For the first 40 minutes of Migos' Culture II, the Atlanta trap-rap trio's combative, aspirational mantras of jet-set consumption achieve such a stark, staccato groove that the music almost becomes meditative – the kind of stupefyingly decadent reverie that gets you "lost in the sauce," to paraphrase trap forefather Gucci Mane.
But, then, something startling happens. On the album's eleventh track "Gang Gang" (there are 24, and you'll feel all of them afterwards), the eerily glittering fog lifts. As a clubby bass line skips along more friskily than anything preceding it and a sample of a woman's voice flutters like a trop-house flute, Takeoff (the group's least peacockish MC) test-runs a partial entreaty: "Would you, ooooh?" His nerve steadied, he opens up with plainspoken boyishness: "Hey, I know this might sound weird to say," he rap-sings tenderly, "but would you love me if I ran away?" Mmm, who is this "you"? In the Migos' commodified world, their hearts have always been off limits, at least on record. But when Takeoff boasts that "everywhere I go, they know my name," an implied question lingers: Who would love him if he didn't rep the Migos? If he went solo, for instance, would the fans still care? If he left the group entirely, would his partners Quavo and Offset stand by him? Or, more ominously, would they still love him?
"Gang Gang" could've been a high-energy bonding anthem, but it never approaches the fraternal ferocity of an underground collective like Brockhampton, or the anarchic, bug-eyed mania that launched Odd Future and Raider Klan into the spotlight. Instead, it's gentle and pretty – crafted by longtime collaborator Murda Beatz, who also produced the lively first single "Motorsport," featuring Offset's boo Cardi B and Nicki Minaj. And that's startling because, unlike fellow Atlanta trap-pop A-listers Future and Young Thug, Migos don't do gentle or pretty, or anything else that signals vulnerability. Along with Rae Sremmurd, they're the foul-mouthed scamps frolicking in the scene's largesse, stoking the teen fanbase. But when Takeoff Auto-Tune croons, "And all I want is nachos [money]" and Quavo Auto-Tune lilts in reply, "All I want is Huncho [his own nickname]," it sounds like they're sending furtive, real-talk texts from the same, lonely room.
Culture II ultimately feels less like a celebratory howl from the mountaintop than a transitional inventory dump. With its easily-trimmable 24 tracks, Culture II appears to be tailored to finesse chart rules, which count 1,500 individual song streams toward one full album sale (see also the recent 30-song, Migos-led Control the Streets Vol. 1, a compilation from their label Quality Control). To that point, a Spotify search doesn't lead to the album proper, but a repeating album playlist, which tallies more streams, drawing further attention to the business plan. Meanwhile, Offset is emerging as the group's most dynamic voice, Takeoff is drastically improving his writing, and Quavo is assuming a producer's role. Too bad those skills aren't always at peak efficiency here.
In fact, it makes you wonder if the foregrounding of Quavo's raps and production on Culture II are an effort to set up his long-rumored solo album. Or, with all three Migos cranking out material for their own projects, plus labelmates and others, could fatigue account for the album's patchiness? Kanye West's tingly collage of African and Eastern sounds is wasted on "BBO (Bad Bitches Only)," as is Zaytoven and Mike Dean's Blaxploitation jazz interlude on "Too Much Jewelry," while Drake phones in a verse for the trite "Walk It Talk It." But there's also the euphoric bop of "Stir Fry" (produced by Pharrell) and the bewitching, minor-key chants of should-be single "Flooded" (produced by Earl and DJ Durel). The randomness of the track list is maddening.
On the oddly mournful closer, "Culture National Anthem – Outro," Quavo says, "They gonna divide us all (all)/That's when it falls apart (apart)/Tryin' to save the world, but it ain't my job." True, and on Culture II, the Migos prove it's hard enough just saving yourself.