Trap—which, in the context of phrases like “in the trap,” describes a place where drugs are sold—was popularized as a genre by T.I. and Young Jeezy, two Atlanta rappers, in the mid-2000s. The sound was first dominated by the boom of Shawty Redd and Drumma Boy, but since 2010, the drug-obsessed genre has grown darker, thanks to producers like Lex Luger and Southside. Then Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff— better known as Migos—broke out in 2013 with a string of spry, endearing tracks, including “Chinatown,” “Adios,” “Emmitt Smith,” “Hannah Montana,” and “Bando.” But it was “Versace,” which got remixed by Drake, that catapulted the north Atlanta trio into the mainstream.
Migos maintained a moderate level of success after “Versace,” but “Bad and Boujee” outpaced previous releases by quickly hitting No. 1. Oddly, it broke away from the standard Migos formula: Takeoff isn’t on it, the hook is handled by Offset rather than Quavo, and the song’s runtime (over five minutes) betrays the pop-rap structure perfected on their acclaimed 2013 studio album, Young Rich Niggas. But thanks to memes, their bullish record label, and a highly visible cosign from Donald Glover, the trio soon topped the Billboard charts.
Migos and their team know how to play the game, the one commercially successful artists know to play in order to stay relevant: doing press tours, courting late night shows, and constantly updating social media to keep fans engaged even when not sitting on the charts. But it doesn’t seem like Migos put much effort into Culture beyond the wonderful cover art. DJ Khaled introduces the album with a tired, post-Snapchat motivational speech—and if his moment has passed, then hearing him say “Culture album coming soon! (Another one)” uncovers the album’s frayed seams.
When it was first uploaded to SoundCloud, “Bad and Boujee” was said to be on No Label III, a mixtape announced in 2016, not Culture. It’s a small detail, but it shows that despite what the group’s record label and management have said about their setbacks, this turnaround success wasn’t planned. Culture sounds like any other mixtape, which is not a bad thing for a trio that is constantly putting out music. Murda Beatz, Ricky Racks, and Purps provide perfunctory trap production throughout the album, with the exception of the distorted “All Ass,” which is a rare highlight on the nearly hour-long album. Southern rap thrives on forward-moving production; Migos even more so. The trio’s quick staccato triplet flow is fairly unchanged since their early days, so when Zaytoven’s producer tag appears over this forgettable minimalist trap, it approaches self-parody.
Still, there are a few choice moments on the tape. The lumbering “T-Shirt,” produced by Nard & B, allows each rapper to floss their own unique styles. It also features one of the trio’s best hooks in a catalog of many by Quavo, who hopefully won’t take too long to peel from the group, even if just for a solo mixtape. The album’s last few tracks do deliver some nice guest verses from 2 Chainz and Travis Scott (“Woke up cocaine all in my hair / Thought it was lice”).
In his review for Post Malone’s debut album Stoney, Pitchfork writer Matthew Ramirez lamented: “I have a perhaps wishfully optimistic hope that Stoney could mark the end of a specific kind of rap album: the spiffy cash-in after the viral hit or mixtape run.” It seems he may have to wait. Overproduced rap albums can be an exercise in misplaced resources, but even ill-advised, overwrought production shows that a record label might still care about the album form. In this case, maybe they shouldn’t have. In trying to build up a full-length album to cash in on a cultural moment, Migos’ label created a record that, with its sudden ramp-up, appears rushed and thin.