Thursday, August 6, 2015

album review: 'yung rich nation' by migos

Some of you are probably wondering why I'm covering this. Because given the hip-hop I'm known to like, this probably seems like going straight through the bottom of the barrel to the dregs. And I can already see the comments: 'dude, you don't like ignorant hip-hop, why the hell are you going after Migos?'

Well, let me clear up a few things first. For one, I honestly don't have that much of a problem with hip-hop being shallow, accessible, and fun - provided, of course, the hooks are solid, the flows are cohesive, the performers have some charisma, and there's at least a modicum of wit behind the bars. And while I'd argue that there's enough hard-hitting hip-hop that's both smart and anthemic - I can only point at Doomtree so many times, folks - I get that party music doesn't have to be that lyrical if they can make up for it elsewhere.

All of that being said, to say I had trepidation approaching this record would be understating it. Migos broke with the viral track 'Versace' in 2013, a piece of repetitive brand name porn where I kept feeling the track was shutting off every few seconds. But what Migos were able to do over the next several mixtapes was established a distinctive staccato triplet flow that quickly flooded through hip-hop. And I'll admit I wasn't really a fan - sure, it was distinctive and catchy, but it often felt jumpy and lacked a decent groove. Beyond that... well, what else do you say about Migos? Everything I heard from them was shallow, hedonistic luxury porn of the basest variety, to the point where I've seen YouTube comment sections filled with admissions that, 'yeah, this sucks and the lyrics are garbage, but I still like it anyway!'

So this review is more an experiment for me: I wanted to see if there was actually anything more beneath Migos' idiosyncratic style, so I took a deep breath and dug into their debut album off Atlantic Yung Rich Nation - what did I find?

Well, simultaneously more and less than I expected. I went into this album expecting some fun, heavy party bangers, and I oddly feel like I only got maybe half of that. And I'm not sure if its because this album feels long thanks to the repeated subject matter or that it feels a little safe thanks to signing with a major label, but the record doesn't quite have the energy or punch I was hoping to find, even despite Migos' best efforts. Maybe a sign that once you get past the triplicate flow and trap beats, the band doesn't have all that much unique to offer? Hard to tell, but it ultimately means I find myself a fair bit underwhelmed by this release.

So let's start with the element I think works the best, and that's Migos themselves. I'll give them this, when they stick with their triplet flow, they can ride these beats decently well, with Takeoff probably sounding the least comfortable and yet bizarrely the most technically proficient and interesting MC on this album. He at least has a more distinctive voice and can switch up his flows and drop into double time, which is more than I can say for Quavo's half-autotuned croon and Offset falling somewhere in the middle and generally being the least interesting. I'll say this, the combination of the three of them at least gives this album some personality, and they at least bring energy - nowhere as much as the crunk party jams in the mid-2000s that I grew up with and basically recycled similar subject matter, but we'll get to that in a bit. And Migos does outshine both of their guest stars, with Chris Brown's nasal, heavily-Autotuned hook on 'Just For Tonight' making the track significantly more obnoxious and Young Thug delivering a surprisingly uninteresting verse on 'Cocaina'. What's more alarming is that both of these tracks feel like rejects from Chris Brown and Young Thug albums instead of giving Migos distinctive instrumental personalities, and the fact they both suck is indicative Migos is best on their own material.

But then again, when you look at these beats and production, I struggle to find much to really enjoy. It's odd, you'd expect that a step towards the mainstream with a major label push would lead to more hook-driven tracks, but Migos' knack for solid earworms doesn't really materialize, and I'm laying the blame on the producers here. For the most part, it's an issue of mix balance - the blubbery low-end bass beats are often cranked up so high in the mix that it suffocates any of the damp, glossy synths or jittery pianos that Migos tries to bring in. It doesn't help matters that most of the strings and horns sound so fake and chintzy and none of the hi-hats hit particularly strongly that I'm left distinctly underwhelmed by the production as a whole, especially for a major label debut. The real disappointments for me come from Zaytoven, who managed to significantly elevate Future's slurred brand of hip-hop and yet delivers messy work here, especially on the otherwise not bad 'What A Feeling'. That said, are there instrumental moments or hooks I like? Sure, a few: I liked the piano work on 'Memoirs', the hooks on 'Spray The Champagne' and 'Pipe It Up' were pretty infectious and the synth tones on 'Playa Playa' were actually pretty decent. But beyond that? The atonal scratchy mess of 'Gangsta Rap', the complete lack of funk vibes on 'Trap Funk', and the overall lack of depth in the mixes on this entire album leaves a lot of the production feeling cheap and not nearly hard-hitting enough to redeem it. 

So what about the lyrics... okay, you realize this is functionally pointless, right? That's one of the other issues with this album: sure, conceptually some of these songs might be talking about different things, but when you break them down to individual bars so much of this album retreads brand names, flexing, and screwing your bitch, with just a hint of lean addiction mostly courtesy of Takeoff. And while I'll give points to Migos for triumphantly pointing out that really most of the rap game is jumping on their flows, they rarely do enough with those flows in terms of punchlines or storytelling for me to really care all that much. It's what makes the claims on 'Gangsta Rap' that they're bringing back the subgenre so asinine to me, mostly because at least that material tried for rough-edged stories or a sense of menace, which this record cannot pull off even on the police escape anthem 'Highway 65'. And it doesn't help matters that while Takeoff easily gets some of the best punchlines, he also tends to make the corniest references - seriously, the Rugrats and Thundercats lines on 'Trap Funk', the Gilligan's Island reference on 'Playa Playa', the time where he's asking the audience to remember his first break-in on 'Memoirs' where in the very next line he mentioned there was nobody around him... so how could we remember? It's those breaks in logic that show a distressing amount of laziness, and they're all over the album. Take the lead-off single 'One Time' how they're only going to do it one time - it didn't work when Justin Bieber did this in 2009, it's not working for you either! Or take 'Just For Tonight', where Quavo says that this girl is the bomb so he's going to call her Saddam - you know, the entire reason the War in Iraq was such a stain on US history was that Saddam didn't have the bomb or any weapons of mass destruction! Or take 'Street Sacrifice', where the hook really doesn't make much sense the more you think about it and Offset saying 'Grandma was a sacrifice' and Quavo seriously referencing the Complex article saying Migos was better than the Beatles - which I don't think he realized was a joke!

And that's the frustrating thing about this album: it only manages to work at all when you don't remotely take it seriously and you treat it as lightweight party bangers, where we maybe get three. I'm not denying that Migos has flows, but eventually you need to say something to get me to care, and the more this album repeats itself, the less I care. Coupled with the fact the beats and production are rarely all that interesting or special, I'm left with an album that's a fair bit shorter than their mixtapes but still feels stretched for content. And yet at the end of the day, if you put it on at the right party, I can see this going hard at the right party and there are moments of fun, which elevates it to a very light 5/10. And as for recommending it... whether you're a fan of Migos or you hate their guts or are just somewhat indifferent to the whole affair, I can say this about Yung Rich Nation: it won't change your mind.

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