Boasts fly fast on two big new album releases in US rap. Polo G claims to earn “two thousand a minute” on “Rapstar”, his Billboard number one single — a less outlandish figure than Jeff Bezos’s estimated $150,000 per minute, admittedly, but still enough for the Chicago rapper to gross over double the average US annual wage in the time it takes to listen to his third album.
Hall of Fame is going head to head in the charts with Migos’s Culture III. This latest chapter in the Atlanta trio’s musical franchise will be “the greatest album of this year”, according to Quavo, one of the group’s three rappers. During the course of its generously appointed 75 minutes he and his bandmates Offset and Takeoff declare themselves “bigger than Bill Gates”. Verses depict them as Patek watch-wearing, Bentley-driving, yacht-owning inventors of a “blueprint to shake the whole world”. This epochal breakthrough could either refer to the dab, the dance craze they claim to have devised, or the three notes to a beat that they use for rapping, the so-called “Migos flow”.
Larger-than-life boastfulness is traditional in hip-hop. But Hall of Fame and Culture III illustrate a new development in rap’s talent for self-aggrandisement. In both albums, the various rappers’ voices and those of their numerous famous guests are incessant, a constant torrent of words demanding the listener’s attention. The resulting verbal supremacy goes beyond being the centre of the action. It aspires to be the totality of what’s happening in the songs.
Words are of course central to rap, a slang term for talking. But if the basis for the genre used to be “Mostly Tha Voice”, as an old Gang Starr song put it, then now it is all about the voice. Landmark albums from the past such as Jay-Z’s The Blueprint or Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle had about 160 words per minute. Drake, rap’s great solipsist, went at a leisurely 140 words per minute on his debut, Thank Me Later. In contrast, Polo G notches up 190 words per minute, while Migos achieve a prolix 230 words per minute.
The increase isn’t due to superfast rapping in the style of Eminem. Instead it results from the egotistic spread of vocals into every part of rap songs. “Always moved at my own pace,” Polo G says in “Broken Guitars”, a track whose tempo and melody are dominated by his rapped verses and semi-sung hooks. Meanwhile, Migos’s songs are an intricate verbal tapestry of interlinked voices, ad-libbed expostulations and auto-tuned crooning. “We having our way in three ways,” the trio announce on the Drake-featuring “Having Our Way”. The backing music resembles a brooding cinema soundtrack, subordinate to the star rappers in the acoustic spotlight.
Hip-hop vocalism is far more expressive and sophisticated than it used to be. But Hall of Fame and Culture III suffer from a related diminution in musical content. They have samey beats and flat song structures. Both face the challenge of filling their expansive linguistic spaces. Polo G does better in this respect, interspersing vainglorious talk of being “the chosen one” with introspection and impressive storytelling skills. Migos sound sharper than they did on the vastly overlong, widely panned Culture II, but they have little to say for themselves outside routine reiterations of wealth and street credentials. Profuse verbal artistry is frittered away on meagre messaging.
‘Hall of Fame’ is released by Columbia
‘Culture III’ is released by Quality Control Music/Motown Records ★★☆☆☆