An abridged version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
It’s 2015, which means it’s been exactly ten years since 2005, which also means writers are currently flooding the internet with their long-winded retrospectives on anything and everything from a decade ago. It’s apt that we take this moment to reflect back on what rap was like in ’05—specifically rap below the Mason-Dixon line. For many young rap fans, it’s difficult to imagine what Southern hip hop looked and felt like a decade ago. Sure, some may recall hit songs like Dem Franchise Boyz’ “I Think They Like Me,” or recognize Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin'” whenever it’s ironically played at a party—but could they identify the squeaky synth leads on “Bottom of the Map,” or rap along to every line on “Air Forces”? With booming 808s and ticking hi-hats, the recent developments in music can be easily traced back to the South, and trap rap’s apotheosis is none other than Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Working with only a handful of Shawty Redd beats and his naturally raspy voice, Atlanta native Young Jeezy would lay down the blueprint for an entire region of rappers—virtually knocking big players like Lil Jon out of commission. Jeezy, who has since dropped the Young from his moniker, recently celebrated Thug Motivation 101’s ten year anniversary with a hometown performance. Coincidentally, Migos, who have finally released their debut album Yung Rich Nation, and at one point seemed impervious to writing boring songs, are getting suspiciously close to Jeezy—who sadly hasn’t done much to tweak his formula since 2006’s The Inspiration.
On Yung Rich Nation, their long-gestating debut album on 300 Entertainment, Migos (the familiar trio of Quavo, Takeoff and Offset) find themselves approximately three years removed from being a wacky name in the ever-shifting Atlanta rap scene—that somehow managed to squeeze through the cracks with their infectious triplet flow—to apparently doing just fine in their cozy, designated lane. This particular lane, once paved by the guidance of the oft-mythologized, largely obscured (and currently incarcerated) Gucci Mane and his decorated 1017 Brick Squad Records camp, has since been boldly revamped by something more concrete. Furthermore, the ATLiens who came up under Gucci’s acetic street rap farm system and retained Brick Squad’s “weirdo” DNA and DIY backbone, have since reaped the benefits both critically and commercially. (Future’s DS2 recently sold over 150k copies in its first week. If you’re keeping tabs that’s more than Pluto and Honest first week sales combined.) Ironically, Migos have somehow lost sight of that coda along their way to inevitable super stardom; subsequently crossing paths with a stolid creative approach akin to Jeezy’s (Gucci’s notorious arch nemesis) and an appealing method to formulating street rap to a broader demographic. The result in Yung Rich Nation is a largely uneven commercial debut album, one that has its once flexing creative muscles struggling to carry the heavy lifting.
And sadly the producers on Yung Rich Nation don’t help much with spotting the Migos either. Even with the usual suspects making their rounds here—those partly responsible for crafting the group’s biggest hits (“Versace,” “One Time”) and signature tracks (“Freak No More,” “Hit ‘Em”)—Yung Rich Nation often remains bland and shockingly tuneless. Tracks like the Murda Beatz produced “Just for Tonight” is an offensively limp track that features a cut-and-paste hip hop/R&B beat and forgettable Chris Brown guest spot, and further exemplifies just what happens when a major label flexes its deep pockets but ultimately has short arms. And you don’t have to be a seasoned rap fan to share this sentiment, as even the most novice hip hop palettes would detect the staleness in which the album seems to coat itself in. Perhaps the most vexing thing about Yung Rich Nation—the questionable production choices notwithstanding—is how glaringly amateurish and schlocky the final product ends up being. Migos, who were once admired by fans for their uncanny blend of sardonic humor and (deceptively) stirring yarn, border on self-parody here: “They sayin’ Migos better than the Beatles/ Paul McCartney, I would like to meet him,” raps Quavo on “Street Nigga Sacrifice”—and yes, that’s a painfully dated reference to an internet meme. Despite clocking in at a seemingly light 54-minutes, Yung Rich Nation reveals itself to be quite the slog: The trio is beginning to show visible signs they’re running out of steam and that couldn’t be more clear than on the recycled “Dab Daddy”.
