“This real rap, no mumble,” proclaims Offset on “Narcos,” a track off Georgia trap trio Migos's Culture II, and whatever else one might think of the rapper, he has a point. Offset and compatriots Quavo and Takeoff have exerted a pervasive influence over the last half decade of popular music, on everyone from upstart “mumble rappers” to A-listers like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and even Katy Perry. Now, with their third album, they implicitly force the same question previously posed of rock n' roll, punk, and “real” hip-hop itself: At what point does the maligned offshoot of an established genre cease to be an offshoot and simply become the new face of the culture?
Culture II is unlikely to win over many Migos detractors—and certainly none who weren't already converted by the original Culture last January. That album was a watershed for the group: the first time contemporary rap's preeminent singles artists managed to sustain their charisma over the scope of a full hour. Culture II, on the other hand, is a sequel in the purest sense: both bigger and bolder than its predecessor but with an inevitably diminished impact.
What the album lacks in surprise, however, it mostly makes up for with consistency. The singles to date are both fine entries in Migos's expanding canon of bangers: “MotorSport” for its song-stealing verse by Offset's fiancée, Cardi B, and “Stir Fry,” which plays up the group's latent pop sensibilities without divorcing them from the streets. The rest of Culture II makes the best of its undeniable bloat—at 24 tracks and 106 minutes, the album is almost twice the length of its predecessor—exhausting virtually every permutation of trap music's stylistic vocabulary. On “BBO (Bad Bitches Only),” a warm 1960s soul sample gives way to a keyboard line straight out of a yakuza movie; the sleek, spooky “Auto Pilot (Huncho on the Beat)” is driven by what sounds like a synthesized shamisen; the Gucci Mane homage “Too Much Jewelry” pairs Zaytoven's glistening keys with a “Mask Off”-style flute.
Culture II is both bigger and bolder than its predecessor but with an inevitably diminished impact.
Many of these songs bring to mind the music for a cyberpunk video game. This sonic aesthetic is well-suited to Migos's dense, percussive neo-tribal interplay, with verses bricolaged out of densely overlapping slogans and onomatopoeic ad-libs. Culture II's cover art depicts the group's members in bug-eyed shades and shiny black suits, which is consistent with the music's own impression of Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff as some kind of futuristic youth gang, like the droogs in an Atlanta-based remake of A Clockwork Orange.
It's a shame, then, that Migos can't be as ambitious with their lyrics as they are with their beats. If Culture II often sounds like the future—or at least the foreseeable remainder of 2018—its actual content remains in arrested development, with more songs about expensive cars (a desire that's inevitably paired with a “skrrt!” sound effect), jewelry (on the delightfully literal “Emoji a Chain”), and bitches (bad ones only—“boujee” ones, apparently, are so 2016). It feels slightly unfair to demand emotional growth from a group that makes what is essentially party music, but with Offset now embroiled in a homophobic lyric controversy, it would be nice to see Migos broaden their thematic horizons a bit. We do get a glimpse of political consciousness on the somber closing track “Culture National Anthem,” with its reference to black athletes “taking a knee” to protest police brutality, but even this feels jarring when paired with Takeoff's bizarre admonishment to copycat rappers: “Can't fuck with you jabronis, pussy niggas ridin' ponies.”
Still, Migos never claimed to be capital-A artists or intellectuals—only a reflection of the culture, and that's an assertion they continue to back up with their ubiquity and consistency. They're also, of course, a product, in both the broadly capitalistic and specifically drug-related senses of the word, and with Culture II they've given us just enough to keep us on the hook. As long as their supply stays in demand, their centrality to rap music—“real,” “mumble,” and otherwise—remains assured.