“We live in Atlanta, might have some haters / The new Atlanta like the old Lakers.” —“New Atlanta” by Migos (2014).
The recently developed Atlanta hip-hop scene has taken the music industry by storm for its distinct sound and ethos. At the forefront of this scene is the group Migos, an unforgettable trio of rappers whose audacity and recklessness precisely embody the characteristics of Atlanta hip-hop, known for its chaotic unpredictability and defined by its prominent musical personalities. Their ingenuity helps them stand out from a distinguished cast of contemporary Atlanta-based artists who have also experienced commercial success such as Rae Sremmurd, Future, 21 Savage, and several others. Migos’ latest album “Culture” (2017) captures the signature youthfulness, trap style beats, and bass driven sound of the Atlanta scene that has become the new mecca of hip-hop culture.
Hip-hop is currently undergoing a profound shift and becoming increasingly dissimilar to the characteristics that have defined it in the past. “Culture” represents the “new school” hip-hop that is more associated with the Internet and social media culture, in contrast to the old school that was considerably darker, more lyrically complex, and often grappled with the political issues of the time. While “Culture” is a fun listen from start to finish and certainly stands out from the many mediocre mixtapes produced by today’s hip-hop artists, its most notable shortcomings are a lack of cohesion, lyricism, and storytelling that are the hallmarks of what its predecessors established. Despite its shortcomings, the creativity of “Culture” serves as a reminder that the genre is continually evolving and innovating.
The album begins right away with a guest appearance from the larger than life DJ Khaled, who immediately establishes the tone for the rest of the album—he introduces Migos as a trio of rowdy troublemakers learning to cope with their newfound wealth and fame. Joining DJ Khaled in the album’s list of guest appearances are fellow trap artists Gucci Mane (also a pioneer of the Atlanta hip-hop scene), Travis Scott, and Lil Uzi Vert, all of whom contribute to the album’s colorful sound.
However, this entertaining lineup of guests does not steal the spotlight from the idiosyncratic trio of Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff. Their chemistry is apparent throughout the album as each rapper takes turns seamlessly transitioning between hook and verse. This style of lyrical interplay is utilized in one of the album’s hit singles, “T-Shirt.” Quavo’s memorable hook, “Mama told me not to sell work / Seventeen-five same color T-shirt” is followed by Takeoff’s verse, “Young n**** poppin’ with a pocket full of cottage / Woah kemosabe, chopper aiming at you noggin.” This style of frequently disrupted flows in their hook-verse repetition is the foundation of the album’s catchiness; the lyrics are instantly recognizable and memorable.
Another notable track on the album is “Get Right Wicha.” The track begins with an ominous synth melody that is soon accompanied by a staccato beat. The autotuned voices of Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff then interrupt the beat and melody at random spurts, seeming to ignore any sort of regular, synchronized pattern. This unique, disrupted quality of sound adds to the track’s brazen nature. Throughout the song, Migos flaunt about the amount of wealth they accrued selling crack, which is so much that they can “Count a hundred thousand, start snowing with it.” The audacious personalities of the trio are well paired with their chaotic sound that can not be mistaken for any other artist’s.
“Culture” is not short of catchy beats and hooks, which are the album’s defining elements. The lead single “Bad and Boujee” instantly became a viral hit as an anthem for reckless indulgence of partying, sex, and weed. After listening to the memorable hook “Raindrop, drop top (drop top) / Smoking on cookie in the hotbox,” it becomes apparent that the song’s popularity is partly due to its references to drug culture, and later, promiscuous sex, both of which are trite themes that unfortunately plague much of the album. These themes detract from the album’s meaning, promote dangerous behavior, and aspects in which the album fails to be original, as they are prevalent in much of mainstream music today.
Their themes and lyrics particularly pale in comparison to other revolutionary hip-hop albums of the past in certain key aspects. Nas’s timeless “Illmatic” (1994) was one of the first albums that incorporated vivid storytelling; it painted a gritty picture of what life was like in housing projects and provided a first-person narrative on how drug and gang related violence tore apart the community. 2Pac’s “Me Against the World” (1995) was a poetic achievement that dealt with the themes of depression, isolation, and self-identity, a testament to how hip-hop has the power to provoke and captivate the mind and soul. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” (1994) bucked the music industry’s trend of glorifying drugs, wealth, and fame, dispelling the notion that pursuing such things through illicit means is worth the self destruction that follows.
In respect to these albums, “Culture” lacks in lyrical meaning and cohesion. The album has enjoyed massive commercial success and established Migos as one of the biggest names in today’s hip-hop for their irresistible sound and ethos. However, it compromises some key elements that have defined hip-hop in the past and inspired several contemporary rappers, such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors. In fact, “Culture” is very much the antithesis of the landmark rap albums of the past; it is defined more by its revolutionary sound than by its lackluster lyrics.
It’s important to note that “Culture” is the culmination of a variety of recent movements that have made hip-hop more synonymous with pop culture and music, something it has not been as strongly associated with in the past. Hit singles such as Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” (2007) and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” (2016) (note that both artists also hail from Atlanta) became Internet sensations for their viral videos. Migos are no strangers to this trend; they’re the ones who popularized the dab with their hit single, “Look at My Dab” (2015). The prevalence of artists such as Drake have helped to fuse hip-hop with elements of pop and EDM. It was through a Drake remix of one of their singles “Versace” (2013) that Migos broke into mainstream success.
Hip-hop is a versatile genre that is supposed to reflect the trends of its time. While social media and the Internet are more prevalent and influential than ever before, hip-hop is in an even greater need of addressing the current sociopolitical atmosphere like it has done so often in the past. “Culture” lacks power and meaning to captivate audiences in light of what is going on in our country today, whether it involves the rampant rise of nationalist sentiments or the ongoing racial tensions that continue to impede the nation’s progress.
In spite of this, “Culture” is a fresh new spin on the genre that showed sparks of creativity in ways that have not been seen before. Hip-hop is inevitably going to evolve, and Migos have pushed the boundaries of what the genre can accomplish. It is unlikely that they will ever surpass great artists such as 2Pac and Nas, but given the ingenuity and creativity they have expressed in “Culture,” it is entirely possible that they can surprise us again in their next album.