Culture Kings: Migos’s Miraculous Year

How the 'Bad and Boujee' trio made it to the top against the odds

This is how you arrive at a hotel when you have the No. 1 song in the country: in an Ecto Cooler–green Lamborghini Aventador, blunt in hand, blasting said No. 1 song for the puzzled enjoyment of the guests of the Sunset Strip Mondrian lobby. You probably want to rap said No. 1 song in its entirety while you finish your blunt in the valet lane, just to be safe. “You know, ‘Bad and Boujee,’” murmur a pack of Australian businessmen trying vaguely to conceal their excitement. (Have you ever heard several middle-aged Australians murmur the phrase “Bad and Boujee” in unison? That’s called ASMR.) It’s the last week of Barack Obama’s presidency, and Migos have the most popular song in America. It seems clear that if we do not stockpile the irrepressible joy radiating from Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset’s general vicinity, we might not make it to spring. For now, it feels like the best day of the Migos’ lives, and by osmosis, it is the best day of mine.

“We call it Hurricane Migos,” one of their managers apprised me earlier, regarding the effect that America’s favorite trio tends to have these days when they enter a room. I am no scientist, personally, but I’m fairly sure a hurricane amounts, more or less, to a large number of raindrops gone rogue. And I kid you not: Later, when the lobby has quieted down and the Migos have taken a break from our photo shoot to inhale takeout barbecue plates, a young woman wanders out of the elevator absentmindedly humming, “Raindrop, drop top,” not realizing Offset is 5 feet away.

This is what the world is like when you’ve named your sophomore album CULTURE, in all caps, and everything pretty much checks out. If anyone has any doubt that Migos, in this moment, are precisely whatever “CULTURE in all caps” means, they may feel free to type “culture” into Google Chrome, where they will find: “examples of culture,” “types of culture,” “culture migos,” and “characteristics of culture,” in that order.

An incomplete list of the ways in which Migos are, definitively, CULTURE:

  • Two weeks after we meet, CULTURE debuts at the top of the Billboard 200 — another milestone for the trio — with 131,000 album-equivalent units sold in its first week.
  • Seven separate songs from CULTURE crack the Billboard Hot 100 after the album’s release, not including Quavo’s features on other artists’ charting singles.
  • After Donald Glover’s Atlanta wins Best TV Series at January’s Golden Globe Awards, he takes the stage to exclaim: “I really wanna thank the Migos, not for being in the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’ That’s the best song ever.” Glover follows up backstage after correcting a reporter who pronounces it “My-goes,” yet somehow does not have the microphone smitten from his hand by divine thunderbolt: “Honestly, that song’s just fly. There’s no better song to have sex to.”
  • The Atlanta Falcons make it to the 2017 Super Bowl. Wide receiver Julio Jones dons cleats custom-painted in homage to CULTURE’s album art (which, in turn, is like a better version of the album art for The Beatles’ Revolver, but that’s a story for another time). The Falcons nearly clinch the victory over the New England Patriots, but lose in overtime. Plot twist: Before dropping out senior year, a young Quavo played starting quarterback for the Berkmar High School Patriots. I am just saying.
  • In what I presume was the only actually fun moment of New York Fashion Week this February, Migos follow their performance at bad and douchey Meatpacking District celeb haunt 1OAK by sending out bottle service trays towering with free pizza for the whole club. Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and a few hundred “let’s build” types proceeded to pound slices at tables that start at $10K a pop. Culture.
  • Offset, the deepest Migo, is currently rumored to be dating Cardi B, stripper turned rapper turned Love & Hip Hop star and probably our nation’s greatest living feminist.
  • Solely thanks to Migos, we once and for all have a confirmed spelling of “boujee.”
  • The month after CULTURE’s release sees temperatures across the country hit forebodingly unseasonal highs, meaning t-shirt weather for usually snowbound cities. Meanwhile, the album's second and best single, “T-Shirt,” cracks the top 20 songs of the Hot 100. Which, yes, global warming. But also: Hurricane Migos.

