Migos and ‘The Lost Art of Lyricism’
Migos, one of the hottest up and coming acts in hip hop, are currently streaming their long awaited debut album Yung Rich Nation, which you can put into your ears here. The album’s release has been dogged by issues, with the most major being the arrests of Quavo and Offset in April for drug and weapon charges at a show in Georgia. Offset also faced additional charges and has been denied bail, leading Migos to cancel a series of tour dates, whilst album collaborator Young Thug has also been arrested (and might even have tried to kill lil Wayne). Clearly Migos haven’t been reading the Taylor Swift album promotion playbook.
Still, the album is finally here and on first impressions it rips pretty hard. Being on a proper label hasn’t changed their sound much from the mixtapes; it’s the same catchy, turn up trap production and scattergun ad lib back and forths lyrically. This is good news for current Migos fans, but if you didn’t like the mixtapes then there isn’t much for you here. There’s also nothing on Yung Rich Nation to quite rival Versace in ridiculous bravado that’s stuck in your head for days, but there’s still plenty of the Migos swagger to make you walk with a little something extra. There are also a few slightly different offerings, for example Just For Tonight is a bit poppy, insanely catchy and the track your probably most likely to hear in a club, whilst Cocaina is a slightly more delicate (can you use delicate in relation to Migos?) offering and features Young Thug with his distinctive sung-rap style. Gangsta Rap then goes harder, and with the recent spate of beefs and arrests, their declaration that “gangsta rap is back” is hard to argue with.
The album, and the events surrounding its release, also put me in mind of a debate that went on about a month ago after GZA penned an open letter called ‘The Lost Art of Lyricism’. In it GZA laments the fact that mainstream rap has lost its message and the craft of storytelling has disappeared, that rap used to be far more conscious and impactful, that even artists who had an image “had a message: socially, politically and economically. They spoke about the injustices in the city. They spoke about poverty, and they told a great story.” GZA probably includes Migos, who’s most famous song involves chanting ‘Versace’ repeatedly, in his shitlist, and this album, with offerings like “Passed chemistry, fuck mathematics, Fuck mathematics, I ain’t pass school, And my money counts up, money do the adding, And my money count up through the roof”, will do little to change his mind. Many of you may agree with GZA and see little worth in that statement, and that’s a fair opinion as on its own it has very little to say on a socio-political level. I think it’s hilarious however, and I also believe the intrinsic problem with much of this debate is the implied belief that good rap needs to have a worthy message, which I don’t agree with.
Rap has been associated with politics because some of the earliest hits like ‘The Message’ did make political statements, and because it was music that came from subjugated black communities so the art reflected that. However, this was never codified or a truly intrinsic part of the genre; a consideration of other early hits like ‘Rappers Delight’ and ‘Fight for Your Right (to Party!)’ reveals artists making music largely for the joy of making music. Artists such as Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan making wonderfully poignant and eloquent statements in their work is important, and these artists released incredibly impactful albums that I consider some of the greatest of all time, however it is unfair to suggest that all artists should follow suit. These artists made a choice to write about these issues, it was never a condition of them being considered rappers. You could argue that this condition does exist in certain genres of music, for example to truly be considered punk many people would suggest that your music should carry a statement, and I would largely agree; however this is not the case with rap. Punk was undoubtedly born out of a political anti-establishment message and the music should reflect this, however to be part of this movement was again a choice. Rap music was much more born from a style of music, the DJs and MCs, than the message, which was often a by-product, so the message is therefore entirely optional. Consequently, when people claim that rap ‘should’ have a message it often seems like there is an unfair expectation that black musicians, especially rappers, should always be poetic and comment on socio-political issues, which is a condition not bestowed on white musicians.
Furthermore, it is entirely feasible to argue that there is a message in Migos, it just isn’t as openly stated. Migos is reflective of a generation that has continued to see income inequality increase and institutional racism remain inherent in the system. They’ve been exposed to an ever more commercialised world and are part of a society with inherently different values to twenty years ago. Their art reflects this and could still be considered a political statement, a way of dealing with this societal pressures and interpreting the world. Even the rampant materialism has worth, with renowned Cultural Studies scholar Paul Gilroy suggesting that “by posing the world as it is against the world as the racially subordinated would like it to be, this musical culture supplies a great deal of the courage required to go on living in the present”. Consequently, regardless of whether people agree with it, Migos have a message that is resonating and it should not just be dismissed outright. An analogy from a different genre could be the fact that the subliminal political message in Dookie, that of a generations alienation and angst, resonates far more effectively than the distinct and intentional politics of Green Day’s later career, regardless of how immature Dookie may appear in comparison. It is also worth noting that the materialistic themes in rap have been promoted by the white music industry marketing a fetishized view of black culture to a white, suburban, primarily male youth. So the removal of the socio-political message from much of rap music has been driven by industry executives rather than the musicians themselves.
Finally, these different styles aren’t mutually exclusive. After finishing Young Rich Nation I moved on to B. Dolan’s very lyrical and very political Kill The Wolf, a very different piece of art that came from a different place and as such should be read differently. As a consumer of culture you shouldn’t be so lazy as to just appreciate things that sit neatly within your worldview and tastes, you need to put a bit of effort in to try and appreciate things that at first seem alien to you and work with the artist, not against them. Listen to Migos, listen to Rae Sremmurd, listen to B. Dolan, Sage Francis and Run The Jewels; and compare them, discuss them and debate them. It’s always okay to dislike them, but dismissing them outright will limit your exposure to new experiences. Plus, if you can listen to Versace and say you don’t want to grab a bottle and ride a tiger you’re just a filthy liar.