A Rapper Who Spoke Quietly and Had a Big Impact
Remembering Takeoff, the quiet force of Migos
One of the ironies of recent music history is that Migos, the band of Atlanta rappers who reshaped hip-hop in the mid-2010s, is known for something called the “triplet flow.” The term is musicological, describing the convulsive vocal cadence that took over pop thanks to them. But the term is also apt given that Migos were a trio related by blood. They built songs out of the complex interplay of their voices, and they built a brand on the heartwarming sight of three men rising together in a tough and fractious industry.
An awful development has shattered that picture: Takeoff, the 28-year-old Migos member born Kirshnik Khari Ball, was shot to death last night. The incident happened outside a bowling alley in Houston, where Takeoff had been with his bandmate Quavo; police have not identified a suspect. The reaction from the hip-hop community has been deeply pained. The youngest and least outspoken member of Migos, Takeoff was the rare celebrity who let his talent define his image—and his contributions, it’s now sadly clear, are irreplaceable.
Migos really was a family affair. Bandmates Quavo and Offset are cousins, and Takeoff was Quavo’s nephew. All three spent their adolescence raised by Quavo’s mother in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, Georgia. Their 2013 breakout single, “Versace,” radiates fraternal glee, giving the impression of three dudes gassing one another up as they riff on the titular luxury-brand name. Takeoff’s verse on that song stands out for the low, gruff tone of his voice; the tumbling energy of his flow; and his delectable wordplay: He rhymes Versace with hibachi and Taki.
A Drake remix of “Versace” rocketed Migos to global fame, and a narrative quickly solidified: Quavo and Offset were showmen, but Takeoff was “the kind of guy who talks only when he really has something to say,” as Touré wrote in a 2018 Rolling Stone feature. Takeoff didn’t dispute such characterizations and seemed proud to be known mostly for his rapping. “I switch it up,” he told The Fader. “I can go slow, I can go medium, I can go fast ... I can go deeper. I may sound like I’m the oldest, but I’m the youngest.” He added that he was “funny too. But I won’t open up unless I feel comfortable around you.”
By some estimations, Takeoff was the star of Migos’s now-classic 2017 album, Culture. He delivers the album’s opening chorus; he dominates the icily swaggering single “T-Shirt.” The band became known for its ad-libs, and Takeoff’s were particularly memorable (“Act!” he says in a slimy, ghoulish snarl on “T-Shirt”). On the brilliant “Slippery,” he even seems to riff on his image as the group’s wallflower, rapping, “They think I’m dumb / They don’t know I see the plot.”
He did not perform on “Bad and Boujee,” the track that hit No. 1 on the Hot 100—yet his absence still led to a signature moment in his career. When an interviewer at the BET Awards asked Takeoff about being left off the song, he bristled and replied, “Do it look like I’m left off ‘Bad and Boujee’?” Moments later, all three Migos members were on their feet, seemingly protesting what they perceived as a disrespectful interview. A video of the moment went viral, and the impression it gave was clear: These guys moved as a unit, and Takeoff’s importance was not to be minimized.
The image of the triumphal and inseparable Migos did become a bit scuffed over time. In recent years, Offset appeared to have grown somewhat estranged from Takeoff and Quavo, who began recording music as the duo Unc & Phew. Legal troubles have been perennial too; in 2020, a woman accused Takeoff of rape, which he denied. (Prosecutors declined to file charges, and a civil suit went forward.)
But Takeoff’s energy never flagged. Just last month, in a podcast discussion about the new Unc & Phew album, the interviewer N.O.R.E. praised Takeoff for rapping better than he ever has. “Oh, for sure,” Takeoff replied. “Enough is enough. I’m chill; I’m laid-back—but it’s time to pop it. It’s time to give me my flowers. I don’t want them laid down when I ain’t here. I want them right now.” Applauding next to him was Quavo, who would soon be by Takeoff’s side in the final moments of his life.