Back at the Mondrian, the Migos have arranged themselves on the deck of the hotel's poolside lounge, along with a small portable speaker for more spontaneous, unplugged performances of “Bad and Boujee” (which happen approximately every 30 minutes) and what appears to be somewhere around $70,000 in pocket cash. The first thing I need to ask them regards a recent post on Offset’s Instagram, showing him and Takeoff in Miami — Offset beaming in a duckling-yellow Yeezy Season 3 shearling jacket, Takeoff in a fashionably uncle-esque vintage polo from the ’96 Atlanta Olympics. Among the 600 comments is one from Quavo: “Damn my nigga where was I [?]” The people must know.

“Nah, this what happened,” Quavo explains. “Have you ever been to Finga Licking?" This is the name of DJ Khaled’s Miami soul food spot; sadly, I have not. “Oh my god, you gotta go to Finga Licking," he says. "We went to Finga Licking and brought back a whole bunch of plates. We was chilling out in the hotel lobby and they were just going picture-crazy, but I was so hungry, and the Finga Licking was so good. I went over to the side and had to bust my food down. But they can’t go off without your boy, you know what I mean? I was like, ‘Ohhh, don’t leave me!’”

“We out here taking all beasts out.” — Quavo

Finga Licking emergencies are one of the rare occasions on which you will catch the three Migos apart, not out of professional obligation but sheer force of habit. You could rarely find them apart even before Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff — respectively, Quavious Marshall, Kiari Cephus, and Kirshnik Ball, names destined for real-life mythology (or as one Twitter user put it, regarding Takeoff's birth name, “the sound that happens when you draw a sword”) — officially became the Migos. Quavo, the oldest member at 25 and unofficial-but-official group leader, is Takeoff’s uncle and Offset’s cousin, but the trio have always thought of themselves more like brothers. Born in Athens, Georgia, the family moved to Lawrenceville — a quiet-seeming Gwinnett County suburb 30 minutes north of Atlanta, inconspicuously a thriving distribution hub for Mexican cartels — when Quavo was in middle school. The three boys were raised together in Quavo’s mom’s house; when they rap, as they often do, about advice from “Mama,” they are referring to her. (Sometimes she even gets her own “Mama!” ad-lib, prominently deployed on “T-Shirt.”)

“We went to school together, middle school, high school, sports, yearbooks — you could look it up — everything,” says Quavo. “House parties, kickbacks, clubs, to now,” Offset adds. The three recall summer nights spent sneaking out to ride their bikes for hours in the muggy Georgia heat so they could talk to girls in the next neighborhood over. “Yeah, when you fell asleep on the curb!” Quavo reminds Offset. “We was so tired getting there, and we couldn’t even go inside ’cause we were sneaking. Next thing you know, Offset was going to sleep on the curb.”

Quavo and Offset — who’s now 25, a few months younger than Quavo — were devoted to sports for most of their time in high school. But while Quavo thrived as their high school’s starting quarterback, Offset grew distracted in his junior year and soon stopped showing up at school. “Life just got real one day,” Offset remembers. “My boy Quavo was doing his thing, but I knew it was over for me.” “He started coming to school with a whole bunch of money,” says Quavo. “That’s when I started being like, ‘Where you going?’”

Soon, all three were focusing almost exclusively on music, turning Mama’s basement into a makeshift studio, with free software downloaded from Yahoo and some gear they’d scrapped together from Guitar Center. Offset, after some minor brushes with the law, had decided to throw himself into rapping completely; his more experienced cousins coached him through the recording process. Takeoff — at 22, the youngest Migo and the quietest, though his deep voice appears on record the most time-worn of the three — had never been much interested in sports to begin with. His obsession had always been music, and while Quavo and Offset began taking regular trips into Atlanta to ingratiate themselves into clubs like Magic City and Follies, Takeoff was often just as happy to hold down the studio alone. It was his sense of focus that would define the group’s undaunted work ethic — the one that’s made them, after close to a decade of grinding, the best rappers of 2017.

“He was too young, he couldn’t get in the club,” Quavo says of his nephew. “Sometimes we ain’t have enough to pay security to let us in the club ’cause he don’t have no ID. He ain’t care, though — he wasn’t even worried about going out. He was like, ‘Just go ahead.’” Often, by the time Offset and Quavo returned home, Takeoff would still be up recording, having laid down three or four new songs to play for the others.

“Guess what, though?” Takeoff says with a quiet grin. “I don’t even need an ID now — they pay me to be at the club.”

