Aspirational Hip Hop in a Troubling Time

Modern Rap, Memes, and Culture

A week ago, a gentleman by the name of Justin Good started a petition on entreating the NFL to “replace Lady Gaga with the Migos for Superbowl LI Halftime Show.” By sheer force of memes, the petition circulated and currently sits at over 50,000 signatures. Publications couldn’t resist the clickbait potential, and sites like Complex (“While this is incredibly unrealistic…you have to admire the effort of the petition’s creator”),  A.V. Club (“If democracy works, we should expect no less”), and Vulture (“Do it for the culture, NFL”) enthusiastically reported on this development. Migos then went on to say in an interview that they were completely down to do the gig, but it remains to be seen whether they will appear at the Super Bowl and make it, as promised, “the TRILLEST.” If they don’t end up appearing—well, it won’t be the first instance in recent times that democracy has failed us.


In case you’ve spent the entire previous paragraph wondering who the heck Migos is, they have the No. 1 song in the country at the time of this article’s publication, titled “Bad and Boujee” with a feature from Lil Uzi Vert. If that surprises you, you probably aren’t alone; despite being popular on iTunes and streaming sites, it’s notably absent on Top 40 radio. Indeed, “Bad and Boujee” instead got its momentum through the power of the internet, through LOL-worthy and shareable tidbits like the aforementioned petition. Namely, memes: Even its single cover, featuring model Tommie Lee daintily preparing to eat cup noodles, speaks volumes; cites it as a “variation of a meme” that made its way throughout the web some time ago. The vast majority of the memes stem from the opening lines, “Raindrop / Drop top” (which sound random on their own, but one must never doubt the ability of social media users to morph the most random phrases into Twitter gold). Other memes come from the title of the song itself, like one tweet that adapted the name to the various The Fast and The Furious titles, spanning The Bad and the Boujee to The Fate of the Boujee.


“Bad and Boujee” is thus easily dismissed as another meme song, sort of like Bauuer’s “Harlem Shake,” which shot to No. 1 in 2012 by literally soundtracking an internet phenomenon. But discrediting “Bad and Boujee” as just a joke would be grossly unfair to the song’s merits, if only for the fact that Migos have been around for about four years and have had a string of radio rap hits. The song operates as a celebration of success, with the “bad” part of the title being a reference to how attractive their women are and the “boujee” (read: bourgeois) part referring to their lifestyles; they rap about their lavish belongings and the expensive tastes of the women they love. There’s a certain irony to their lines, though, since the music video depicts women in Moschino shopping at run-down liquor stores, as well as a scene where a group of them eat out of regal black KFC buckets and, of course, cup noodles.


These contrasts are genuinely funny and make for memorable cinematography, but the song itself, though likely ironic, still takes itself seriously. Its lyrics are consistently triumphant and aspirational in nature, and the production, a subdued and standard trap beat delivered by Mike WiLL Made-It, never grows overbearing. It’s a well-crafted, catchy song that rolls along contentedly, specifically designed for you to nod your head to. (Or just wild out to; whatever makes you happy. Donald Glover said it’s the best song to have sex to, and I’m not going to disagree with him.) The song has received significant critical acclaim, having been listed on “Best Of” lists in publications like Complex and the Fader at the end of last year.


This celebration of success seems to have greater relevance that lies outside of dorm room parties. Last year, Beyoncé released “Formation” (an explicitly pro-black, trap-inspired song that was also unmistakably political in essence), which ended with the lines, “Always stay gracious / Best revenge is your paper.” While there Beyoncé sang specifically about black women, a similar idea resonates in a song like “Bad and Boujee,” where lyrics on monetary success can still translate into a distinctly political message. In addition to all of its previously mentioned qualities, “Bad and Boujee” is an unapologetically black song through its lyrics, production, and associated imagery; the aspiration of being middle class, while still humorous in the context of the song and music video, is a legitimate triumph in a socioeconomic system that has historically failed to treat all races equally.


The ascent of “Bad and Boujee” to No. 1 was noteworthy in another way, as it was the first time a rap song replaced another this decade. The previous No. 1 song was Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” a song that centers around the boast that they’re the black versions of The Beatles, who took an African-American art form and rode it to become arguably the most storied artists in modern music. The two songs share numerous qualities: immense critical acclaim, memes that aided chart success (for “Black Beatles,” it was the Mannequin Challenge), and implicit themes of success in the face of an unfair society. “Black Beatles” also had a distinct tinge of iconoclasm; Rae Sremmurd treat The Beatles, as reviewer Ryo Miyauchi puts it, as “ephemeral as yesterday’s internet joke… Not afraid to break the rules of past tradition to set the standard of today’s cool: to me, that’s rock n’ roll as fuck.” The fact that these songs originated as memes also then gains additional significance; these are songs propelled to popularity truly through the will of the general public, not through radio deals or record label tactics. They are songs for the people, supported by the people.
In the time it has taken me to write this article, the number of signatures on the Super Bowl petition has increased by about 600. An important aspect I neglected to mention is that the petition is not only for Migos, although they are the ones in its title. There is a whole setlist outlined by the petition, with Goodie Mob, Ludacris, Young Jeezy, and, of course, Rae Sremmurd opening the show, as well as Andre 3000 and Erykah Badu “hit[ting] Donald Trump with a FIRE 64 bars” in lieu of singing the national anthem. Funny in its implausibility, surely, but it also speaks to the power of a song like “Bad and Boujee” to inspire this unity in order to triumph over an orange evil. Now, more than ever, we need a soundtrack for our country that works to motivate us to persevere, as well as to celebrate our success when it comes.