Once again, a rapper has lost his life, senselessly and all too soon. Early Tuesday morning, 28-year-old Kirsnick Khari Ball—best known as Takeoff, from the chart-topping Atlanta rap trio Migos—was killed at a Houston bowling alley by gunfire that broke out while he was shooting dice with a group that included his uncle and musical collaborator Quavo. There’s no suspected assailant nor any other recorded deaths, although two other people were injured and taken to the hospital, and grisly footage of the aftermath has made the rounds on social media. The shocking slaying, another tragedy in a yearslong string of rap deaths, marks the premature end of a monumental artistic legacy—one that, it can be said without exaggeration, helped reshape the sound of popular music.
If you paid any attention to music in the mid-2010s, you’ll remember the ubiquity of Migos and their signature sound. The rap group, composed of three family members from the Atlanta suburbs, exploded in 2013 and became an endless source of regional slang (“Nawf” and “bando,” among others), dances, ad-libs, flows, and hits that soundtracked parties, fan videos, and in-group hype sessions. Remember dabbing? Just look at theirs. Feel an urge to repeat the name Hannah Montana at least a couple times, preferably in triple time, whenever you remember the Disney show? Thank them. Reminded of drop tops anytime you see raindrops? There’s a reason for that. Do you walk it like you talk it while envisioning yourself on the Soul Train set? You get the idea.
The Migos—composed of Quavious “Quavo” Keyate Marshall plus his cousin Kiari “Offset” Kendrell Cephus and nephew Takeoff—originally came together in 2008, but they wouldn’t break through until after the release of their third mixtape, Y.R.N., in June 2013. That tape earned them a powerful fan in Drake, who added his own verse to a remix of the lead single, “Versace,” and released it during the rollout for his much-anticipated Nothing Was the Same. That co-sign catapulted the trio to virality—tens of millions of YouTube hits, their first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, even a lip-sync video from a teenage Justin Bieber. The group had already built up attention within their hometown: “Versace” was produced by local legend and renowned Gucci Mane collaborator Zaytoven. But now they were going national right as rap fans across the country bent their ears toward Atlanta.
Their rise was in part a story of the right trio at the right time. Through the ’90s and especially the 2000s, ATL rappers like Gucci, the Dungeon Family, Ludacris, Young Jeezy, T.I., Waka Flocka Flame, and Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz had made clear that the South had something to say. The burgeoning trap music genre had rumbled the foundations of the East Coast and the West, with its “rattling hi-hats,” auto-tuned vocals, repeated ad-libbed interjections, and tinny electric horns and keys. The sound was at once a maximalist, energetic celebration of life and an unsparing illustration of the street trenches, all carefully calibrated to blast through strip-club speakers and bass-heavy car stereos. The genre was also shaped more by the feel and sounds of the rapped styles than the words themselves. And, much like how their rap forefathers found ways to repurpose turntables and drum machines to broadcast their songs and stories, Atlanta’s visionary producers—the aforementioned Zaytoven, Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, Mike Will Made-It, and the 808 Mafia—crafted dense backdrops with digital percussion and software like Fruity Loops. Over these beats, the 2010s’ generation of Atlanta MCs carved out their own remarkable niches: Future’s codeine-drenched pain, Young Thug’s indecipherable ecstasy, Travis Scott’s cut-and-paste influence collages, Rich Homie Quan’s resonant baritone, 21 Savage’s quiet menace.