It appeared, when Migos’s third mixtape, Y.R.N. (Young Rich Niggas), became an instant breakthrough success in 2013, that the trio had been swathed in luxury silks and vintage designer chains since exiting the womb. Their absurdly opulent video for a Drake-less “Versace” cost $100,000, with a majestic cameo from Donatella Versace herself. And if the Migos’s earlier, handsome, but not-so-wealthy days weren’t documented for the public eye, it’s only because they’d already had a crash course in faking it till you make it. “We had an era where we wasn't getting paid, before the Versace and all that,” says Offset. “But at our school, you weren't cool if you ain't had the cool clothes, so you gotta go get it. If your Jordans was fake, the whole school gonna get on you — girls, everybody saw it. So we was prepared by the time it came for real.” At one point in their teens, the three were attending different schools, so they’d strategically trade clothes, acting like they were new: “This week he wear that, then I’m wearing that the next week,” Offset recalls.

“... You can’t tell us we’re not MCs.” — Quavo

Y.R.N. became the unofficial soundtrack of summer 2013. Until CULTURE, the free tape was far and away the group’s most essential work, a cohesive, comprehensive distillation of the spirit of young Atlanta that still managed to sound like nothing else out. Critics harped on the trio’s ability to hammer a hook, or even a single word, into your head to the point of complete dissolution of meaning. Singsong staccato yelps of “Hannah Montana!” or “Chinatown, Chinatown!” took on the uncanny meditative effect of mantras — shortcuts to a purer, lighter plane of consciousness.

There’s a chapter of writer and humorist James Thurber’s 1933 autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, in which the author recounts a strange psychological phenomenon gripping him when he struggled to sleep as a child:

“I began to indulge in the wildest fantasies as I lay there in the dark, such as that there was no such town, and even that there was no such state of New Jersey. I fell to repeating the word ‘Jersey’ over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into. I got to thinking that there was nobody else in the world but me, and various other wild imaginings of that nature.”

Picture that, except fun as fuck, and you’ve got Y.R.N.

In short, it wasn’t so much about the words themselves as the ways Migos said them, in act after act of peerless semantic alchemy. You got the sense the trio — particularly Quavo, whose raspy stutter-step triplets became contentiously referred to as the “Migos flow” — could read a takeout menu over some Zaytoven flutes and turn it into a hit. History would later confirm that yes, in fact, Migos improvising a jingle for sour cream chips (“With a dab of ranch!”) and reciting a children’s book about a llama getting tucked into bed by his mama (“Mama!”) constitute more entertaining rap songs than what your faves spend weeks cooking up in the studio. You can see how this might grind the gears of the dustier contingent of hip-hop fandom. And like clockwork, as the Migos’s popularity skyrocketed, so too emerged a legion of skeptics. It started around the time of Drake’s fan-boy remix of “Versace,” which proved a mixed blessing when some credited it as the sole reason for the group’s success. “Versace” itself became the hottest new scapegoat for the myriad problems with “rap these days” — for instance, uh, you know, young men having fun and getting money and making people happy. At least no one could say they mumbled.

“I feel like they're so surprised that they're in denial,” Offset says, when I ask why they think it might be that Migos, over their nearly four years in the mainstream, have seemed to be so perennially underrated in some quarters. “Or how the expectation when we came in was so low. But we pulled along so many times — like, how many times?” By my count, there are at least three distinct milestones at which the Migos “returned” from supposed irrelevance (despite landing Billboard-charting singles every year since 2013). There was “Fight Night,” the group’s highest-charting song at the time, a year after detractors had written them off as a passing trend; “Look at My Dab,” the 2015 mixtape track that sparked the year’s most viral dance move, just weeks after Migos’s impressive but stiff debut album, Yung Rich Nation; and finally, the undeniable “Bad and Boujee,” proof that Migos aren’t just here to stay — they’re here to excel.

“You gotta think about the game of hip-hop,” Quavo cuts in. His tone is usually funny and casual, as though he’s making flamboyant little toasts to himself and his family (quick reminder: No. 1 song in the country), but now he sounds serious, wielding his words with purpose. “Hip-hop was started on groups. The greatest MCs came out of groups; the greatest singers came out of groups. So you can’t tell us we’re not MCs. If you go to your history, go to the culture of hip-hop — that’s why we’re talking about leading culture. History repeats itself. So you might wanna pay attention,” he adds with a sly wink.

