Migos return, and mostly stick to the script
The Migos' chemistry memorably took center stage one summer night in Los Angeles in 2017, during a red carpet interview with DJ Akademiks and Joe Budden. When Budden disrespected the group, dropping his mic and exasperatedly walking away from the discussion, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff rose in unison to confront him and defend their honor, a Cerberus swaddled in chains and floral prints, flexing. The real-life confrontation mirrored their music, which has always been a display of unity and strength in numbers. Related by blood and raised together by Takeoff's mother for a significant portion of their childhood, the Migos developed their style of spartan Atlanta trap over the course of the last decade by cultivating three interlocking approaches, their common use of the triplet as a lens to unlock a kaleidoscope of flows, and their shared appreciation for ad-libs as a self-contained art form.
Culture III, Migos' first album since 2018, opens with "Avalanche," a masterstroke that interpolates the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and plays into the mythology of the Migo Brotherhood. The song wastes no time diving straight into the 1972 original's iconic wah-wah guitar vamp, as a solitary clap and ad-libs from Offset and Takeoff adorn Quavo's opening couplet: "Papa was a rolling stone, but now I got rolling stones in the bezel/ Mama at home all alone, hustling, tryna keep this shit together. (Momma!)" With three verses, no hook, and an artfully unsubtle blend of Motown and trap, "Avalanche" is a delightful and unexpected risk that echoes "Stir Fry," the Culture II standout in which the Migos rapped on a Pharrell symphony of whistles, 16-bit organ, and go-go drums that their trap forerunner T.I. originally recorded over in 2008.
But "Avalanche" is an outlier on Culture III, as the Migos aren't concerned with forging new habits so much as consolidating old ones. The album carries many hallmarks of contemporary major-label rap projects, including a posthumous Pop Smoke feature and a meandering, stream-friendly 19-track playlist. It isn't a slog, but it's closer in shape and spirit to the loose bloat of Culture II than the carefully sculpted gothic trap-pop opus Culture. Still, it is a satisfying listen coming off the somewhat dry triptych of solo albums that Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff released in the interval between CII and CIII. This time, the presence of all three Migos brings back interplay to the fore.
At times, Culture III channels the energy of friendly cutting contests (or in the case of the excellent "Need It," Offset and Youngboy Never Broke Again against Quavo and Takeoff, a two-on-two showdown) in a way that winds up spotlighting individual moments of greatness. Many of these moments belong to Takeoff, who has been so frequently overlooked that at one point his quiet profile became a meme. ("Do it look like I'm left off 'Bad and Boujee?'") Drake actually refers to Takeoff as "the third Migo" on "Having Our Way"; later in the song, Takeoff counters, rapping "I was 17 on a song with Drake." Takeoff is a downhill rapper who uses the Migos' signature triplet flow to build a sense of momentum, only to halt on a dime and switch direction. He drops gems across the album in the form of rare rhythmic pockets (on "Why Not"), withering retorts, ("She ask me to pay for the ass to get lifted/ I told her, 'I'm better off getting you a Lyft"), and unexpectedly depressing ad-libs ("Ain't been in love in a minute, so baby, I'm sorry if I lose the feeling (Sorry)").
Takeoff's nonchalant f--k-you attitude could never conquer the rap game by itself. As ever, the presence of his counterparts puts everything that makes him special in relief. Ultimately, with Culture III, the Migos aren't reinventing the wheel. But watching them kick verses back and forth as an expression of their unbreakable familial bond, particularly after the three-and-a-half hiatus since Culture II (an eternity in modern rap), is just as satisfying. B-