However, when the Migos machine is finely tuned, like on the Honorable C.N.O.T.E. produced “Highway 85,” its a friendly reminder of just how remarkably consistent they can be when working in unison. The track is an exhilarating bit of action movie storytelling put to music—picking up where “Fuck 12,” “Hot Boy,” and the G-funk laced “Nawfside” left off—with the trio smack dab in the middle of a high speed shootout on the highway. The severity and tension that’s vividly depicted on the track courtesy of all three Migos (Takeoff takes home the trophy thanks to his “Mirror, when do you picture the Migos falling off?/ The mirror said ‘You stupid boy, don’t ask that question at all'” line) is especially tantamount when taking into account Migos’ literal highway shootout in Miami last March. And much like on the fictional “Highway 85,” nobody was gravely injured in the Miami shootout and Migos’ Quality Control camp came away mostly unscathed. Yung Rich Nation also continues the Migos tradition of limited guest spots, and thankfully Young Thug corrects 300 Entertainment’s error in phoning in a pale Chris Brown feature. As usual, Thug makes most of his appearance and on “Cocaina,” a track that finds the rapper tinkering around with a slew of vocal ticks—here he’s blending manic yelps with tropical bird calls—the ATLien comes away with a serviceable verse.
But unfortunately, these occasional bright spots feel like perks for the time you’ve just wasted. And the label is just as responsible for this mess as the Migos. 300 Entertainment, while a relatively new record label, didn’t just pop up out of relative obscurity; it’s actually run by former Def Jam label executive Lyor Cohen, and has been quietly making some big and bold moves in the music industry. First, there was signing of wild card Young Thug, then came the meteoric rise of Fetty Wap and his hit song “Trap Queen” (it’s since gone platinum), and now it appears as though they’re banking on Migos’ Quality Control imprint. So, as you can see they’re not exactly Cash Money yet. And although it’s tempting to call their Migos deal (and inevitable release of Yung Rich Nation) a bold move, the group breaking bread with bigwigs was bound to happen anyway. And that’s just why there’s so much frustration with Yung Rich Nation—as it’s not a terrible record, per say, it’s just not a very interesting one either—300 clearly blundered on the album’s rollout and overall promotion. Migos went from being hot to not virtually overnight: “One Time” barely made it onto the charts, which sounds about right when they haven’t had a memorable song since “Handsome and Wealthy” over a year ago. It’s disappointing because the group appeared to be in good hands—they were touring and seeing the world, dropping one earworm right after the next, shaping an entire culture’s lingo—and they didn’t have to compromise their creativity for a larger demo.
With that being said, it’s crucial to emphasize that Migos are doing fine in 2015—they’re still attracting promiscuous females (“Pipe It Up,” “Playa Playa”), accumulating stacks of money (“Migos Origin,” “What a Feeling”), wearing designer brands (“Dab Daddy”), living large (“Spray the Champagne”), all while remaining entirely unfazed by the pesky “haters”. But throughout, tracks will leave you with a noticeably bittersweet aftertaste—although it isn’t exactly lacking in flavor—it’s as though the album is missing a secret ingredient, or doesn’t ever find its intoxicating blend. And because of this, Yung Rich Nation doesn’t feel like a proper Migos project. They’ve been through a lot, but I’m assuming they’re quite used to this by now as the chips have always been stacked against them. Allegations of Quavo having his chain stolen in DC, the group being arrested at Georgia Southern University, Offset remaining locked up while others are out on bail, scheduled tours being “postponed indefinitely”—it’s easy to see why Yung Rich Nation may lack that trademark vitality that brought the trio initial success. But I don’t know if we want “just fine” from Migos; this is a group that once rapped about being “in club sippin’ lean’ but “still buying Cris,” and wrote entire songs dedicated to flashy things and grotesquely lavish (“Rich Nigga Timeline,” “Built Like Me”) but all without the hint of self-consciousness that Yung Rich Nation reeks of.