It’s odd to hear Quavo have to search for the right words. As one-third of the rap group Migos, Quavious Marshall rose to chart-topping prominence in the last decade by verbalizing hip-hop’s stickiest choruses and most satisfyingly inane ad-libs, mostly extemporaneously. But he’s at a loss to describe how he’s gotten through the past year without his nephew, bandmate and best friend, Takeoff, who was shot to death at the age of 28 at an after-hours event in Houston last November.
“How am I getting through it? I don’t know. We pray, we get through it with God. God just keeps us up,” he said, referring to his mother and sister. “But this is a wound that ain’t going to ever heal for us, because we don’t understand. You know? I don’t understand.”
The sunshine streaming into the window of a SoHo hotel on a recent afternoon made the finger of cognac before him seem to glow in its glass. He’d poured it from a test tube, a sample from a potential liquor partnership, but he barely sipped any over an hourlong interview. Quavo, 32, has rarely spoken publicly about his loss, save for a YouTube video posted days ahead of the August release of “Rocket Power,” his second solo album and a definitive statement of grief and purpose that he figured precluded public questioning.
Creating it was “the toughest ever,” Quavo said. “But at the same time, I just knew I had to record, bro, because I don’t know what else,” he paused, “I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t have that microphone in front of me.”
“Rocket Power” opened at No. 18 on the Billboard 200, well short of his releases with Migos and “Only Built for Infinity Links,” the collaborative album he and Takeoff put out a month before the shooting. First week numbers for Quavo’s heart-bearing album also lagged behind expected figures for “Set It Off,” the new release from his once-estranged bandmate Offset.
Quavo, who has supported the album only in a handful of club performances and mostly avoided the podcast interviews thatthe hip-hop media circuit comprises, said he’s now ready to “stick to the script” — a plan of action for the next chapter of a career he’d expected to spend alongside Takeoff. There’s his tour concept Club Rocket, and a return to the quick turn record-and-release musicmaking of his early career.
“I want to enjoy my blessings, and I want to enjoy my people around me and I want to enjoy my fans. I want to just keep dropping music,” he said, circumspect, his diamond and platinum grill catching the light.
Migos onstage at the BET Awards in 2021. From left: Quavo, Takeoff and Offset. Quavo said he and Offset could get onstage together again if they wanted to, but at the moment, they don’t want to.Credit…Bennett Raglin/Getty Images
His gradual return began in January, when Quavo returned to the studio to record “Without You,” a song holding his regrets. He performed it at the Grammys after a week of rehearsals that sometimes ended with him crumpled in tears, then vowed not to put it out. “I love that song, but I honestly don’t ever want to hear it again,” he said.
After the performance, video footage showed he and Offset arguing backstage, though both have since played down the dispute. Though the pair rapped an energetic tribute together at the BET Awards in June, there are no plans for a refashioned Migos to make music again. “We’ll get onstage any time we want to,” Quavo said, with finality. “It’s just we don’t want to. That’s it. We’re good.”
In the months following the Grammys, Quavo went silent on his management team, then popped up sometime in April or May, recalled Kevin Lee, a co-founder of the powerhouse Atlanta label Quality Control. Quavo had recorded 12 songs (“Super, super aggressive, super angry,” the rapper said) over a 48-hour period that he wanted to release immediately.
“It was just raw,” said Lee, who is known as Coach K. “To the point where I was like, ‘If that’s how you feel, you know, we need to get that out of you’” — either to therapy or back to the studio.
It makes sense that the recording booth would be restorative for Quavo. The “Bando” had been both the title of Migos’ first buzzy single in 2012 and their nickname for the basement of Quavo’s mother’s house in Lawrenceville, Ga., where the trio took turns recording verses with Quavo serving as de facto recording engineer (and sometime producer). He and Takeoff had just built a state-of-the-art studio in the basement of the home they shared — Takeoff in the west wing, while Quavo took the east — and recorded almost daily in the run-up to “Only Built for Infinity Links.”
Quavo, who played high school football and counts top athletes like LeBron James among his fans, has said he tries to approach music with an athlete’s rigor, striving to make five or six songs per day. Even with that consistent practice, it had been difficult for him to figure out what his album would become without rage as its primary mode.
He spent the next few months trying to dig into other emotions and sounds. He was able to spin “Turn Yo Clic Up,” an anthemic motivational single featuring Future, around the line, “I took a loss, but you still gon’ get beat,” as a way of letting fans know he wasn’t defeated. But Quavo said he worried that if there were many more songs like it, fans would think he was having too much fun.
