Culture On 'Culture'

The quick ascent of Migos, and the trajectory of trap.

The first two times I heard “Bad and Boujee” couldn’t have been more different. The former was literally in my mother’s car. We were stuck at a light, picking up groceries, and that’s when the keys struck the track and Offset started talking his shit and Young Metro’s seal of approval buzzed across the introduction.

I didn’t know what to think. It sounded like trap. The verses were grimy. But then there were the piano keys tinkling just behind the chorus. I’d seen the “raindrop, droptop” motif across all of my feeds, but I hadn’t known what it meant — so imagine my surprise to find my mother nodding along with Quavo’s second verse (and I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a gesture I’d find mirrored just about everywhere, over the next few months, until one I day I looked up from whatever I was doing to find myself doing it too).

The next time was back in Louisiana, across from my apartment, a few days had later. One of my neighbors, a nice guy (we’ll call him Tommy) works at a gas station, a gig he picked up once he’d stopped dealing drugs. We were standing outside, just sort of staring at the road, when the bass rang out from this car a few streets down and Tommy started shifting along with it, and then we were both out there, just sort of dancing. When the third verse hit, he nodded deeper, as if in agreement.

When I asked who it was, he cocked his head a little bit. He said it was the motherfucking Migos. He told me the track came off of Culture, and that the album would drop soon, and that it would be the number one album in America. I started to call bullshit, because that’s a pretty hefty assertion, and that’s when Tommy told me that the record wasn’t called just Culture, it was Culture. Tommy told me that when it dropped, I would see, everyone would see, we wouldn’t even know how it happened.

On January 8, Donald Glover shouted out Migos on the Golden Globes stage. He cited “Bad and Boujee” (“the best song ever”). Then, on January 27, Migos dropped Culture. On February 5, it became the number one album in the country.

Migos formed in 2009, by way of Lawrenceville, Georgia. Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset are the group’s three members. They are directly related (Takeoff is Quavo’s newphew; Offset and Quavo are cousins) and while there is no obvious leader or iconoclast, they’ve likened themselves to “Ed, Edd, and Eddy.” Prior to Culture, they dropped “Yung Rich Nation” in 2015 (which featured the preposterously catchy “Pipe it Up”), in addition to three other mixtapes (“No Label”, “No Label 2” and “Juug Season”). Their shows have gained a reputation for a certain brand of raucousness, a theme that can play in your favor until all of a sudden it doesn’t.

Nevertheless, they’re brilliant. They’re a bunch of talented musicians. And one of the keys to that brilliance is an ability to bring seemingly disparate strands on the musical spectrum together in under three minutes. Across “Big on Big,” one of Culture’s many standouts, when the group asks, “How you gon’ big on big,” it’s an assertion as much as a dare: can you really do better? Do you have what it takes to improve on the formula? You probably don’t.

A lot of the appeal can be understood through their “Bad and Boujee” video — they’re cooling out, eating ramen in what could very well be a Waffle House, but also possibly be a Denny’s, or a Deanie’s, or a Frank’s, or a Lola’s, or whatever ambiguous diner is taking up space in your imagination. The location isn’t the point, they seem to say, but also it very much is—they can stunt regardless of where they are.

When you’ve titled your record Culture, the question inevitably emerges of what that is, and who gets to claim it. It makes you wonder who gave them permission. It could be, as DJ Khaled notes on the record’s intro (“for all you fuckboys that ever doubted the Migos”) that “they rep the culture from the streets.” Or maybe the culture they’re packaging is exclusive. Or maybe the question, for all of its momentum, is moot.

Trap music, as an idea, started as one thing — utilizing the sparest assortment of beats on-hand to deliver the gruffest, hardest rhymes at an artist’s disposal — and through the phantasms of the music industry, it’s since become a similar other. The same permutations have occurred with what we’d have originally identified as screw, and dub-step, and dancehall, and other forms that’ve been molded away from their original variables by the market’s demands. But, in this way, the genre becomes akin to other hyper-specific forms (like reggaeton, or k-pop), and the trick becomes retaining the particularity, while capitalizing on the variables that draw so many folks in. In some respects, this notion takes away from the culture. In others, it allows it to spread. And then all of a sudden, you’re hearing Migos in the suburbs, or in the backrooms of your church groups.

There’s a Billy Collins poem (a guy whose craft many practitioners would argue is more demonstrative of culture) where he riffs on what attracts him to the music that really gets through to him:

The music is loud yet so confidential
I cannot help feeling even more
like the center of the universe

In Migos’s second long feature with the FADER (their first since releasing Culture’s singles) the group rounded out the discussion with nods to their predecessors. They touched on their genre’s empiricism, and Donald Glover, and ambition. In a country as polarized as ours, any medium that jumps from boundary to boundary is remarkable in its own right. It is only fitting — it only makes absolute sense — that that the record which most resonates with so many people today, is coming from the beats and stereos of a group of black men from the South.

In one of their more thoughtful interviews, with BigBoy TV, Migos was asked about the translatability of their music, and how much their group dynamic plays into it. TakeOff chalked success up to their malleability:

We always just understand each other… the only thing we care about is making shit that we care about, with each other. As of now, we’re pushing the gas. Whichever one goes up, whichever one goes harder, whichever one’s out there we support them to the fullest.

When the interviewer switches gears, to ask if anyone who hadn’t supported them has since jumped on the track, the group exchanges looks between them. There are murmurs of “yeah,” and “a lot of people,” before Quavo shakes his head.

“Yeah nigga,” he says, “the whole world.”

“But,” he adds, “You got to keep your arms open.”

And there are nods around the table when he finally says, “We know how to smile and coast.”

A few weeks back, apropos of everything, Migos hosted a class on culture at NYU. The talk was billed as an “intimate discussion.” Among other things, they touched on emotionality across their oeuvre, the symbolism of their record’s cover, and a bunch of anecdotes from their upbringing. Quavo talked about the time he was almost stolen at birth. The group talked about their hidden tear-jerkers, tracks that didn’t make it onto the record. The session was illuminating, and loose, and just about everything you could’ve hoped for. A few days before that, the group had allegedly smoked out Jimmy Kimmel’s green room.

Around the same time, many states away, I heard “T-Shirt” behind the counter of a corner store in the Tremé. The guy behind the register nodded along. He’s this Afgahni dude. He moved here a few years after Katrina. His father owns the shop, and every now and again the old man emerges from the butchery in the back to scowl. When I finished paying for everything, I asked my cashier what he thought of the track. He told me it was nice. He smiled wide when he said it. When I asked him why, he looked at me as if it were a stupid question, which, in many ways, it was. He told me it made him feel good. That was his final metric.

Perhaps that’s the Migos’s crowning achievement: their music makes you feel good. That they manage to do this across every track on Culture is as much of a miracle as anyone can reasonably expect. And few things have made me happier this year, or any year, than yelling “BROWN — PAPER — BAGS,” or “MAMA TOLD ME NOT TO SELL WORK,” or even “YEAH, THAT WAY, WE FROM THE NORTH YEAH THAT WAY,” when those tracks tells me it’s time to do that.

I don’t know what the working definition of culture is offhand, but if it excludes this album, I don’t want any part of it. It brings people together. It makes them feel good. That’s how culture should work.