Takeoff Was Always the Backbone of the Migos

In 2013, an uncle and a nephew, born three years apart, sit on two bright red chairs speaking about their music for the first time to a mainstream media outlet.

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The uncle – known as Quavo, aged 22 – sports a silky black T-shirt, glimmering diamond bracelet, designer shades, and draped in gold chains. He’s doing most of the talking, answering trivial questions about the duo’s upbringing, personalities, and why they chose to be a group. The nephew – known as Takeoff, 18 at the time – leans back in the chair wearing designer jeans, a grey T-shirt, diamond watch and a giant shimmering pinky ring. Briefly throughout the eight-minute exchange, he pops up to add little tidbits of input, mostly deferring to Quavo. But every once in a while, whenever the questions revolve directly around music, he takes the lead.

“Ain’t no day go by without us doing a song,” Takeoff says proudly.

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The interview was with VladTV, conducted on the heels of Migos’ breakout hit “Versace” and rapturously received Y.R.N. mixtape – which also featured classics like “Hannah Montana” and “Adios” and dispelled any remaining “one-hit wonder” claims. From there the Migos became Atlanta rap icons, ascending to the pedestal where prior legends such as T.I., Gucci Mane, OutKast, Jeezy, Future and others perched.

The VladTV chat isn’t a particularly revealing one, but it does reinforce one thing – Takeoff wasn’t interested in entertaining any extracurriculars, but rather comfortable sitting in the back, focused on the music.

Tragically, Takeoff’s bright future was cut short at 28 on Tuesday morning after being shot outside a Houston bowling alley, caught by a stray bullet that wasn’t intended for him. The mark Kirshnik Khari Ball made during his short time on earth was impressive: the silent engineer of the triplet flow mastered by the Migos, hits that defined the past decade like “Versace,” “T-Shirt” and “Fight Night,” and an overall cultural impact that made Migos a game-changing rap group, just like OutKast, Wu-Tang Clan, Dipset and others before them.

But the sad truth is Takeoff was just entering his prime, as evidenced by the excellent Only Built For Infinity Links, his recent team-up album with Quavo. While the latter became the de facto frontman for the Migos and an in-demand features artist, and Offset stole the headlines with his flashy personality and much-publicized marriage to Cardi B, Takeoff, the quiet one, stayed in the background. He was always in the studio, consistently improving his flow, wordplay and ad-libs, meticulously grinding to iron out the flaws in his work. The flamboyance of the Migos helped them stand out from the rest of the growing ATL trap scene at the dawn of the streaming age, but it was the technical prowess that put them over the top, a precision engineered and held down by Takeoff.

“Fight Night,” the group’s excellent, no-frills 2014 smash, exemplifies this strength. “If you know me, know this ain’t my feng shui/ Certified everywhere, ain’t gotta print my resume/ Talking crazy, I pull up, andale/ R.I.P. to Nate Dogg, I had to regulate,” Takeoff raps with a smooth demeanor, fitting the multisyllabic verse in the tight 10-second pocket. Usually a verse this complex would come off rushed, sped up, or manic. But Takeoff’s control makes the sentiment sound cool, calm, and collected, contrasting with the absurd and animated bars that come later from Offset and Quavo.

Takeoff was true to his name, rapping like a fighter jet ascending from the landing strip up into the clouds when he began verses, but holding steady and smooth as he took flight, turbulence be damned. His early crowning achievement is “Commando,” a showstopping performance off of YRN 2 where Takeoff sounds possessed by the ghosts of the greats before him. His dexterous verse (“The ring on my pinky is bigger than a globe/ Skippa Da Flippa done flipped a n—a, never fold”) never falls off track despite several tempo changes, flow switch ups and complex rhyme schemes. He sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger with a machine gun, posted up and firing away with dead-on accuracy.

Migos’ biggest project commercially and best creatively, 2017’s Culture, feels like an album that Takeoff took the creative lead on – as opposed to the more bloated sequels Culture II and Culture III. It’s 13 tracks of bangers on bangers, slim with the fat cut off, no song wasted, meticulously curated to sound like the celebration of reaching the mountain top. For listeners of a certain age – particularly those who frequented house parties at colleges across America in the mid-late 2010s – it’s a staple of the time, a community driver turning any celebration into a wild night on the Atlanta strip. But most of all, it was inviting music that brought people together.

“Call Casting” is a standout on the record, stemming from Takeoff’s earworm chorus (“Up early in the morning trappin’/ You can get ’em how you askin’”) that takes his song-stealing flow and uses it to give Quavo and Offset the stencils to showcase their skills. Takeoff could takeover any song, a likely reason why he didn’t have as many features as Quavo – no rapper wants to get washed on their own song –, but he had an underrated ability to open up pockets for Quavo and Offset, dishing assists like Trae Young in the pick-and-roll.

His 2018 solo album, The Last Rocket, predictably flew under the radar but is easily the best of the trio’s side projects. It’s not a statement album with high profile features or headline-grabbing reveals. Instead, it’s a well-produced, strongly rapped, to-the-point technical showcase where Takeoff proved he could hold his own for a full record. It’s not exciting, but it’s not supposed to be, opting for smooth control and comfort over unnecessary risks. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t an important step in Takeoff’s progression. Take the woozy “Casper.” which feels like the quintessential Takeoff track – a masterclass in his merciless flow (“Cartel get the bag dirt cheap/ Got gas but the tank on E/ No flash, but the ice on fleek/ Walkin’ out with the bag and receipt”) mixed with improved chorus work where his vocals float on a cloud of THC smoke. 

Weeks before his death, the usually reserved Takeoff, came out of his shell during an interview with Drink Champs, with a simple request: “ Enough is enough,” he exclaimed. “I’m chill and I’m laid back, but it’s time to pop it – it’s time to give me my flowers, I don’t want them later on when I’m not here.”

It’s a chilling reminder to give respect to the people who are innovating in the moment. History books may be re-written following his death to say that Takeoff was always known as the best Migo, this conveniently leaves out the ignorant past sentiments that flooded Twitter timelines after 2017’s infamous Everyday Struggle interview (“Do it look like I’m left off ‘Bad And Boujee’?”) that Takeoff was “trash.” It shows the dichotomy of how rappers are both evaluated in real time and remembered after they’re gone, crafting a narrative that an artist was always beloved and respected, and minimizing when the public was loud wrong about them.

Suffice to say, it’s unclear how many people knew Takeoff was the soul behind Migos before his death. But one person repeatedly asserted he was the technical glue that kept the group on the rails.

“He always been workin’ on his craft,” Quavo insisted in an interview with Power 106 in 2018. “He just masterminded his craft.”

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