Ever since Migos came out, there's been a mystique under the surface of their music waiting to leap out into modern rap mythology. Sure, the hooks of their first two hits, "Hannah Montana" and "Versace," might bludgeon you with repetition and directness, but even back in those YRN days, there were signs that these blatant choruses were merely the straightforward judo chops of a Migo martial art that contained multitudes -- not just quick-strike triplet assaults. They were the first rappers since Gucci Mane and Future to prove worthy of an extended partnership with Zaytoven, their verbal acrobatics easily lending themselves to his flute-synth soundscapes that recall the levels of various video games set at foggy, humid ancient temples. They spoke in mathematic trap cryptograms that mapped thirds onto quarters, ripped from old Three 6 Mafia and Bone Thugs N Harmony albums, and incomprehensible to anyone over 30. They were a trinity of blood relatives that stuck together long after group dynamics had gone the way of the dodo in hip hop, their intrinsic, loyal connection still mystifying observers today. The Beatles comparisons may have been a reach, but it's easy to understand why they were attached to this larger-than-life group.  

Mystique isn't what got the Migos here, sitting on the stoop of a #1 album with a #1 single nailed to the door, but it's why they've been able to maintain a rabid following and breathless critical praise of their work for four straight years, an eternity to the modern hypebeast (hearing OG Maco's voice on "Slippery" via OG Parker's producer drop is an apt reminder of how quickly these flames can fizzle out). Migos aren't as inherently weird as Young Thug, as tortured as Future, or as outlaw-ish as Gucci Mane, but the chemistry and aura of their best music puts them in the same folkloric class. The group's low points, speaking in terms of momentum, have been the times when they've attempted to spell out their formula to lames. No Label II's "New Atlanta" rounded up Rich Homie Quan, Young Thug, and... Jermaine Dupri in an attempt to neatly package their city's vibrant scene for the "Welcome 2 Atlanta" generation; Yung Rich Nation, at its worst, was a concept album about Migos inventing dabbing and the triplet flow; 2015's Back To The Bando was too obvious in its "return to basics after underwhelming album" formula. Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset have been dripping swag since the start -- it's only when they try to give us dissertations on their cool that it starts to evaporate. 

Culture is clearly the condensation point. Eclipsing their previous highs of the Drake-bolstered "Versace" and the "Fight Night"/"Handsome & Wealthy" moment, Migos are currently more popular than ever, while also at their most inscrutable, suggesting a correlation between the two. "Bad and Boujee" has the most free-associative, haikuesque couplet in #1 rap hit history in "Rain drop, droptop/Smokin' on cookie in the hotbox"; the "T-Shirt" video traced the origins of trapping back to 17th Century fur trappers, and was not the more obvious Revenant homage that many hypothesized early on; highfalutin art terms like "Gregorian" or "negative space" are popping up in Culture reviews more often than the words "trap" or "triplet"; they just pulled a Lil B and hosted a lecture at NYU; most importantly, they brazenly named this thing Culture.

Beyond that surrounding evidence, this album is just flat-out weirder, sparser, and darker than any project Migos have ever released. Echo and reverb are used liberally throughout, rendering the group's already-improved backing vocals and ad-libs even more breathtaking. The beats, once propulsive and jumpy to match Migos' syllable-cramming, are now soupy and eerie, as if the group's rowing a skiff through a swamp rather than cutting through waves on jetskis. There are so many great Migos mixtape cuts that sound tinny in that classic ATL-trap-with-compressed-horns way, but nothing of the sort made the cut on Culture. Even the hit, "Bad and Boujee," is hypnotic, seeming to speed up via pure momentum rather than explode on you in the opening seconds.

All this intriguing mystique isn't just a facade -- the group's rhymes are by and large tight despite largely abandoning their trademarked flow, and the hooks are a little more thought out than those that abide by their earlier "shout song title over and over" style -- but it does leave the belly feeling a little empty after a full listen. The "Bad and Boujee" single artwork depicts an exquisitely-dressed woman eating Maruchan noodles off of a silk tablecloth, and that's somewhat of an apt metaphor for Culture -- you're not necessarily getting the best Migos songs in existence, but they're presented in a much more elegant, stylized package. To borrow a phrase from Future, they dressed it up, but they didn't make it that much realer for me.  

For starters, the first voice we hear on this thing is DJ Khaled's for some baffling reason (by the way, he sounds awfully angry at the group's doubters for someone who's never featured a single Migo on any of his songs). It's by far the album's most unnecessary moment, adding nothing beyond increased pop visibility to an already-mecha-hyped album. The worst 2 Chainz verse in 12 months (on "Deadz") and a tone-deaf racial slur (on "Get Right Witcha") are the two other glaring chinks (no pun intended) in Culture's armor-- if those three things are edited out, I'm adding a .5 to this review.

The other issue that's obvious, but more debatable in terms of its effect on quality, is that Migos, to this point one of the most influential rap acts in the past five years, are dipping into other modern rappers' bags of tricks for arguably the first time. As Quavo said in a recent Hot 97 interview, Migos and their contemporaries and even successors "Drip flavor onto each other," which is definitely happening here.

The most obvious influence on the album, though he's rap's biggest stylistic leech, is Travis Scott. Every time I hear "T-Shirt," I mistake Offset for Scott, as he adopts a falsetto for his ad-libs (a la "It's lit!") and then slips down to a baritone for his verse, which is the first in Migos history to reference mosh pits, coincidentally or not. Elsewhere, the backing vocals on "Slippery" sound almost identical to Scott's on "Last Time," which like this track also featured Gucci Mane, "Kelly Price" bears Trav's fingerprints before he so much as touches the mic, and Culture's overarching gothic feel also seems indebted to him. I guess it's only right that Migos return Scott's favor of friendly creative theft (the title Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight is taken from a Quavo line that popped up long before "Pick Up The Phone"), and they do certainly improve on his vocal stylings with their inimitable harmonic chemistry. Oddly enough, you could also draw a through-line to similarly-derivative new schooler Desiigner, whose popular, soulful "Tiimmy Turner" a cappella doesn't yet have any offspring that match the retro, almost doo-woppy or bluesy group delivery of Migos on this album (best observed when they do a cappella versions themselves). The mainstream has clearly inched closer to Migos in the past four years, but they're also making some concessions to new wavers on Culture... shout out to Lil Uzi's much-debated verse on "Bad and Boujee." 

These are relatively minor gripes that wouldn't distract from a great mixtape, but when Culture's made up to look like the golden idol from the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, they poke a few glaring holes in what had the potential to be a peerless statement of dominance to open up 2017. With these in place, I fully believe that you could make an album better than Culture out of the group's best tracks and features from 2015 and '16 combined. Beating two years' worth of music is a tall order, but I wouldn't have been at all surprised if they had been able to do it. Migos have pinpointed the elements of their style and skills that are crucial to modern rap culture, regardless of region or genre, and for a good two-thirds to three-quarters of this album, they flawlessly flaunt them. Culture is a big step into the world of successful commercial full-lengths for a group whose biggest previous successes were bound to mixtapes, and the group will emerge with their mystique stronger than ever, but the album's not quite as world-stopping as it wanted to be.