Sunday, January 28, 2018

album review: 'culture ii' by migos

And to think I was starting to come around on these guys...

Well okay, that's unfair: as I've said before, 2017 was the first year I started seeing any appeal in this trio, mostly because their flows and punchlines had evolved to match with production that was steadily becoming more interesting. They weren't making complex music, but there's a place for that sort of sound and vibe in hip-hop and providing the hooks and delivery were sharp, I'm willing to praise them. And while I was lukewarm on 'MotorSport', I really like 'Stir Fry' as a single, mostly because it highlighted where the trio could take their sound going forward, there was potential there...

And then in rapid succession it seemed like Migos started fumbling. Offset dropped a verse that many have read as homophobic for no discernible reason - not the first time with these guys either - but what looked a little worrisome was that there was little information released about their upcoming project Culture II; hell, up until the night before we didn't even have a track list! And then the album was released, and the backlash began in earnest. Not for the content, but for the album's length: twenty-four tracks, 106 minutes, over an hour and a half of Migos. Even diehard fans were wary about this much from the group, because even in the era of No Limit or the bloated mid-2000s where hour-long projects became the norm, this was excess. And I'll admit right out of the gate this was going to be an uphill battle for me - I didn't cover the first culture because most of it wound up on Billboard BREAKDOWN anyway, but this could well be a breaking point for the modern, short-attention span listener, especially as this wasn't a concept record and probably couldn't earn its length - hell, at least when Big K.R.I.T. released 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time it could easily be split in two and he was exploring a variety of themes and sounds, which isn't exactly in Migos' playbook. But hey, I could be wrong: what did I get on Culture II?

Well, I got exactly what I expected - it's not like Migos switches things up or something! If anything it seems like the principle behind Culture II was excess: more songs, more autotune, more guest verses, more time as a whole - and if there is a record that puts Migos' limitations in even sharper view, it's this. The larger question - in a matter of speaking - is who this album is for, because even diehard Migos fans will balk at a record this long and with this many interchangeable tracks, and for the mainstream public... look, there's such a thing as flooding the market, and it's not like trap wasn't saturated already!

And I want to establish the length isn't the issue: I've reviewed hip-hop albums as long as this if not longer... but they all have more to say, which takes us to the first issue: content. I get that Migos have always had a limited scope in their topics: shooting people, screwing your girl, dealing and doing drugs, some passing mentions to the comeup, a bunch of luxury porn, you've heard all of this before. But that's the thing: not only have you heard it all before, it's not like Migos is opting to tell a story or craft a larger narrative or saying anything about any of the narrow topics they've chosen - hell, most often we're lucky if we get a consistent idea within the song! And this was an issue for Migos on the first Culture, but here it's exacerbated by the length - at some point, if you don't modulate the excess, not only will it feel repetitive but redundant, not helped by flows and verses that just run together. I'll give each member some credit for diversifying their flows a bit - Quavo's more melodic, Takeoff's more gruff, Offset's more technically skilled - but it's not like they play off each other within a verse or play different characters or offer something unique to them alone, and when you drizzle even more autotune on them, they sound less and less distinct. 

And hunting for moments of distinctiveness is really what got me through this listening experience: the guest verses, maybe a punchline or two, a hook or bit of production that stands out, as well as any bad line that jumps off the page and there are a lot of them - you end up gravitating to fragments instead of standout tracks because so much of it blurs together! And what's genuinely exasperating is that whenever Migos start to hit a stride in a song it goes off the rails with a bad line or bit of production or something that just doesn't connect. Take 'Stir Fry' - I love the brittle synthwork and more complex percussion and a really great hook, but then Offset compares the jewels in his chain to boogers and it pushes me out of the vibe! But what's jarring is that the opposite is often true: you'll get songs that are not good at all with obvious flaws, but are saved by a few isolated strong elements - and no song captures that more than 'MotorSport', where despite a lousy hook, ugly production, Migos themselves not really impressing and Nicki Minaj hurting a strong verse with repeated rhymes and that potty line... she's still mostly good and Cardi B is legitimately great for what the song is, mostly because you can tell she's actually happy to be here and is trying, something I seriously doubt even crossed the minds of our intrepid trio!

