With their 2013 breakout single “Versace”, Atlanta-based trio Migos established their own unique style of trap-rap (that is, hip hop with production elements of trap). “Versace” brazenly honed in on the materialist side of hip hop, with rappers Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset tag-teaming rhymes that came in dry bursts instead of flowing. For how strange it sounded then, it’s a style that’s become commonplace in “commercial rap” of recent years. With Culture, Migos are back with that same style—refined over the course of several mixtapes—and a bold claim to their influence over the game.
If you’ve heard some advance singles from this album, such as “T-Shirt” or “Bad & Boujee”, you probably know what to expect from Culture. Though almost each of the thirteen tracks has a different combination of producers, it feels as though everyone returned to the table to play the same hand. Sharp snares, black hole bass notes, and an overabundance of hi-hat triplets make up almost every beat, with deep synths filling in the gaps. There’re a few bangers for sure—the ominous “T-Shirt” and the refreshing flute melody in “Get Right Witcha” come to mind—but for the most part it’s your usual turnup fodder. While the production doesn’t improve from their earlier work in creativity, it has become altogether cleaner and tighter, with some elements of pop even appearing in a few tracks. As for Migos’ rapping, Takeoff and Offset reach a certain level Quavo has always possessed, but even he seems to have stylistically plateaued long ago. They’ve become better at hyping each other’s verses (verses!), but their straight, robotic, unwavering style (brrrap!) and their initially exciting but quickly tiring call-response bars (bars!) make each song almost indistinguishable (wah!).
Lyrically, Culture’s most clever wordplay is in finding ways to squeeze in slang for the holy trinity of weed, cash, and hoes. They’re topics that are not just overtread, but trampled on until they become meaningless bravado. A more interesting theme from the album is their titular claim to their effect on ‘culture’. In “Brown Paper Bag” Quavo says “You talkin’ ‘bout modern day rap, but don’t know the culture”, a shot at critics as well as fans who don’t give Migos the credit they feel they deserve (which feels strange contrasted to their bragging). And it is true, for better or worse; they’ve changed not the face of hip hop, but at least a side of it. Another reoccurring theme is the consequences of their fame. Both “Big on Big” and “What the Price” have moments of lucidity without becoming heavyhanded in their consciousness, though the moments pass too quickly and become more of challenges for other rappers to rise to their level.
If you like the trap hop niche Migos has carved out, then this is as good as it gets. Culture is very knowing of its parallels to meme status, and very self-congratulating on its style over substance. They’re good at what they do, but what they do feels shallow, stubborn, and stagnant when compared to other rappers in the larger hip hop genre who are currently pushing the borders of style and substance.
review by Matthew Wardell