After Three Years Away, Do Migos Still Represent The Culture?

In 2018, Migos, the pioneering trap trio from North Atlanta, were everywhere. After opening the year with the release of the hotly anticipated follow-up to their debut album Culture, they became an omnipresent force in pop culture. They featured in ads for everything from sneakers to video games, they performed at NBA All-Star Weekend, they even got their own potato chips.

They released their respective solo albums over the course of that year, then, in 2019, they announced a year-long delay on the third iteration of their Culture series — a delay which became longer than expected as a global pandemic shut down the entertainment industry. And now, after an unintended hiatus, they are set to finally release Culture III this week.

As they’ve rolled out the release over the last month, though, a frisson of concern has shot through the social media chatter surrounding the release. Its lead single, “Straightenin,” was buried in its release week by an avalanche of content from the likes of 21 Savage, J. Cole, and Nicki Minaj. Their Michael Jordan-parodying release date announcement made barely a splash.

When they revealed the album’s cover art, the overwhelming reaction on social media was negative and responses to the 18-song tracklist released a day later expressed more excitement for the featured artists than the fact that Migos was returning. When the album drops, it’ll have to directly compete for ears with Chicago upstart Polo G, whose reception and buzz have been much warmer over the past several months.

All of which begs the question: Do Migos still represent the culture? In the three years since they last released a Culture album, not only has the pop culture landscape has seen multiple massive shifts, but the group itself has been buffeted by the winds of change since then, as well. Aside from the lukewarm critical reaction seen toward their solo efforts, Migos have been largely absent from playlists and radio, supplanted by a new crop of artists who do many of the same things.

While Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff often credit themselves with creating — or at least popularizing — the “triplet” flow, North Carolina rapper DaBaby has taken the baton and dashed away with it over the past two years. In that time, he’s received backlash for never changing his cadence and adjusted accordingly. If a newer artist is already facing criticism for never switching it up, how will an 18-song project from the flow’s foremost purveyors hold up under scrutiny?

Meanwhile, the members’ respective personal lives have dominated headlines as much as their business moves and new music has. Offset married Cardi B, then nearly divorced her twice. Public opinion seemed to sway to Cardi’s side both times, with rumors swirling that Offset was unfaithful and his rapper wife was fed up.

Quavo, meanwhile, had a high-profile romance of his own with Bay Area rising star Saweetie. They too had a very public falling out, with Saweetie tweeting, “I’m single. I’ve endured too much betrayal and hurt behind the scenes for a false narrative to be circulating that degrades my character. Presents don’t band-aid scars and the love isn’t real when the intimacy is given to other women.”

Quavo tried to defend himself by tweeting, “You are not the woman I thought you were. I wish you nothing but the best.” However, when a video of the couple having a violent altercation in the elevator at Saweetie’s North Hollywood apartment surfaced, the footage painted him in a less-than-positive light. The couple didn’t face charges for the fight, but seeing the cracks in the facade the two had put up in public didn’t do either of them any favors.

Takeoff got it the worst of all. Rather than be romantically linked to another rapper, he was accused of sexual battery and sued by the alleged victim. He denied the accusation through his attorney, calling the allegations a “money grab,” and has since remained mum on the incident, although he’s always been the least public of the three Migos, to the point he didn’t even have a separate Wikipedia page until recently.

Now, we know that mistreatment of women has never seemed to stop rap fans from consuming their faves’ new music (if anything, it’s starting to feel like a prerequisite for cultivating an intensely loyal fan base). But with all three members of the band landing in varying degrees of hot water over the past three years, it’s fair to question whether their brand has been irreparably tarnished.

And competing for listeners with Polo G — pretty much the paragon for the modern hitmaking style of melodic, traumatized rap dominating playlists lately — puts Migos in a precarious position. If the album fails to connect with listeners or appears to underperform, it could signal that their moment is over, leading to a domino effect of reduced returns on future projects. Lord knows hip-hop fans’ attention spans have gotten shorter than ever, so one slip could be all it takes for the masses to move on.

But, even with all that, Migos have one thing on their side: An established, successful brand in a rap landscape where branding often seems paramount to the music or even to fans’ receptions. Drake fatigue appeared to be setting in, then he sold out multiple Nike collaborations and took over the summer with “Laugh Now Cry Later.” Nicki appeared to be done after Queen but finally put Beam Me Up Scotty on DSPs and reclaimed her crown.

Even Cardi B has been the subject of near nonstop backlash, commenting that fans turned on her in the year since releasing her paradigm-shifting debut album, only to drop “WAP” and “Up” to remind them that she can make a hit practically in her sleep. Migos may be a bit further removed from “Stir Fry” and “Walk It Talk It,” but as we’ve seen several times over the years, if one miss can break you, then one hit can revitalize a flagging career.

Though it remains to be seen if there’s a “Bad And Boujee” redux among the tracks on Culture III, the tracklist does show that they’re still in tune with the culture. Late rappers Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke both appear, courting their outspoken fanbases; Cardi B and Drake are always good for a hit; and Polo G, Migos’ most apparent competition on Friday, appears as well, proving the trio at least knows what they’re getting into.

The culture is always moving forward. The challenge any artist has is to evolve and grow with it. With a year off to work on their latest project, Migos had a chance to slow down and take in the changes, while figuring out how best to adjust to them. Now, all that remains to be seen is if they can continue to lead or if the culture has passed them by.