There’s still (somehow, some way) legitimate news that’s published about DAMN.; its Platinum status, its third chart-topping week, its dominance of the singles charts. Kendrick deserves this shine – DAMN. is fantastic. It’s a rare alignment of talent, acclaim, popularity, and an artist who constantly exceeds even our loftiest expectations. Its success feels absolutely unbelievable(1) despite being patently obvious for the last 4-5 years. And yet through all of it, I come back to the only album this year 105% as good with 5% of the acclaim – and the forces that conspired to make it that way.
Hip hop has long been at work building an invisible Great Wall of Interstate 40, the apparent border fence separating hip hop from the illegitimate, bastardized version of itself to points south. Everyone called bullshit yet nothing changed. 1995; Andre 3000 – while being booed at a hip hop awards show: “The south got somethin’ to say.” 2005; Lil’ Wayne: “So many doubt ‘cause I come from the south…”(2) Et cetera. This is old news not much in need of rehashing.
Here’s a contemporary fact about a contemporary southern rapper. Atlanta talent Lil’ Yachty never shared a single day on earth with Notorious B.I.G. or 2Pac - not a one. But he made headlines for his brazen refusal to take part in a bullshit knob-shining routine that still permeates “ur-hip hop” communities. Everything fucking blew up, because he said he never listened to them.
Why the fuck should he? Why the fuck would Lil’ Yachty spend an ounce of effort digging up music from a time and place where people literally refused to recognize his neighbors? When would his radio ever have the occasion to play a Biggie song? Biggie had been dead 13 years when Yachty got to middle school! So now he should be expected to do blood rituals to appease a set of self-professed rap deities who don’t even want him? Fuck. That.
It feels like in the aftermath of Outkast and Lil’ Wayne these days should be over – but this is what maintaining that wall looks like in 2017. The “powers that be” aren’t stupid. They know the days of pointing to the hit-maker depth chart are gone, so now it’s more subversive than ol’ fashioned regional bias. In 2017, cranky-ass old men like Pete Rock have to show you the animals are trying to run the zoo with shit like this. In 2017, Q-Tip has to cite “Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole; the gatekeepers of flow” and sleight the south by omission(4). In 2017, grumpy fucks like Hot 97’s Ebro Darden have to book popular southern guys for the bump before dressing them down in the studio. Let me translate what Ebro Darden didn’t have to say for you: “This shit isn’t hip hop. It isn’t art. It’s a fucking circus, and they’re the freaks.”
So it’s (still) not exactly fashionable to speak highly of southern rap, especially in superlative terms. And even passively referring to Kendrick as less than perfect isn’t either. When the guy is Rap Jesus, any dissenting opinion is sacrilegious. Neither of those matter – what does, is that the best album of 2017 so far is CULTURE. And whatever reaction you’re making right now – at the mere possibility of an Atlanta trap album holding the crown – tells you what side of the wall you’re on.
Here, soundtrack your reading:
Little time is wasted before arriving at the primary strength of the album: contrast. The nail-sharp staccato of “momma. told. me.” over the ushered, sweeping treble of the keys. Over a hefty, sticky bass that swells and recedes over the easily-misplaced machine gun of the hi-hats. Everything on CULTURE is diametrically opposed, from articulation to melody. The result is absurdly indulgent yet somehow restrained; contrapuntal. “Lots of treble + Lots of bass = Balance” might be circled about 30 times in bright red ink on the first page of Quavo’s notebook, but it fucking works, and no one else is doing it as well. A decent set of headphones and the Migos’ absence of moderation is pretty appealing, but put it through the 6-by-9’s, a 12, and a pair of ¾’s and its downright indecent.
Or break down “Get Right Witcha,” where it seems like there’s so much going on, but really it’s just a vocal track, two samples (one of which is a fucking pan flute), and drum/bass loops. There’s a ludicrous density of “Things That Are Happening” but it never trips on itself – it’s just a careful blinking of sequencing lights seamlessly handing the baton from one to the next at a mind-blowing pace. The pan flute peaks on the quietest spot of the hook, the sub kicks right before Offset doles the track name, the keys twinkle just enough to remind you they’re there but only when the pan flute is off-track before heading into the verses.
And lord, the verses. To besmirch the triplet-laden Versace Flow as some sort of gimmick belays how fucking incredible it sounds to layer music that’s always segmented in halves with lyrics chopped in thirds. Rhythm comes from that slight absence of sound right before the beat; thank Migos for giving you twice as many reasons to celebrate.
If you don’t buy into any of this shit then you can look at their relentless, positively insane efficiency with words. How much is unsaid in the parable of “she swallowed the bottle; I’m all in her ovaries”? What about “I like a bitch with some cellulite; tape a brick to her take a flight”? How few words can these guys get away with? How about this one: “do it for the culture”?
Dwell on that one.
CULTURE isn’t plagued by the usual jambalaya of uncertainty that lingers over Atlanta trap albums. Every song is more polished than the last, but the Migos never abandon the inherent raw-ness that comes from mixing what always feels like four tracks. There is absolutely zero filler. No lyrical tropes, or percussion, or melodies are ever given time to stagnate. Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff didn’t put this together as fan-service, it’s not a money grab, and at 13 tracks it’s not a ratings stunt. It’s for the culture.
To the extent the rap world has erected this massive wall, Migos has found a winning formula: build it higher from the inside. It doubles-down on every southern excess that got to this point, and if the result isn’t the sound of 2017, it’s the sound of 2018. Don’t believe it? Compare at the attempted Katy Perry-ification of Quavo to the Quavo-ification of Drake.(5) Drake wouldn’t be around after a decade if he wasn’t a smart guy; if he’s dabbling in post-trap, the writing is on the wall for dancehall.
The land rush is setting quite a stage. Kendrick has Anderson .Paak, Q-Tip, and Taylor Swift; Migos has Drake, Young Thug, and Katy Perry. Kendrick is coming for hearts and minds; Migos is coming for your ears, and they know the stakes. They’re on the front of the album.
(1)Be honest, you never expected you would hear “an Ed Sheeran song just lost the #1 spot to a Kendrick Lamar song.” No chance. No way! I am still incredulous at this.
(2)This is an incredible joint - far and away the best on the subject.(+)
(3)As a point of reference, Ol’ Dirty Bastard has been dead 13 years.
(4)Joey Bada$$ and Earl Sweatshirt – Kendrick and Cole are a little more obvious. The album features Consequence, Busta, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, and the sole representative of the south, Andre 3000 – who also uses his time to shade Lil’ Yachty.
(5)Quavo helped me out here with a second #1 this year on DJ Kahled’s “I’m the One”.
(+)The blind fire that hit Mister Cee is absolutely fucking hilarious too – blink and you’ll miss it.