He next made “11:11,” a two-minute track in which Quavo threads a chorus about crying himself to sleep between verses in which he brushes off both a Migos reunion and devil worship. He grew more introspective on “Hold Me,” basically a trap gospel song, and “Rocket Power,” on which he repeats, “I had my heart ripped out my chest.”
Though Quavo had sometimes produced tracks on Migos albums and mixtapes, he left the beatmaking to others for “Rocket Power,” preferring to concentrate on his lyrics. His writing took on a new focus, too. When asked if he had punched them in — adding words line by line in the studio — he needed to scroll through his phone to remember which hooks he’d actually written down first.
As he swiped, he was surprised to see whole verses written for some songs. “We always punch in and we’re always freestyling,” he said, awed, and still referring to the group in the present. “So damn, I did take my thoughts and put them on pad this time.”
He guarded the music like a diary, withholding it even from his management team nearly up until the album deadline, partly because of his vulnerability and partly because it would be his first time releasing music that Takeoff hadn’t heard first.
“When the finished product came, it was more or less like Take was talking to him,” Coach K said. “There were some emotional records. But then there were some party records. It was like they were having conversations.”
Quavo said it wasn’t until after the album was done that he learned he was unintentionally working through an ad hoc version of the stages of grief — anger, sadness, acceptance. Though he’s made emotional progress, he’s wary of re-emerging in the public eye. He’s sat courtside at N.B.A. games and made the rounds at Paris and New York fashion weeks, then seen comments on social media chiding him for seeming to enjoy himself.
The internet has been a particularly traumatic space since Takeoff’s death. Almost immediately after the shooting, in which Takeoff was struck by a stray bullet at a billiards hall as Quavo stood nearby, some accounts posted video of Quavo screaming his nephew’s name and kneeling at his side. According to the police accounts, all parties left the venue without giving statements, but reports surfaced days after detailing that the shooting stemmed from an argument between Quavo and other party attendees.
“Social media gets you riled up,” he said, parsing his way through the thought a phrase at a time. “Gets you in this ball, to where you feel like you just got to be every day reminded of the mistakes that went on in life, you got to sit on that. And sometimes they want you to stay there.”
Quavo has contended with his helplessness to change what happened and clings tight to Takeoff’s memory. He said he welcomes reminders of his nephew — a photo in the studio, spotting so-called angel numbers — which he sees everywhere.
Though tributes to Takeoff poured from all corners of hip-hop, a few moments of empathy pierced Quavo’s fog, including a private conversation with the Afrobeats singer Davido, whose young son drowned in a backyard pool.
“He just broke me down,” Quavo said. “I didn’t even know none of that happened. Afterwards I did but I’m just saying like it clicked, it really clicked.”
He said watching an Instagram clip of the rapper Gillie Da Kid discussing how he handled the shooting death of his son helped motivate Quavo to step back into public-facing work. Last year he started the Rocket Foundation, which seeks to prevent gun violence, in partnership with the Community Justice Action Fund.
The work is still new to Quavo, whose music, like that of many active hip-hop artists, has relied on references to shootouts and firearms. Takeoff’s shooting death came on the heels of those of Young Dolph in Memphis and PNB Rock in Los Angeles. After the series of high-profile killings, E-40 and Too Short wrote an oped in The Atlantic calling for a hip-hop intervention.
For the foundation to have an effect, Quavo has to amplify its messaging about the shattering toll of gun violence by retelling what happened to Takeoff. Nothing could prepare him for the role, which he seemed intent on getting just right.
In a first major appearance for the foundation last month, Quavo went with his mother, Edna Marshall, and sister, Titania Davenport, along with other anti-gun advocates to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus and Vice President Kamala Harris. In a closed-door session, the family detailed the impact of Takeoff’s death, which was the first time, Quavo said, they’d spoken about it at length in front of one another. The conversation got emotional, and he remembers having been impressed at the eloquence of the other speakers who have been telling their stories for longer.
“All of this is new,” Quavo said, hands clasped in front of him. “I’m still learning, I’ve still got to read, I still got to get resources,” he added, his voice rising in frustration. “Please ask me a year from now, a year or two from now on how this feels, and I can be up there and give a speech.”
He said he knows he is being called to keep talking, to keep telling fans, legislators, anyone who will listen about what his nephew, his best friend, meant to him. That God could only give him a mission so directly through a personal tragedy. But the specifics of what to say and how to say it crumble under the weight of having to.
“I can’t answer the gun violence thing right now, because I got to get this straight,” he explained. “And then I can be able to bless the world about my story and let these people know what’s going on. Right now, you in the middle of the game. You in the eye of the storm. That’s straight up.”
The early fall sun lowered to backlight Quavo’s resigned face. “Everything is different, understand that,” he said. “Don’t look past that when you see me, bro. Just don’t look past that.”