Long pop albums have become customary in our streaming era, but the trap double album has emerged as its own separate phenomenon. Migos’s Culture II, out since January, is both a sequel to their beloved Culture (2017), and its polar opposite: similarly upbeat, chirpy trap songs, inverted from the original album’s efficiently compressed shape into a sprawling, disorderly two-disc mess. Meanwhile, Rae Sremmurd’s Sr3mm, out since May, is a giant, lumbering triple: two solo discs, Swae Lee’s Swaecation and Slim Jxmmi’s Jxmtro, in addition to the pop-rap brother duo’s third album together proper. For rap fans as well as fans of pop crossover, these albums startle: why such length?
Double albums are hardly novel in rap; Vince Staples’s Summertime ‘06, to choose a particularly illustrious recent example, demonstrates the form’s potential for beauty. The streaming economy has produced excessively long pop albums, too; the Weeknd’s Starboy, to choose a particularly bloated recent example, clocks in at over an hour, inflating its running time with endless filler tracks, because albums with more songs on them chart faster, due to the method Billboard uses to convert streaming data into counted album sales.
Culture II and Sr3mm are most reasonably viewed as examples of the latter dishonorable tradition, as attempts to bolster streaming numbers and hence chart higher than they would have with fewer songs. Nonetheless, as career moves they are disorienting — no matter how hypnotic trap has become, it’s usually a concise genre, especially in the hands of pop-friendly radio ambassadors like Migos and Rae Sremmurd, who both streamline voguish rap conventions into digestible product.
After a procession of mixtapes and several excellent street singles (“Versace,” “Fight Night”), Migos claimed their place as the ruling kings of Southern hip-hop with the absurdly titled Culture, currently the ultimate pop-rap touchstone, and a tightly wound music box of an album: piano tunelets, organ rumble, metallic springs popping loose at odd intervals, precisely and comically rapped verses in rapid succession, punctuated by ad libs that range from simple repetition to wildly imaginative scatting (“Skrrrrrt!”). Culture dominated rap radio throughout 2017 and earned Migos the title of “the new Beatles,” which I prefer to read as a comment on their comparable skill at projecting a charming goofiness.
Meanwhile, Rae Sremmurd recorded two marvelously tight collections of slick, sticky melodic rap before scoring the chart-topping “Black Beatles” (again with the Beatles!). Their childish enthusiasm, which to this day induces them to rap and sing in higher registers than sounds natural, made Sremmlife (2015) and Sremmlife 2 (2016) the most sprightly and callow of rap jewels. Coming from artists this functional, this committed to casual play, Culture II and Sr3mm are departures. It’s not just the length so much as the multiple discs, and how the albums announce themselves as exorbitant musical smorgasbords.
Culture II is the more amorphous of the two albums. The title announces its limitations: behold a bunch more songs in the same mold as last time, except this time there are twice as many. The stunning “Stir Fry” rides a twisty Pharrell beat, threading a dissonant electronic whistle through a dense sonic playground, littered with synth chords that jump up and immediately recede, with ad libs and cross-vocals chattering as Quavo yelps, “Dance with my dogs in the nighttime.” The overall effect is that of constantly shifting and unfolding motion.
Echoey thumping bass and trebly strummed guitar animate “Narcos,” an amusing Latin-trap exercise whose whirlwind rapping meets garbled commentating ad libs to construct a vocal hall of mirrors: Offset will hammer out a speedy, rhythmically exacting line, before one of his comrades will mutter some random repeated element from that line — “whirrrrr,” “ooooooh,” “aaaaaah,” “yep” — and trigger the next line, like an actor’s cue. Lead single “Motorsport,” playfully plodding along over shiny, ringing xylophonesque keyboards, features the album’s most thrilling verse qua verse from guest star Cardi B, whose excitable bellow cuts through the song’s mesmerizing calm; she gradually gets faster and more intense throughout the verse, ending on a delighted near-scream (“Tell me have you seen her/Let me wrap my weave up/I’m the trap Selena/Dame mas gasolina!”).
Those are the highlights. The rest of Culture II settles into a solid, reliable blur, stretching out Migos’s signature triplet rhythms, skittering downtempo beats, and ticky-tocky back-and-forth timed ad libs ad infinitum. These are decent and often rivetingly intricate Migos songs, but few individual moments reveal themselves during the album’s endless sequence.