Their road to No. 1 has run into potholes of other kinds, too. But overall, it would be a mistake to overstate the negatives of their situation in 2017. People love Migos! Who among us hasn’t had their day brightened by a Quavo ad-lib when they need it the most? (Besides, everyone knows picking apart the childhood listening habits of Lil Yachty is the hottest new way to hate on fun.) “The whole time we’ve been going with the flow," Quavo says. "We know the fans love us to death, and the people that hear our music love our music. They finally letting it in. You gotta go to the roots of the tree — you can look at the tree, but some people on the farm, they want the seed.” I turn his phrasing around in my head for many days to follow: Was it just wordplay, something along the lines of “Still be playing with pots and pans / Call me Quavo Ratatouille”? Or did I just bear witness to an extemporaneous Zen koan (Quavo Lao-Tzu)?

It comes down to this: Migos have always been good. But Migos have never been allowed to be great — not the kind of great they see recognized in their friends like Donald Glover, though they consider themselves kindred spirits. That is, until CULTURE, the first legitimately great Migos album, one that somehow, against all odds, actually lives up to its name. The production credits are a mixed bag of Atlanta legends from the past decade, but the mood throughout is one of icy, graceful restraint. Think monastic chants echoing off cold marble, “winter is coming” battle dirges, candlelit strip club anthems, and odes to late-’90s R&B legends on which Quavo channels the mournful spirit of Sting. Or, better put: it sounds boujee. (“We gonna throw ‘classy’ in 2016, and bring the b-b-b-b-b-b-boujee into 2K17, ya dig?!” Quavo crowed earlier.)

In the instantly iconic video for “T-Shirt” — my pick for best-ever Migos song, its Nard & B beat like a crunk track approaching zero gravity — the trio who used to trap out the bando now LARP scenes from The Revenant on a mountaintop, toting bows and arrows, Takeoff peering out from beneath a full-on bear head. “We wanted to bring trap with culture, you know what I’m saying? I ain’t wanna just be in no trap house with no t-shirt,” says Quavo, who codirected the video. “We wanted to open y’all minds up. We had to go get our own prey, we had to go do our own job. We out here taking all beasts out. We out here slaying the culture.”

That title is at once deadly straightforward yet so pointedly open-ended it approaches a god-level troll, and the Migos know it. “It’s like, wow, how you gonna say CULTURE? That’s so broad,” Quavo tells me when I ask about the decision-making behind it. “But we want you to pay attention. Like, yeah, we said it. We is it. This is what we are. Listen to it.”

“We just kinda put it on the plate: Here it is,” Offset says. “It’s delivered to the door. You look at that, you get the message: This is culture, let me present it to you. Here you go.”

“We wanted to make a statement. We wanted to prove to people that …” Quavo says, trailing off for a moment. He seems hung up, not on what point precisely Migos have yet to prove, but why they still seem required to prove it. And he continually returns to annual appraisals of the best active rappers — roundups on which Migos never seem to appear. “They don’t ever say ‘hottest groups,’ or they don’t even consider us. If you throw Migos up as hottest MC, they gonna say, ‘Well, that’s a group.’ Well, we still MCs, and together we’re still one. And how you not gonna count us when we brought all this culture in the game? We done gave you all this flavor — how you can’t count the stuff we did? You naming this MC and this MC, and if it wasn’t for us, half your songs wouldn’t be out — I’m not saying your career, but half your songs wouldn’t be out if we didn’t go the way we did. So throw us in there. And if you don’t throw us in there, it’s time to take it.”

“[Outkast] understood how powerful they were together.” — Offset

Ever since “Bad and Boujee” defied all expectations to become the biggest song in the country, I’ve been wondering what it is, exactly, that makes the song so unforgettable. The Metro Boomin beat is exquisitely sparse, almost somber, but not so exceptionally unique from the rest of the super-producer’s catalogue that it automatically screams “smash hit.” Offset’s storybook singsong hook is undeniably catchy, but then again, most Migos hooks are catchy. The past couple months of “raindrop, drop top” memes certainly didn’t hurt the song’s chart position, but that’s a side effect of success, not a cause. For months, the secret to the song’s power evaded me — perhaps because, when it finally came to me, it seemed almost too simple. But the thing that makes “Bad and Boujee” great, I think, is the same thing that’s tied together the trio’s last half-decade of hits: Migos remind you how truly fucking fun the art of rapping can be — the still-surprising ways one can completely transform language, from words on a page into something more. That’s what great MCs do.

