It's been debated whether the third time has ever really been the charm. Despite what idiom advocates may have told you, many have long attempted to debunk the optimistic pick-me-up. Doubters often point to trilogies, emphasizing how many have gone out with a whimper and inadvertently tarnished legacies in the process. In the case of Migos, who recently rounded out their Culture series with a third and presumably final chapter, the stakes weren’t quite so dire. A pervading narrative suggested that the legacy was already blighted by the 2018 sequel, a sprawling twenty-four track endeavor; the caffeine spike before the crash.

With the second Culture having developed a less than favorable reputation, Migos found themselves thrust into a redemption arc in which the quality of their art would decide their fate. The once-mighty trio found themselves, perhaps for the first time in years, as underdogs in a shifting landscape. In a blink-and-you-missed-it development, Migos went from innovators to veterans, their stylistic fingerprints not quite so evident on today’s new crop of rap stars. While that might have driven Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff to bitterness, it instead seems to reinvigorate their creative drive. Opening up about the Culture III recording process, the group emphasized a back-to-basics approach, citing the importance of revitalizing the camaraderie and drive they shared upon first entering the game.

From the moment the project kicks off with “Avalanche,” it’s evident that the group was ready to make a statement. As introductions tend to set the tone for what’s to come, the fact that Migos opted to explore a different production style showcased a willingness to take risks not often seen on previous projects. In the album’s opening verse, Quavo -- who shares a co-production credit with longtime Migos beatsmith DJ Durel -- makes it abundantly clear that he’s focused behind the mic. It’s a theme that carries forward throughout the project; where Quavo previously floated by on charisma and a keen mind for melody, his elevated pace on Culture III allows him to keep stride with his technically formidable groupmates. Though thematically he’s not exactly reinventing himself, Quavo’s unapologetic observations and occasional bursts of wit keep his verses particularly enjoyable -- to the point where he’s genuinely stealing the show on several occasions.

While groups may benefit from healthy competition amongst each other, Migos tend to operate most effectively as a unit. Yet that competitive spirit is certainly present, exemplified by the us-against-the-world quality delivered throughout. It’s during these moments of heightened urgency that Culture III is at its most immediate. The long-anticipated “Modern Day” is a comparatively dark offering from the trio, scored by an eerie backdrop from Murda Beatz. One could suggest that the group are disgusted by how they’ve been written off, defying critics with a blistering assault of back-to-back verses. There’s a moment where Takeoff shifts his cadence from animated to detached, zombie-like; it’s one of the song’s liveliest moments.

The hunger and drive that the Migos exhibit throughout the album are welcome, and for the most part, they’re largely consistent in their contributions. While new ground is rarely covered on a lyrical level, the defiance and self-assured confidence with which the Migos attack production is revitalizing. Songs like the understated “Mahomes” and the playful, Nutcracker-flipping “Vaccine” are genuinely thrilling, as there’s a clear sense of anticipation surrounding how each member might approach the beat. It’s strangely paradoxical; how can Migos benefit from unpredictability while remaining stubbornly married to the topics they religiously favor? It all comes down to the context surrounding their own position in the game. Their newfound underdog status, at least in relative terms, is an obstacle they’ve never had to overcome. Adaptation is an inherently exciting process, and those who have stuck with the Migos throughout these past few years will ultimately find their loyalty rewarded.

Culture III isn't entirely free of blemishes. Like its predecessor, the project is a lengthy one. Its pacing might have benefitted from a more scrutinous streamlining process, though given that the group had seven-hundred songs in the vault, perhaps a nineteen-track compromise is a miracle unto itself. Be that as it may, Culture III hits speed bumps when the focus shifts away from the Migos. That’s not to say the chosen guests aren’t decent additions, but the collaborative efforts simply do not reach the highs of the Migos joints. Were the project to do away with the feature songs altogether, we’d be looking at a concise eleven-song album lined with inspired performances and bangers -- one that feels far in line with the original classic that kicked off the trilogy to begin with.

It’s fair to liken Culture III to a cinematic experience. Despite referencing him in lead single “Straightenin,” the Migos’ latest is not quite a Michael Bay flick. Though there are moments of explosivity and high-octane stunt work, the Migos’ latest is delivered with enough technical prowess, clever angles, and attention-to-detail to please both casual fans and auteurs alike. As such, it feels closer to a John Wick film, the standard to which raps of this nature should aspire to reach. Recall a previous declaration made by Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren on the two-thousand classic “Hello”: I started this gangsta shit, and this the muthafuckin thanks I get? Migos appear to be operating on that exact defiant wavelength, only in lieu of gangsta rap, their reach extends over a vast swathe of the modern-day hip-hop landscape.