Inspired by the split-personality trick of Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, Sr3mm is easier to wrap one’s head around, because it divides into discrete parts: first, nine songs together, then nine songs with just Swae Lee, then nine songs with just Slim Jxmmi.
Thanks to the collaborative energy that materializes when both brothers walk into the same room, the first disc is the most engaging, dotted with surreal brags and ridiculous proclamations. A compendium of creepy spy-movie bass, squeaking keyboards locking into the groove at skewed angles, and metallic snare drums impatiently ushering things along, “42” rattles and clanks, threatening to fall apart, while both rappers burble excitedly. “Perplexing Pegasus,” which wins points on its title alone, is a perfect union of Swae Lee’s detached, haughty monotone (“Jump in the pegasus”) and the glassy synth surface of Mike Will Made It’s beat.
The second disc, Swaecation, is slower, blanker, simultaneously more melodic and more vacuous, defined by the ringing drone of Swae Lee’s Auto-Tuned singing. On “Guatemala,” he finds an unusual hook in swallowing final consonants, rhyming an impressive array of vowels distorted to sound identical (“private”/“denial”/“Guatemala”), as the electronic pool of a beat flows by quietly; it’s the one song on Swaecation that features Jxmmi as well.
“Heartbreak in Encino Hills” and “What’s in Your Heart?” are more typical: vocoded mope, neon guitar strumming, wispy synth wash, projecting indifference and a melancholy shrug. Finally, Jxmtro marks a return to ordinary flexing: on opener “Brxnks Truck,” Jxmmi snarls a series of boasts (“I think the Rari go faster without the roof”) over an aggressive trap beat, a relief after nine tracks of brooding. As united wholes, though, both solo discs feel gratuitously one-dimensional compared to what they’re capable of together. Swae is too limp and detached on his own, while the energetic Jxmmi needs his brother’s ethereal presence to escape total conventionality.
As celebrations of the surprising longevity of trap’s reign as street rap’s dominant aesthetic, Culture II and Sr3mm feel earned — when Migos first surfaced in 2013 with “Versace” and “Hannah Montana,” nobody expected these frivolous jokesters to remain in the public spotlight for even another year, let alone proceed to score top 10 singles and number-one albums while infiltrating car radios in perpetuity for years.
The charm of the first Sremmlife album was how candid it was about the impermanence of adolescent thrills; in a long tradition of beautifully disposable pop albums, their high-pitched giggles achieved a mix of silliness and detachment, euphoria and conscious chintziness. For both acts to release double or triple albums implies an inflation of ambition, claiming rock-identified standards of scale and grandiosity as their own. Neither album plays like that, though; there’s no corresponding shift in musical strategy. Culture II and Sr3mm both follow their predecessor albums in style and presentation, only with many more songs.
The idea is to give fans a plenitude of new tracks to choose from and get lost in, rather like when Netflix releases a show’s entire new season so fans can binge. That is, Culture II and Sr3mm turn Migos and Rae Sremmurd into shapeless, immersive, branded listening experiences. The sheer mass of both albums overshadows their specific attributes; the sequence of individual songs matters less than how Culture II functions as a giant immovable block of Migos Music, how the solo sections on Sr3mm provide conceptual amusement, just to prove they can, over musical necessity.
Good songs on both albums get lost in the mess, and both artists have become slower and sparer than before, as if to preserve their energy over the endless sprawl. Listening to either from start to finish would exhaust, and in the case of Culture II, the constant bouncy chatter of their voices might induce headaches. Passive listening is the ideal, while walking from place to place, doing chores, etc, as the many tracks slowly sink in over several weeks. I suspect this process may prove more difficult than expected. Maybe Liz Pelly is right — maybe streaming technology does turn everything to Muzak.
Fans will inevitably select favorites and make playlists expunging the excess — that’s the whole point. I already have my own, personal edited version of Sr3mm, which adds Swaecation’s “Offshore” and “Guatemala” and Jxmtro’s “Brxnks Truck,” “Anti-Social Smokers Club”, and “Chanel” to the entire first disc. The career peaks of Migos and Rae Sremmurd career peaks will continue, certainly, bound for weirder adventures yet. I hope that on their next albums, respectively, both groups remember to breathe.