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Migos rapper Takeoff's legacy

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

And finally today...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO INFINITY LINKS")

QUAVO AND TAKEOFF: (Rapping) Counted me out, but you know I'll win. You know that. Why question the s*** that I did? Why? You know I had visions of this s*** since I was a kid. Real talk.

FLORIDO: The rapper known as Takeoff died earlier this week, killed in a shooting outside a Houston bowling alley. His record label said it was a stray bullet. Officials are still investigating, but the 28-year-old singer's death has left the hip-hop world in mourning. Takeoff was a member of the rap group Migos, and their innovations in the genre made them hip-hop superstars. Their style became so influential over the last decade it was dubbed the Migos Flow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T-SHIRT")

MIGOS: (Rapping) Neck water faucet, water, mockingbirds mocking - woo. Act pint, stocking - act - nats keep thotting - nats. Wrist on hockey - hockey - wrist on rocky - rocky. Lot of lot of copy. Name someone can stop me - no one.

FLORIDO: Takeoff rose to fame as a young artist, and he had his sights on the future. Here's a bit of him in 2018 talking with Complex magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAKEOFF: I want longevity. I want to stay consistent. I want to be 18 years, 20 years later, you still know my music still going to live on (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

TAKEOFF: And you still remember me and still remember all the work we put in.

FLORIDO: To tell us more about Takeoff and the legacy he leaves behind, we're joined by NPR hip-hop staff writer Rodney Carmichael. He also hosts the NPR podcast Louder Than A Riot. Rodney, welcome.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.

FLORIDO: Rodney, Takeoff reached international acclaim as part of Migos, but the group came out of the Atlanta rap scene. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how Migos got its start?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. I mean, Migos basically started as a family trio, you know, and it was actually Takeoff who convinced his uncle Quavo to start rapping with him. And, you know, eventually Quavo's cousin Offset joined the two of them, and they got discovered by Gucci Mane. They eventually become the first act to get signed to Quality Control, which has now grown into a really powerhouse label in Atlanta at the same time that that Migos has grown into a powerhouse group. And they went on to really change the sound of rap. I mean, their song "Versace" - it's a early hit that breaks big in 2013. And, you know, this was really the era when Atlanta rappers were being denounced as mumble rap. But, you know, Migos' flow was full of triplets, which basically meant they were rhyming in double time and squeezing in even more syllables into every beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERSACE")

MIGOS: (Rapping) Cooking the dope like I work at Hibachi. Looking and watching, blow it, hot like some Taki. Come in my room, my sheet Versace. When I go to sleep, I dream Versace. Medusa, Medusa, Medusa...

CARMICHAEL: You got to be pretty nimble to pull it off. It's like the antithesis of mumble rap.

FLORIDO: But more recently, Migos split up, and Quavo and Takeoff decided to produce music on their own.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. They billed themselves as Unc and Phew, you know, like short for nephew.

FLORIDO: And uncle.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, since Takeoff really was Quavo's nephew.

FLORIDO: Right before his death, Takeoff released an album with Quavo titled "Only Built For Infinity Links." What elements of that album got you really excited for this next chapter in Takeoff's career?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, I think the strength of the album, one of the strengths is that it really gives Takeoff room to shine. See, Takeoff, he was always really the quiet member of Migos, the least flashy of the crew. You know, if Quavo had the melodic hooks and the charisma on lock, and Offset, he had the slick dance moves and a wife named Cardi B, Takeoff was always the one who was, you know, laying in the cut. But something about that consistency really helped him emerge as like, the best lyricist in the group over time. And he was finally at the point where he was starting to get credit or get the credit he deserved, and really, he was coming into his own.

FLORIDO: Migos was known for producing a lot of party starters, but this lyricism in Takeoff's raps that you were talking about could also be really introspective. Let's listen to some of the song "Nothing Changed" off of Takeoff and Quavo's most recent album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING CHANGED")

QUAVO AND TAKEOFF: (Rapping) No letterman, I've been a veteran. Do anything for a name, anything. When you start getting a little change, watch how your partners and everything change. And when you step foot in that field, make sure you're strapped and make sure you got aim. My n*****, they shooting to live. I seen some n*****, they shooting for fame.

FLORIDO: Takeoff there exploring the challenges of dealing with wealth and fame in a pretty introspective way. Would you say that these kinds of lyrics really set him apart?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, I think a lot of things set Takeoff apart within the group. You know, he was the youngest member. He - even though all three members were always totally blinged out and known for dressing in these flamboyant, over-the-top Versace shirts and whatnot, there's something about Takeoff always said working class. You know, his heart was still with the streets. And even though Migos reached the high aspirations that they really started off rapping about, Takeoff, he still really rapped first and foremost for the trap boys, trapping out the bando, which is how and where they started from.

FLORIDO: Rodney, you know, fans of hip-hop have lost, you know, several high-profile artists in the last couple of years, people who were really in their prime, people who were innovating. What is the impact of these deaths on fans and on the music?

CARMICHAEL: Well, first off, you know, these are just tremendously sad losses. And, you know, as fans, we hurt. We hurt from them. But in terms of what you're speaking about, another loss that hip-hop is feeling is kind of an unknown loss because these - a lot of these artists are young innovators, people who were changing the sound of rap. We really have no idea of the impact of their loss in terms of how the genre itself might have, you know, evolved or been revolutionized by their art, you know, and by their contributions to the culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO INFINITY LINKS")

QUAVO AND TAKEOFF: (Rapping) Out of my mind - try. Then I go ride with the boogers in the booger, first time that I couldn't tell the time - ice. And it got so damn hot, had to move the spot, the North Side dry. If it was you, you could never be me - nah. I'm the first one that said QC. Chill out...

CARMICHAEL: So that part is the thing that is the hardest cost to count in terms of rap music and where it might go from here.

FLORIDO: So what's Takeoff's legacy?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, I think his legacy is he started the greatest rap group of the last decade in an era when rap groups, which, you know, had once been the foundation of hip-hop, were really almost nonexistent in the industry. And his superpower was staying true to himself, changing the game and staying 10 toes down with his family to the very end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING CHANGED")

QUAVO AND TAKEOFF: (Rapping) Foreign exchange the chain. Fame came with the change. Get a stripe for a stain. You 'bout to crash out your lane. The umbrella out of the Rolls Royce Cullinan, know it came with the rain. No letterman, I've been a veteran, do anything for a name, anything.

FLORIDO: That was NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael talking to us about the recent death of the rapper Takeoff. Rodney, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CARMICHAEL: Thanks for having me, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING CHANGED")

QUAVO AND TAKEOFF: (Rapping) To see my grandma, just to see my kinpica. The (inaudible) can't heal all the pain, no cap. I get you knocked off of Earth. You play with my body, you play with my name. I wet him up like he surf. It be looking strange. I pop at his brain. Don't play with me. I'm rocking a watch with no diamonds in it. It cost me a ticket. It's plain. I put baguettes in the Patek. What time is it? And it cost me a Rolls - insane. I don't post pics with sticks and s***. That's how them boys get framed. I been the same since a jit, little (inaudible). When they see me they say don't nothing change but the chains. We on your head like a bang, all double Rs, no range. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.