Most of the great MCs that Migos idolize were part of groups. They look up to late-’90s Southern powerhouses like No Limit and Cash Money — Takeoff’s wearing a Pen & Pixel–style Cash Money t-shirt as we speak — but when I ask who initially made the teenage Migos want to rap, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff all blurt at once: “Outkast!” (Because you need to know: Offset’s personal favorite is ATLiens, Quavo’s is Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Takeoff’s is “all of them.”) Offset explains the reasons for his reverence simply: “They understood how powerful they were together.”

CULTURE showcases the trio's career-best music, but there’s still another reason Migos are peaking in this particular moment. When “Versace” initially broke in 2013, the trio was missing a member, at least in terms of physical presence; Offset was in a DeKalb County prison, having violated his two-year probation from a 2011 theft charge. He was released later that year to the celebration of fans worldwide, but after police interrupted a 2015 performance at Georgia Southern University, he was arrested again, and denied bond — causing him to be absent, yet again, for the release of their first official album. Offset doesn’t like revisiting these times. “I’ma sum it up for you,” he tells me. “It was hard, it was rough, it was tough, for real. But I got two boys out there working and keeping the train going for me. I know some people don’t get that chance. I might have drowned. So at the end of the day, I was still blessed.”

“And I feel like he was here, ’cause we kept him alive,” Quavo says of his cousin. “We was doing interviews and they was always asking, ‘How does it feel, just you two?’ A lot of people didn't know, but we always let them know it was three of us. Three of us. Three of us. Never two of us,” he repeats. “When he came out, everyone wanted to see who this man is.”

“And here I am, baby!” Offset smiles. Once the enigma of the group, the lone short-haired Migo, whose angular features stand out against Quavo and Takeoff’s dreads and youthful faces, Offset has now established himself as the discerning rap fan’s favorite Migo (to the extent that such a distinction is even possible). There would be no “Bad and Boujee” without Offset’s now-iconic introduction (the “You know …” that sparked a million tweets), but the simplicity of the song’s most-memed lyrics hardly do justice to his deft technical skill, shifting gears from one polyrhythmic flow to another at the drop of a … well, you know. Meanwhile, Quavo’s signature triplet flow has evolved into something much less predictable, finding himself as much at home with wavy R&B melodies as he is with exaggeratedly punctuated triplets. As for Takeoff, whose shyness on camera instantly dissipates when he's riffing candidly with his family, the quietest Migo is the one who can deploy his bass-heavy voice most powerfully — as on “T-Shirt,” essentially a showcase for his hypnotizing rhythmic control: “Whoa, kemosabe, chopper aiming at your noggin!”

Still, attempting to separate the trio’s respective talents feels a bit beside the point: The Migos are great because they are great together. And when I ask what each member feels they bring to the table, as if to remind me of the question’s ultimate uselessness, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff begin a chorus of joyous ad-libs, then immediately break into another unplugged rendition of “Bad and Boujee,” start to finish. It was the most honest answer they could’ve given.

Later — after a photo shoot during which the trio dance and freestyle to the lounge-y house music playing through the hotel bar speakers, fanning themselves with wads of hundreds while fellow hotel guests gawk in bewildered awe — I wait with the three Migos as the valet fetches their neon Lambo. They’re due for soundcheck at The Novo, the downtown venue they’ll be headlining in a few hours, where they will open with gorgeous fan favorite “Cocoon,” and close with a performance of “Bad and Boujee” in which they will be joined by Chance the Rapper, 2 Chainz, YG, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Yachty, and the Lakers’ Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson — in other words, pretty much the whole culture.

Before they leave, Quavo has one more request. “CULTURE on three!” he demands, and he, Offset, Takeoff, and I all put our hands together like a high school team getting hyped up before a big game. “One, two, three, CULTURE!” And as the Migos pull away into the evening, the sky opens up into a rare Los Angeles rainstorm.