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Takeoff knew who he was

Literally speaking, there would be no Migos without Takeoff.
Rich Fury/Getty Images for Global Citizen
Literally speaking, there would be no Migos without Takeoff.

He was the quiet Migo. With Quavo as the frontman and Offset as the wild card, it was Takeoff who laid the foundation upon which the best rap group of a generation was built. He was the youngest of the trio, just 18 when their breakthrough hit "Versace" blew up, but his voice was always the deepest — the baritone of an old bluesman, time-worn beyond his years. Labelmates at Atlanta's Quality Control Music had nicknamed Takeoff "the Silent Killer," frequently lost in his own zone in the studio until it was time to unleash in the booth. He had a thing for the cosmic. His only solo album, 2018's The Last Rocket, sampled the broadcast of a record-breaking space jump; "I'ma ghost-ride the Wraith, I wanna look at the stars today," he rapped on the song "Casper." From the beginning, he had an air of gravitas. Senseless is the only way to describe his death early Tuesday morning, when he was reportedly shot and killed outside a Houston bowling alley at 28.

There would be no Migos without any one of its members — an uncle (Quavo), nephew (Takeoff) and cousin (Offset) who thought of themselves like brothers — but literally speaking, there would be no Migos without Takeoff. Back when Quavo was the high school quarterback and Offset was in and out of trouble in their hometown of Lawrenceville, Ga., a suburb north of Atlanta, it was Takeoff assembling a makeshift studio in the basement of his aunt's house, where all three boys lived: a sock-covered Walmart microphone, a free software program meant for making slideshows. Songs had to be recorded in perfect start-to-finish bursts, which wasn't a problem for Takeoff, hence the name. Later, while Quavo and Offset shopped their demos around Atlanta strip clubs, Takeoff — single-minded, baby-faced, without a fake ID — would be up all night, making songs to play for them when they got home.

It's clearer in hindsight how rare the Migos were. Upon crash-landing a decade ago into the twilight of the digital mixtape era, if not fully formed then pretty damn close, the trio had a sound and style that was fully, immediately its own. The style you can probably picture (Versace, Versace, Versace). The sound was where it got interesting, gesturing subtly back toward history (tight triplet flows echoing Bone Thugs or Three 6 Mafia, wordplay noir à la Gucci Mane or Lil Wayne, wisps of crispy late-aughts snap music) and ahead toward a glorious new era in Atlanta. Migos were famous early on for party raps with hooks that functioned like mantras, and compared with the city's more expressionistic fare, the members were sometimes painted as highly efficient but lowbrow mercenaries. Really, they were craftsmen, masters of rhythmic precision. In their own way, they were hip-hop classicists, a reminder of the format's power to elevate language that might not look like much on a page to something joyful, cool, spectacular. To that end, Takeoff, with his endlessly evolving flow, was the Migos' ultimate ambassador.

There was something beautiful in the shyest Migo's slow embrace of the spotlight. Takeoff never seemed much interested in being the guy in the front, but through his pure enjoyment of rapping, he found a reason to endure it and eventually, to own it. He was at his most charismatic and comfortable going back and forth with his family, doing what they'd always done. The acclaim met Takeoff where he was; the harder he worked, the sharper his skills — it became impossible not to notice. In knowing his role, he flourished in it: He wasn't Michael Jordan, he was Dennis Rodman. He never needed to be Quavo, who fed off the attention. In embodying his greatness, he never had to step outside himself.

Just before the release of their best album, 2017's Culture, I interviewed the Migos in Los Angeles. It was the last week of Barack Obama's presidency, "Bad and Boujee" was the #1 song in the country, and Quavo, Offset and Takeoff could barely sit still, bursting into giddy performances of their own songs every 20 minutes or so. To wrangle them on camera was a bit like herding cats; they'd much rather have entertained each other all day. At one point, I asked what each member of the trio brought to the equation. In their mischievous way, they let me know that was a question they had no interest in answering, instead joining one another in a rowdy chorus of ad-libs that led into another unplugged rendition of their No. 1 hit — a perfect response. But the Migos did have their own unique roles: Quavo floated out wavy auto-tuned melodies; Offset cut through beats like an adventurer with a machete. As for Takeoff, he was the group's gravitational force — he could hold it down for his partners, grounding their punchlines with blustery ad-libs, or he could flip a song on its head at will. In the typical arrangement of a Migos song, the Takeoff verse went last, for obvious reasons. In a 2018 radio interview, Quavo conceded the title of "best rapper in the group," handing it off to his three-years-younger nephew. "[Takeoff] just masterminded his craft," the leader admitted in awe.

Two songs stand out as turning points in Migos' decade-long career; Takeoff helmed both of them. In the lull after their gate-crashing Y.R.N. mixtape (the definitive rap tape of 2013, straight down to the Trinidad James and Riff Raff features), some wrote the group off as a passing trend. Then came 2014's "Fight Night." Lots of songs at the time had a similarly springy West Coast beat, but nothing sounded half as dynamic as Takeoff did exploding into the hook — his authority was arresting. ("Broke n***** stand to the LEFT!") The performance felt like catharsis but was secretly about control, each inflection optimized for impact. "Fight Night" became the trio's biggest hit to that point; it felt like they'd broken free of a formula, arriving on the threshold of something bigger.

With 2016's "Bad and Boujee" (ironically, a rush job, hence the famous lack of a verse from Takeoff) the trio proved its staying power — but it was "T-Shirt," Culture's second single, that cemented its greatness. By no coincidence, it was another Takeoff showcase, a minute-long masterclass in rhythmic command. It feels practically pointless to type out the lyrics — "Young n**** poppin' with a pocket full of cottage / Whoa, kemosabe, chopper aiming at your noggin" — which are nothing compared to the way Takeoff says them, his voice its own percussion section and bass line. In a video that Chance the Rapper dubbed Oscar-worthy, Takeoff's round face peeks out from beneath a bear pelt, iced in gold and diamonds in the tundra. They'd never been cooler.

It's possible to spend all day in a rabbit hole of great Takeoff moments. (I recommend it.) There's "Cross the Country," a solid choice for best Takeoff verse ever, where he switches up his flow more times than I care to count, or the time he stole the show in a 2021 radio freestyle session, cracking up Offset by raising a double cup as he coolly spits, "They talking 'bout COVID — when I heard the news, I started sipping the remedy." He rapped on his solo album about his visceral early stage fright, but as his shyness dissipated, you realized he was funny, with a dry wit he'd break the fourth wall to convey to you through his eyes.

Nothing captures the Takeoff experience better than the time in 2015 when he and Quavo performed some of their hits with a small orchestra, holding down the fort while Offset was locked up — a piece of content with great potential for corniness, which nevertheless still moves me. This was unfamiliar territory for the pair; you can almost sense some nerves. But Takeoff grounds the performance with quiet confidence, hyping his uncle with battle-cry ad-libs, keeping the whole thing in motion. And then — you can see it — he starts having fun, a smile building at the corners of his mouth as he meets the camera's gaze.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meaghan Garvey