Surely their hearts are pure, but Twitter-tweakers who won’t shut up about Migos being the greatest thing since the Beatles have it all wrong. Migos are the greatest thing since stand-up comedy, welterweight boxing, thunderclaps, birdsongs, fireworks, peekaboo, NBA pump fakes and microwave popcorn. Our increasingly fallible internet attributes the following quote to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Claude Debussy and Miles Davis, but whoever actually uttered it saw these Georgia dudes coming: “Music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.”
That’s an excellent way to describe what’s become known as “Migos flow,” the trio’s addiction to rapping in delicious staccato triplets. It isn’t a flow so much as a sputter, and whenever they shut their mouths, the resulting pockets of dead-air come alive with anticipation, anxiety, optimism and lust — sometimes all at once. On the group’s new album, “Culture,” it’s as if Migos are tapping out the meaning of life in one long swath of wildly pleasurable Morse code. It’s an upside-down kind of mastery they’ve achieved here. They’re saying the most in the moments when they’re not saying anything at all.
Migos first stammered their way across our national eardrums in the summer of 2013 with “Versace,” an intoxicating Mobius strip of fricative consonants, but as rappers, they’ve never sounded more deeply attuned to one another — or to the vibrations of their surroundings — than they do right now. You can hear their heightened sensitivity straight away in “Bad and Boujee,” currently the No. 1 song in our imperiled republic. Offset, the most poetic Migo, sets the scene: “Raindrop . . . Drop-top . . . Smokin’ on cookie in the hot box . . .” Read along to the rest of his lyrics and you’ll see trivial brags about drugs, cars, jewelry, guns and girls. But listen to the syllables dripping from his mouth and you’ll hear music that emulates the pitter-pat of rainfall. “Bad and Boujee” is a song about life on a pale blue dot.
Our natural and digital worlds currently operate at incompatible speeds, but Migos have found a way to fall in stride with both. That meme about how “Migos are better than the Beatles” spread to every corner of rapland back in 2014, and actor Donald Glover — who enlisted the trio for a cameo in his innovative new dramedy, “Atlanta” — doubled down on the claim at this year’s Golden Globes, calling Migos “the Beatles of this generation.” Seemingly aware that “Culture” would splash down in an ocean of hyperbole, Migos have given us something artfully understated.
And what a satisfying contrast that is to the work of Atlanta’s other current rap maestros, Young Thug and Future, two expressionists who twist and stretch their vowels in the name of drama. Migos achieve restraint through the percussive power of their consonants. They have an acute awareness of the places of articulation in their respective mouths, and they play them like drums.
Listen to how Offset sounds like he’s chewing on a pack of firecrackers when he raps about “cookin’ up dope in the crockpot” during “Bad and Boujee.” Or how Takeoff effuses a tiny hiss after listing each item on his drug menu — “perkies, mollies, Xannies, rocks” — during “Slippery.” Or how Quavo seems to throw a dart at a balloon every time the letter P appears on his lips.
In terms of their phrasing, there’s some strong rhythmic telepathy going on here, too, similar to the familial mind-melds heard in the Beach Boys or the Jackson 5. (All three Migos are in their 20s, but through a bend in their family tree, Quavo is Takeoff’s uncle and Offset’s cousin.) And while Offset has been credited with introducing the triplet-heavy approach to the group, he obviously didn’t invent it. You can hear rhymed triplets pushing against the beat in the music of Public Enemy, Das EFX, Three 6 Mafia, Bone Thugs N Harmony, even MC Hammer’s “Addams Groove.” But Migos have made it their trademark and, more important, a seemingly inexhaustible rhythmic resource — for them and for the countless rappers who have been imitating them since “Versace.”
If you still hear these rhymes as stiff or repetitive, your ears aren’t playing tricks on you. But stiffness isn’t the same thing as rigidity, and repetition isn’t the same thing as redundancy. There’s a confidence in those hard stops, and a generosity, too. Instead of aspiring to spout musty lyrical knowledge, Migos are exuding a different kind of musical wisdom. They know that life is what happens in the spaces in between.