And I reference those two songs because - let's be honest - the vast majority of you are never going to touch this obese behemoth of a record outside of snippets or singles, and those two songs are really representative of both sides of the album, but are there other moments worth mentioning? Honestly, not really - even on songs like the opener with the more opulent strings or 'Narcos' with the buried Latin guitar line or the bassy desaturated production of 'Movin' Too Fast' or 'Beast' or 'Top Down On Da NAWF'... they could be interesting with real melody! Or how on 'Bad Bitches Only' you get a pretty sweet sample from Kanye only to bury it behind a hook from 21 Savage - similar case for Drake utterly phoning it in on 'Walk It Talk It' and Gucci Mane failing to keep up on 'CC' and Ty Dolla $ign, Travis Scott, and Big Sean all humiliating themselves on the ugly atonal 'White Sand' and that's not even getting to Post Malone wasting everyone's time on 'Notice Me', maybe the ugliest and clunkiest track focused on taking girls that good flows from Migos can't save; it almost seems like they're actively smothering the elements that could make the song interesting or distinct... but there are a few that stand out. Going back to 'Narcos' for the sort of hyper-violent song that it is actually makes sense that Takeoff is going to dismember people with a chainsaw, and while the flows are painfully basic on 'Open It Up', the more opulent production does help it. If we're going for purely ridiculous lines, we have Offset on 'Supastars' talking about how his hoe is addicted to faucets, or on 'Emoji A Chain' he shows his continued gaudy taste by comparing his diamonds to McFlurries - and it's not like Metro's beat is good enough to redeem it, I'm sorry - and on that note we have 'Too Much Jewelry' where Takeoff talks about being a walking chicken because he has too many diamonds... even if I do think he kind of snapped on his verse and Zaytoven's flutes sound pretty damn good. Then there's 'Gang Gang', which is all autotuned, oddly sentimental crooning repeating the word 'gang' into incoherence when Takeoff's not talking about putting a girl into a chokehold - but not to compete with Offset on 'Crown The King' where he talks about drowning your bitch with his watch as Quavo says that he catches 'a Babe Ruth, the bat / I batted the bat' and Takeoff references Soulja Boy! And 'Flooded' is just about as bad, with an awful hook from Offset that mentions pulling up 'like huggies', and Takeoff wanting to be called 'McLovin' from Superbad! And then there's 'Too Playa', which had some potential with 2 Chainz in his natural element with that saxophone... until we get Quavo talking about some girl's perky breasts before Offset calls your girl a throwaway mutt... that of course he's still screwing. And thus it gets a little hard for me to then hear Quavo solemnly croon about 'the culture' on the final track, because what value is this culture really bringing?

But here's the thing: while I've put together many a review for albums I don't like or care about, this might be one of my first reviews that feels actively pointless. Because this review will not change the mind of a diehard MIgos fan, and casual fans will be put off by the length and just wait for the questionably good singles. Migos themselves will still move enough units and sell out enough shows to finance all the gaudy jewelry, lean, and guns they want... until the bubble pops and they're forced to evolve or fade away. They may have a chance to survive this - Quavo showed some good production instincts and both Offset and Takeoff are passable MCs - but if we look back on the No Limit era we know it's much more likely that they won't last, unaware that this record was one of the shots that ultimately brought them down. And then the critics and music press will engage in the sort of historical revisionism that they never really liked these guys in comparison with the newest flavor of the week, and I'll be sitting back here with an exasperated expression as trends in hip-hop move on. Because with Culture II I got exactly what I expected, and if you're a fan watching me, you probably got exactly what you expected, and if all I did here was confirm expectations, unable to provide any usable analysis or distinctive highlights because Culture II is empty of both, what's the point? Ultimately I was considering not even giving this a score, but for as nihilistic and self-defeating as this experience was for me, in both listening to this and writing this review, I'm not going to succumb, be made to feel small by a record that in its bloat reveals a rattling emptiness of trap snares, triplet flows, diamonds, drugs, and fucking your girl. In other words, it's a light 4/10, not recommended, and when musical historians come across this album and maybe even this review in the decades to come, to analyze the trend of trap... don't waste your time remembering this. Do something else - anything else.

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