The Migos were inspired by the same sonic markers as their up-and-coming peers, but they offered something just a touch different: an electrifying, rhythmically dexterous interweaving of three singular voices. These amigos were a crew of mischievous, fun-loving youngsters, dripping with jewelry and confidence. They weren’t afraid to be goofy because they knew you wouldn’t dare mess with them. They were grateful to God but wouldn’t hesitate to show off. With one hand, they’d wag a finger at the cops, while with the other, they’d flaunt the power of their dope-cooking wrists to move mountains. They repeated select words and phrases over and over and over again, fitting their syllables and stresses to the web of drums beneath them and compelling you to bob your head like Jay-Z. Their “Migos flow,” which almost every rapper was replicating at some point, could be traced back to the historic street sounds of Lesotho; while they were far from the first rappers to utilize that triplet-heavy rhythm, their almost single-minded dedication to it made it catch fire. To top it all off, they had a magnetic public presence: the smiles, the outfits, the tossed-off quips. It’s what extended them into cultural influencers as a whole; fans facetiously (and sometimes seriously) called them bigger and better than the Beatles.
The group rode this wave of success for years, culminating in studio albums (Yung Rich Nation, the Culture trilogy), big-ticket collabs (Calvin Harris, Cardi B), and hits upon hits (“Fight Night,” “T-Shirt,” “Stir Fry”). Yet as their wave crested with 2018’s overlong Culture II, the three members explored serious solo careers, which magnified the strange group dynamics that had existed throughout. Quavo, a go-to feature for friends like Lil Yachty and DJ Khaled, was the group’s clear solo-ready Justin Timberlake, and Offset’s personal life (especially his off-and-on relationship with wife Cardi B) tended to upstage his own releases. The more soft-spoken Takeoff never achieved the same level of prominence. His verses were often the last on a given Migos track, and he had the fewest ad-libs or choruses. Notably, he didn’t have a verse on “Bad and Boujee,” which became the group’s biggest single in 2017 after a surge of fan-made viral videos lifted it all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100. (This would lead to the trio’s infamous spat with DJ Akademiks, who asked Takeoff, neck draped in diamonds and gold chains, why he was “left off” the song, receiving an immortal reply: “I ain’t left off ‘Bad and Boujee.’ … Do it look like I’m left off ‘Bad and Boujee’?”)
Takeoff’s lack of momentum was sometimes a source of frustration for Migos fans, many of whom agreed he was perhaps the single best rapper of the three. (Quavo himself admitted as much.) His hoarse, deep voice didn’t carry or project the same way Quavo’s and Offset’s did, but he quietly wrote some of the group’s most vivid and hilarious lyrics, like the one about stacking his cash like Pringles. But seriously, just take a moment to scour some of the hits. From “Gucci on My”: “Flooded wrist, I got the Breitling loaded/ Now I can’t even see the clock.” Or from “Brown Paper Bag”: “20K right by the stand/ Wrapped up in a brown paper bag/ That wasn’t part of the plan/ Take out the tape from the cam/ No evidence on who I am.” Or from a track on Takeoff’s only solo project, 2018’s The Last Rocket: “I remember flushin’ all the dope down the commode/ Stashin’ work where you would never know/ Canine can’t even find it.”
Stardom eluded Takeoff as the trio appeared to drift apart. Migos’ Culture III was delayed multiple times and arrived in 2021, two years later than planned. In May 2022, Quavo and Takeoff announced they would be releasing a joint project under the name Unc & Phew, without Offset’s involvement. The latter unfollowed the two on social media around the same time, fueling rumors the group had finally split. The duo released their full-length collab last month to mostly positive reviews, but none of the songs had as wide a reach as they once might have had. Meanwhile, the Southern rap scene they helped take to the fore is increasingly troubled: Young Thug and his Young Slime Life crew are facing a serious criminal trial, and Offset is suing Quality Control, the label that brought the Migos so much success. Countless Southern rappers have been killed over the past few years: Young Dolph, Young Greatness, Bankroll Fresh, MO3, still others. Takeoff’s sudden death now means the undeniable end of the Migos, to the sadness of fans who hoped that they’d someday reunite. It’s the tragic end of an era that never had to end like this, the loss of someone with full awareness of what he had accomplished and all the potential he still had. As Takeoff rapped with his uncle on their last album together: “Why question the shit that I did?/ You know I had visions of this shit since I was a kid/ I priced it out and got blessed and look at what God did.”