Photo Credit: Biz 3 Publicity
It hurts to find out that any musician has died as young as Kirsnick Khari Ball, better known as Takeoff, did. But even in a world that does its damnedest to desensitize us to the violent, untimely deaths of Black hip-hop stars (rappers Young Dolph, Drakeo The Ruler, and JayDaYoungan have all met violent ends within the last 12 months, alone), there was something particularly shocking about learning the news of Takeoff’s murder at the start of the month.
As fiery as the MC may have been on the mic, Takeoff made the case for quietly doing the hard, necessary, and often unglamorous work required as part of being in a successful rap trio. He never insisted the spotlight be on him and pragmatically accepted ever-shifting roles as part of Migos (ranging from backup for Quavo to leading man). In the process of doing this, he turned the three-piece into one of the more dynamic hip-hop acts of the 2010s. He rarely receives enough credit for the ways in which he dutifully bore the heavy load of responsibility that came with Offset’s 2015 incarceration; keeping the band afloat while simultaneously coming into his own.
Photo Credit: Rony Alwin
With 2017’s Culture (the first installment of a trilogy), Migos earned the sort of critical adoration and commercial success that is the stuff of most band’s dreams (how many rappers gain both a No.1 single and the coveted ‘Best New Music’ certification from Pitchfork with just one album?). The so-called “Migos Flow” (or “Triplet Flow”) became a defining feature of 2010s rap and was defined in no small part by the contributions of Takeoff, whose flow was precise and endlessly technically impressive and, whose penmanship was decisive and multi-layered.
For all his successes, the late rapper never seemed to let it go to his head. Soon after news of his death broke, social media was alight with charming, candid videos of interactions between the Migos star and fans, and, thousands-upon-thousands flocked to profess how devastated they were by the murder. There can be no doubt about how deeply his music mattered to fans and how deeply his fans mattered to him.
Photo Credit: Migos / I AM PHRESHY Brand
The death of Takeoff will be a deeply personal tragedy for so many – of course, for the surviving two members of Migos, but also for the millions who found something to latch onto in his music. But, it also feels impossible to separate the tragedy from the wider context in which it has played out. Violence towards Black men has always been a shameful, unrelenting part of the American story, from slavery to Emmitt Till to George Floyd and everyone in between. It’s no coincidence that hip-hop artists – a disproportionate number of whom are Black compared to the population as a whole – have the lowest life expectancy of any group of musicians (one figure even found that the life expectancy for famous rappers was under 30 years of age, with a majority dying from homicide).
When the 28-year-old passed, one phrase was repeated time and time again on social media: “Black men deserve to grow old” – said in equal measures as a rallying cry and an exhausted plea. It’s unclear to what degree the specter of violence hung over Takeoff’s head as he catapulted to the highest echelons of rap stardom, but in interviews when he spoke of desiring longevity, he spoke not of his own lifespan but of creating a legacy that would outlast him for many, many decades. In that regard, the mission was accomplished.