts, suffered through a litany of legal hang-ups and incarcerations, had short creative dry spells where they sniped at the kids on the lawn stealing their styles, and eventually came back around. This time, they have a #1 hit in tow, and they want to stick at the top of the commercial pyramid.
The first voice you hear on Culture is DJ Khaled’s, which couldn’t be more misleading. This isn’t a big-budget parade of set pieces and stunt casting; if anything, it’s remarkable for how long stretches of it are sober, somber. Culture’s midpoint is the phenomenal, Zaytoven-produced “Big on Big,” which is towering and defiant, and even flips their well-documented label troubles into a point of pride. That track is followed by two more (“What the Price,” “Brown Paper Bag”) that stick to minor keys and contemplative piano. There are plenty of stray prescription pills and idle threats to go around, but they’ve been reassembled to be eerier, more perilous. (Incidentally, this would have been a perfect place to insert “Cocoon,” their staggering loosie from last year.)
Culture is front-loaded with singles, which—perhaps counter-intuitively—makes for a nice balance. Heard back-to-back-to-back, “T-Shirt,” “Call Casting,” and “Bad and Boujee” are not only packed with color and virtuosic rapping, but elucidate exactly what each of the three rappers bring to the table, how they complement one another. Hearing Quavo float is a joy, but it’s even better when it’s underscored by Takeoff’s bass and Offset’s serration. There are also fascinating reconciliations: The Cardo-produced, 2 Chainz-featuring “Deadz” seems to find a middle ground between the sparse Atlanta sounds and Chicago’s maximalism that were warring around the time of Y.R.N.
Then there are truly strange moments. “All Ass,” from the album’s (uh) back end, sounds like Magic City mixed with industrial Berlin. “Slippery,” in an inspired move, turns a “skrrt skrrt” ad-lib into the song’s melodic backbone. Even when Culture grasps for the radio dial, it skirts expectations. The arc here is not one of artists leaving their roots to chase pop—it’s pop coming back around to accommodate them.
While the Migos are decidedly of Atlanta (coupled with some cadences from up in Tennessee), their records frequently remind you of rap’s earlier years, when creative kids holed up in bedrooms and tried to impress or make each other laugh—think The Migos Is Dead or Bizarre Ride II Nawfside. Culture might have national aspirations, but it’s charged with the energy of history, of family. On “What the Price,” Takeoff raps about the teachers and preachers of his youth who presented an inaccessible, exclusionary path forward. When he shirks that (“I’ma go find me a better route”), it’s not flippant, it’s resolute.
Later on the same song, Offset runs through a consumer fever dream, anchored by the line “I don’t plan on going out sad today.” In other contexts, that might be a curious aside, but over Ricky Racks, 808Godz and KeanuBeats’ somber track, it sounds like the album’s spiritual center. The Migos are (probably) not better than the Beatles, but their existence shouldn’t be reduced to memes that debate the issue. On Culture, their world is richly rendered, full of hopes and paranoia and unbridled joy. This gives the Migos the last laugh on those who thought they’d never crack the retail album format, marked all the while by the knowledge they never needed one to succeed. It’s a definitive work.Share