The Migos are, in some deeply fascinating ways, the early-’00s answer to Das EFX, the New York/New Jersey duo who introduced the much-lampooned tongue-flipping iggity-wiggity style to rap way the hell back in the early ’90s. (Swear to God: I was planning on making this point before this Complex article did the same.) The contexts, of course, are vastly different; the Migos are Atlanta drug dealers who came up through the city’s still-vibrant strip-club scene, not East Coasters who met while studying English in college and then got on because they impressed EPMD. But the parallels are all over the place. Both groups are famous less for their lyrics (the Migos, while frequently tut-tutted by rap elite, have at least never claimed to be hyper than Pinocchio’s nose) and more for the lively, inventive way they deliver them. Both groups scored massive, out-of-nowhere, game-changing hits — “They Want EFX” and “Versace,” respectively. Both extended their hot streaks when established superstars linked up with them for collaborations — Ice Cube recruiting Das-EFX for the “Check Yo Self” hook, Drake jumping on the Migos’ “Versace” remix. Both came out of the gate with joyous, fun-as-hell debut full-lengths– 1992′s Dead Serious and last year’s Y.R.N. (Young Rich Niggas) — pushing their styles to album length without losing any propulsion. Both have been widely imitated. If you want to hear how quickly Das EFX’s style spread, check out a few of Jay-Z’s pre-Reasonable Doubt singles. Meanwhile, in that aforementioned Complex article, David Drake breaks down the technical specifications of the Migos flow; they rap in triplets, choppily slamming down syllables on the snare hits rather than allowing their voices to sink into it. People have been rapping in triplets for decades; Das EFX even did it, and Lord Infamous was doing some version of the Migos flow nearly 20 years ago. But the Migos, and specifically group member Quavo, repopularized it in its current state, and that’s why people like Drake and Future and Kanye West have adapted it in recent months. (Also, both groups have members with dreadlocks, but I’m pretty sure that’s a coincidence.) And with their new mixtape No Label II, the Migos continue on down that Das EFX career trajectory, making a whole album’s worth of music about how grumpy they are that people are copping their style.
Das EFX released Straight Up Sewaside, their second album, in 1993, just over a year after Dead Serious. It was a quick follow-up, but it presented a different vision of the group: Hardened, pissed-off, full of spite that so many people were stealing their distinctive delivery patterns and running with them. They’d stopped saying “iggity” entirely and eased up on the loopily berserk pop-culture references. They were suddenly very concerned with sounding tough. The album was a big step down from Dead Serious, it had no singles anywhere near the level of “They Want EFX,” and it hastened the group’s descent into total irrelevance. But here’s the thing: Straight Up Sewaside is still a hell of a fun album, a fast and dizzy pile-up of verbiage and bouncily dusty early-’90s boom-bap beats. I’m not sure how this is possible (maybe I stole the tape from a friend?), but Straight Up Sewaside was my first prolonged exposure to Das EFX, and I really, really liked that album. My response wasn’t: “Why are Das EFX getting all pissy now?” It was: “Whoa, this album rules.” Later, when I went back and bought Dead Serious, I understood that they’d lost something along the way, but they still had plenty left. So it goes with the Migos. I can’t imagine No Label II will be anyone’s first Migos mixtape, but if it is, those listeners will find plenty to like.
No Label II does have some serious issues. The tape has 25 full-on songs, and it sprawls over about an hour and a half, which is way too much time. When a group makes energetic get-buck music, it absolutely should not make its tapes a chore to get through. And it’s not like No Label II would be a classic if they just deleted the weaker half; it would still be a mostly-monochromatic mess. Besides all the money-talk and the songs about not dating strippers, Migos are suddenly consumed with the serious question of their place in the rap ecosystem. They haven’t yet found a label deal that works for them, and that bothers them. People are calling them one-hit wonders, and that bothers them more. (It’s also inaccurate; throw on “Hanna Montana” or “Bando” at a party and watch what happens.) People are trying out their flow, and that really bothers them. It makes perfect sense that the Migos would feel the way they do, but these feelings don’t translate especially well to the kind of music they make. Y.R.N. worked because it was so full of sunshine and energy and possibility; they weren’t saying anything new, but they were having so much fun playing with the tropes of Atlanta swag-rap, doing it with more verve and style than anyone else. Those feelings are still there on No Label II, but they’re forced to coexist uneasily with bitterness and uncertainty, and the combination just never quite clicks. And even when we get to a song like “Emmitt Smith” — an absolute blast when they posted it on Soundcloud last year — it feels dragged down by all the antipathy around it.
But one crucial thing remains unchanged: It is still so much fun to hear these guys rap. They still haphazardly bounce their voices off the beats, and each other, like superballs, using explosive speed and maddening repetition (“Antidope! Antidope! Antidope!”) and that distinctive Migos flow to bring every one of these 25 songs to liftoff. Even if the tape gets oppressive when taken in all at once, every one of these songs, even the bitterest ones, is a blast on its own merits. Heard in the context of Y.R.N., one of my favorite tapes from last year, No Label II is a disappointment. But heard in isolation, No Label II is still a showcase for three restless and relentlessly gifted young rappers — rappers who might have trouble editing themselves or figuring out the right direction, but who still have talent exploding out of their veins. And No Label II also has one song that represents a way out for this group, a serious possibility that they can keep growing. That song is “Fight Night,” a much-needed break from the chintzy Atlanta synth-patches and a clear sign that Migos have other tricks in their bag. “Fight Night” shamelessly jacks DJ Mustard’s sparse and propulsive West Coast style, and the rubbery bassline and perfectly spaced handclaps make a perfect match for the Migos’ fervent enthusiasm. The lyrics offer absolutely nothing new — they’re going to knock the pussy out like Fight Night, see — but its dizzy forward drive is absolutely irresistible, and I’ve spent more time chair-dancing to it in my office than I care to admit. On the basis of “Fight Night” alone, No Label II earns its spot in this space this week and shows that the Migos may not go out like Das EFX. It just happens to have 24 pretty-good songs attached to it.
Download No Label II here.