Mixtape Primer: Migos' Winding Journey to Defining 'Culture'
Migos’ Culture-defining success this year was past due. The trap Brady Bunch’s near Beatles-length catalog shows how they commanded and demanded respect for years before “Bad and Boujee.” Cousins Quavo and Offset made Three 6 Mafia’s triplet flow fashionable enough for Gwen Stefani. Paul Ryan did the dab, a dance Migos introduced two years ago, to prove he wasn’t out of touch. A jingle they improvised for sour cream chips became the basis of Ayo and Teo’s social media smash “Rolex.” Yet since Drake remixed “Versace” in 2013, to folks citing his cosign for their success, Migos has churned out proof they would’ve performed on Ellen regardless. “Gon’ through so many losses, it’s only right that we win,” Takeoff rapped in 2012. That lyric still checks out.
** Juug Season (2011)
**½ No Label (2012)
*** Y.R.N. (Young Rich Niggas) (2013)
*½ Streets on Lock (2013)
* ½ Streets on Lock 2 (2013)
Streets on Lock 3 (2014)
** World War 3D: The Green Album (2014)
*** Rich Ni**a Timeline (2014)
** Still on Lock (2015)
** ½ Back to the Bando (2015)
** Streets on Lock 4 (2015)
** ½ Young Rich Ni$$a$ 2 (2016)
Migos hails from Gwinnett County, Georgia, which, because of its wealthy white suburbs outside the perimeter, isn’t regarded as Atlanta proper. Migos haven’t shied away from that fact. But before they’d put the Nawf on the map, in their parlance, Migos first took cues from in town. By the time the group released 2011 debut mixtape Juug Season, Dungeon Family member Future had come into his own with “Watch This” and Dirty Sprite. Migos clearly noticed, with how they tried on his mush-mouthed, Auto-Tuned croon for size, to warble Kroger-brand lyrics about being stickup kids at the trap. The still-teenaged group wouldn’t look to Kirkwood for long, though. No Label arrived less than a year later. And, save for a post-“Silky” “no homo” or two, Migos’ turns of phrase are now inside joke-level specific. They start matching hooks so repetitive that words lose meaning, to verses where they out themselves as pop culture junkies. “Black and grey, old Cutlass, George Gervin / Fuck your mama, make you Mad, call me Melvin / Drugged up, I’m ’bout to overdose, call me Elvis,” Takeoff raps to Lex Luger-inspired bombast in “Tupac & Biggie.” Migos wouldn’t do a song as eerily spacious as “Bando” again until Culture‘s double-platinum “T-Shirt.” But, with how an abandoned house with boarded-up windows becomes just “bando,” the No Label highlight is only an early example of how the best Migos songs may as well be haikus.
In 2013, Offset was incarcerated in DeKalb County after taking a guilty plea to a probation violation. His absence left Quavo and Takeoff alone to tag-team as a duo. Yet it wasn’t until after Migos’ next tape when people realized something was awry. Y.R.N. (Young Rich Niggas) is so exuberant, so filled with ideas on how to have fun with trap rap parameters, you forget Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy were featured. Migos’ action bubble ad-libs, while teased out in No Label, reach Mortal Kombat levels of absurdity (“FLASH!” “SMASH!”). So do the specificity of their punchlines. They have the audacity to claim they’d rather be rich, then famous. They don’t watch out for just snakes, but rats like Stuart Little. “White” gets nicknamed Lindsay Lohan like in “Bando,” but also Katy Perry and Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire. Y.R.N.‘s least successful track is a still-amusing ode to a woman with many wigs titled “Dennis Rodman.” If Migos’ savvy somehow wasn’t enough, the dizzying repetition of “China Town” and “Versace” bludgeoned you and Justin Bieber to submission. Once Drake and Kanye West adopted Y.R.N.‘s speedy triplets flow, Migos went from copying to being copied. Before the novelty of that newfound fame (“Versace” eked into the Hot 100) wore off, Migos kicked off a mixtape series with Rich the Kid, a childhood friend who would also sign to Quality Control Records. Streets on Lock and the sequel, released a few months during that same whirlwind year, are loosely compiled but still capture Migos’ celebratory mood.
