In the five years since Migos' first mainstream triumph, their fist-through-the-wall YRN tape, they've had the most unpredictable trajectory in hip hop. Following the standard release schedule for ascendant stars, they released No Label 2 around nine months after the breakout tape, just as "Versace" and "Hannah Montana" hype was dying down, and initially, it seemed like a sign that the trio's juice had run dry. The tape languished on mixtape site servers for months, with the group and their new label, Quality Control, desperately trying to make the single "Fight Night" happen. Seven long months later, it exploded thanks to promotion by new parent company 300 Entertainment, beating the previous high water chart mark set by "Versace." Follow-up single "Handsome & Wealthy" followed it to the Hot 100. Now Migos had the momentum and track record to justify a debut album.

After a tape that felt like a dumping ground for non-album tracks (the nevertheless underrated Rich N**** Timeline), Yung Rich Nation arrived with a couple of unsuccessful singles and a marketing strategy that didn't amount to much more than "we invented the dab." This was surely the death knell for Migos, and ensuing tapes Back to the Bando and YRN 2 did little to suggest otherwise. Momentum had passed them over, and they were left to whittle out a flagging career like so many other also-rans. 

Then, after five of their last six singles had failed to chart, "Bad and Boujee" arrived. We all know what happened next. 2017 was a Migos highlight reel, bookended by the release of a number one album and solo endeavors by two of its members. The group was on top of the world, whether they were squaring up to online heels like DJ Akademiks or forming power couples with rap starlets. Migos never had time for a victory lap after all of their previous moments of triumph, but the "Bad and Boujee"/Culture buzz took an entire year to wear off. It was their least viral moment of success, one of those rare occasions when internet-era time slows down to old-school pace, and stars are allowed to bask in success for months at a time without a fan base demanding more content. The Migos had been trying to get to the altar for years, with each successive tryst fizzling out, but now that they're back from the honeymoon, they face perhaps their biggest challenge yet. 

With a history that reads more like the prologue to The Lord of the Rings than a rap career, Migos return almost exactly a year after the first Culture with a sequel. "Culture Two" is a Final Destination 5-ass title— it screams "unnecessary big-budget sequel" before so much as an ad-lib has been uttered— and indeed, many of the problems that plague spinoff-ridden Hollywood franchises are also present here. Culture II is overlong, aimless, unorganized, and thematically unchanged from Migos' previous material. Many have chalked up its length to post-More Life streaming game theory, which is probably the label's reasoning, but this isn't the first time that Migos have made projects that well exceed the one-hour mark. Both No Label 2 and Rich N**** Timeline hovered around 90 minutes, as did many mixtapes in the post-CD, pre-streaming era. Culture II is where debates about overlong, no-filter mixtapes meet debates about overlong, streaming-optimized albums, the former more of a product of artistic hubris and poor editing, the latter a more conniving business tactic. Whoever's at fault, the number of jokes that have circulated about the album's length should make artists and labels rethink both strategies in the future.

There is a silver lining to this marathon slog though. In the process of trying to entertain us for 105 straight minutes, Migos twist and turn their way through their weirdest, most uncharacteristic material yet. Never before have we heard vocal harmonies, vocoders, guitars, saxophones, latin rhythms, Pharrell beats, or Bob Marley samples in Migos songs, but all of this pops up on Culture II. The previous album widened the group's sonic palette and weirdened up their sound, but nothing on it comes close to the departure that happens on every song in the mid-album stretch that runs from the end of "Too Much Jewelry" through "Crown The Kings." The former begins as the most straightforward Migos song on the album— reuniting them with YRN architect Zaytoven for his only appearance on the album, and paraphrasing Gucci Mane and OJ Da Juiceman hits from nearly a decade ago— but two-thirds of the way through, Mike Dean dusts off his trusty vocoder and rockets Quavo off to Mars. This gives way to the Dido-esque vocal samples of "Gang Gang" (one of the album's best tracks), that gives way to funhouse synths on "White Sands," and that gives way to a undisguised sample of one of Bob Marley's most famous songs. For a group that tapped into a successful formula early and then spent the next five year milking it for all it was worth, Migos sound like anything but trap traditionalists on Culture II's finest moments.

Length aside, Culture II is similar to Young Thug's Beautiful Thugger Girls in its experimentation and exploration of different genres. There's nothing quite as jarring as the "YEE-HAW!" on "Family Don't Matter," but especially by Migos' relatively monochromatic standards, the album's a vibrant smorgasbord of sounds. Most of the time, it sounds like top-shelf beats from top-tier producers, which more than anything else on the album is a sign of Migos' current status in rap. What remains staid is Migos' songwriting. While they've clearly evolved beyond the boilerplate triplet flows of their early days, the trio's reached a point where it often sounds like their plagiarizing from their own catalog. The fault mostly lies with Quavo, who takes on an even greater role on Culture II than any previous project, and more often than not has the full hook plus an additional verse to himself on every song. For the second time in a year, he re-uses a hook from a recent track (his hook on Gucci Mane's "I Get the Bag" recycles Culture's "Slippery," and on this album, "Open It Up" is nearly identical to Culture's "Deadz"), making it seem like his creative well is beginning to run dry. He's still got a way with melodies though!

Offset never quite hits the pace of his breathtaking single "Ric Flair Drip" on here, but is serviceable as Migos' jack-of-all-trades, able to be as melodic as Quavo and as nimble at rapping as Takeoff. But it's really the group's youngest member who shines the brightest on Culture II. Takeoff's the only one consistently finding new flows, seeming like he's studying beats to find the right negative space to attack. As the only member without a side project to his name, he sounds much hungrier than his compatriots.

You could attribute Culture II's weaknesses to any number of causes: Migos losing their rapping spark, the label demanding enough tracks to insure a streaming-bolstered #1 debut, the group trying to do too many things at once, simple fatigue on the listener's part after a year of being bombarded by Migos in every cultural arena. The end result is an album that feels more like a playlist and lacks the group's uncanny mystique, but offers some mouthwatering sounds and intriguing experiments. A pessimist might say that this mad scramble to capitalize on Migos' cultural moment with an unorganized hodgepodge of shiny tracks spells disaster for the trio. Knowing the group's tendency of staying afloat when the odds are against them though, it's also worthwhile to take a more optimistic outlook: Culture II finds Migos branching out in unprecedented ways, looking for a way forward from their rather one-note beginnings. It'll certainly take some rethinking of their formula to recapture the ever-elusive zeitgeist, but Migos have proven time and time again that they're capable of pulling us back into their orbit after we've thought we've heard the last of them.