No Label 2, released in 2014, ends with what feels like a Hall of Fame induction. “New Atlanta,” a spirited remake of Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta” features Migos alongside Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug. The artists behind the original made it tough to argue with the sentiment. Dupri introduces the track, while a VH1 documentary executive produced by Ludacris brought it into the world. Still, it wasn’t enough to distract Migos from what critics say by comparison, as they reckon with the world outside their stomping grounds. (Friday night haunt Mansion Elan is now, handily, “Migos Elan.”) They see those pesky bloggers. They hear artists lifting their style, those whispers that they might be a one-hit wonder. “I know you hate that ‘Versace’ went gold,” Takeoff says. The first half of No Label 2 feels weighed down by their defensiveness and what sounds like Y.R.N. rough drafts (compare “Antidote” to “China Town”). But then comes “Fight Night,” which thrives off Takeoff’s blunt force, and the flirtatious “Handsome and Wealthy,” which Quavo nearly, inconceivably scrapped. These songs became bigger hits than “Versace,” and for good reason: Whatever they or critics have to say about “their” style isn’t being discussed.
Migos reunited with Rich the Kid for Streets on Lock 3 and Gucci Mane for part of his World War 3D trilogy, The Green Album. Both show how their inner circle has expanded, to include Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign and Mike WiLL Made It. Neither are as inspired, or collaborative, as when Migos isolated themselves for 2014’s Rich Ni**a Timeline. They push themselves to forego their past pop art approach for something stranger and more intensely lyrical. Even the black-lit room that is booty ode “Pop That” hints at a sound Quavo would later call “dark grime.” What justifies that direction is how Migos finding new ways to rap as stickup kids who struck gold, as in their growing list of hits. Opener “Cross the Country” has Offset fitting vivid imagery into tidy internal rhyme schemes. Chains, from prison to fake jewelry and then real, become symbolic of personal growth. “Mama” — as in Quavo’s mom, now always dispensing advice — starts to become a recurring character as well as memorable ad-lib. Rich Ni**a Timeline didn’t spawn any hits. But it is necessary listening because of how their triplet flows, once the music’s driving force, feels like stepping off the gas.
Still on Lock‘s runtime is almost evenly divided between Migos and Rich the Kid. But the final result isn’t a team effort. Rich’s “Keep It 100,” featuring Fetty Wap, is punchy, high-energy trap – like if Meek Mill was born in the South. Migos tosses in drafts of prototypical verses (“My wrist like the Rock / people’s elbow!”). Perhaps they got distracted by the prospect of a “proper” debut. Migos hoped Yung Rich Nation would be a marquee event. They end with a bid for “Recognition” – what they still wanted in their fourth year as a group. Months before its arrival, though, police arrested Migos at Georgia State University for drug and gun charges. Offset, a convicted felon, would spend eight months in prison. Yung Rich Nation sold 15,000 copies during its first week; its tour was canceled.
Not even six months after Yung Rich Nation came Back to the Bando. The title and timing was a statement, hinting that Migos could easily bounce back. That gets undercut by “Forest Whitaker,” a half-hearted reassurance that Migos, too, has had longevity – “if you didn’t get the picture.” Between uninspired trap anthems, Quavo and Takeoff can’t help but shake their fists over their misfortune. “Free my nigga Offset so we can get back to this money,” Quavo pleads. Fortunately, they wouldn’t even wait that long. With “Look at My Dab,” Migos entered the pantheon of artists who made Atlanta the viral dance capital of the world, from L. “Diamond” Atkins’ “Bankhead Bounce” onward. They got a Rap Snacks flavor, “Sour Cream with a Dab of Ranch.” They reentered the Hot 100 for the first time since “Handsome and Wealthy.” And for Streets on Lock 4, they featured Jeezy, 2 Chainz, Waka Flocka Flame and Rae Sremmurd, as more proof of their extended reach.
The calm before Culture, relatively speaking, was 2016’s Young Rich Ni$$a$ 2. To call this a sequel to Y.R.N. would be disingenuous. Migos got rich, then famous. And with Offset back, the relentless Young Rich Ni$$a$ 2 reckons with that new reality, to production as serious as One Life to Live. Migos pushing each other to dream bigger over tighter verses. They boast of attending Diddy’s parties. Their birds (read: goods) now sing like the Jonas Brothers, instead of Nextel as in Y.R.N.‘s “Chirpin.” “Plan B,” directed toward their sexual partners, is a rare example of when their aggressive volleying gets hostile. But that display of new money gets balanced out by “Chapter 1,” a recounting of their struggles that feels like entering an ashram. Young Rich Ni$$a$ 2 also marks the first time Offset calls his women “boujee,” positive connotation and all. Migos wouldn’t score their first No. 1 record until the following year. Still, they remind that at their best, they are family.