21 Savage has been wildly inconsistent since he went from virtually unknown to superstardom in 2016 with his first project Savage Mode, a collaborative effort with producer Metro Boomin. While I thought Savage Mode was somewhat boring, 21’s monotone, matter-of-fact, raw delivery was a departure from most auto-tuned Atlanta rappers at the time. If I’m being honest I didn’t like it at first, it sounded lifeless and boring. But I kept coming back to it because the dark, brooding sound grew on me. It was so bare bones on the surface that I didn’t appreciate the restraint and nuance in the production and delivery. I know that sounds weird talking about a trap mixtape but it’s 2019 and here we are.
It helped that 21 Savage was clearly about that life (for confirmation, see: the Noisey Atlanta episode). He’s a frightening man because of his background and demeanor, and it can translate into some above average trap music at times. Most people would be shocked, sad, or angry at witnessing countless murders, robberies, and drug deals, 21 Savage is indifferent. It’s just another day in the life for him.
Unfortunately his debut album ISSA was a slow, hot fart in the face of his new fans. Instead of developing his sound he tried to keep up with the poppier trap rap trends at the time and ended up sounding like a retarded version of Future. Hearing 21 try to auto-croon warble over sappy love songs in his monotone, emotionless voice was atrocious, and I was disappointed because I knew his style had so much more depth to it. ISSA sounded alien from anything he had done before (or since) and it was a complete trainwreck of failed concepts and overambitious production.
And the album was named after a meme. We live in strange times.
I AM>I WAS (I am greater than I was) is a very appropriate title for this project because the raps, the song concepts, pretty much everything is much greater than it was on ISSA and way better than anything he’s produced thus far. I applaud 21’s ability to understand exactly where his strengths lie and improve upon them. For the most part, this album is delightfully evil. The beats are minimalistic, sinister, and dark, and the bars are hyper-aggressive and ice cold. His team of producers, Kid Hazel, Wheezy, and Metro Boomin among others, dialed back the production then added an ominous cloud over everything, and the sound is much better for it. Fancy production does not suit Savage as it usually drowns out his voice, he’s at home when his beats are bare like the refrigerator in a trap house.
21 also recruits some all-star guest features that enhance his sound rather than distracting from it. Unlike many of his contemporaries, some of which are featured on this album, he didn’t try to invite every relevant rapper then bang out a collection of singles. He took the Kanye approach of cultivating a sound then finding collaborators that enhanced it.
Take the first track “a lot” ft. J. Cole. The beat chops up a soulful sample of “I Love You” by East of Underground over a laid-back beat and some driving high hats which provides a jazz-like backdrop for both rappers to calmly reflect on their lives and pontificate on a variety of things. It reminds me of Spottieottiedopalicious off of Outkast’s Aquemini but less abstract and more focused. 21 talks about how many people doubted and abandoned him along the road to success and J. Cole goes off on a number of tangents that include streaming songs, Markelle Fultz, and Tekashi 6ix9ine. It’s a bold way to lead off an album, especially one that gets this dark, but it works beautifully.
The Post Malone feature “all my friends” is pretty damn good. I love the sleepy, depressing guitar sample and the melody is enjoyable, Post’s voice also sounds uncharacteristically powerful. It’s no “rockstar” but it’s close. “can’t leave without it” has some chopped up, off-key piano chords in the background and a snake charmer like flute sample. For once the Gunna/Lil’ Baby combo doesn’t bother me. The whole song sounds like a marijuana smoke filled strip club VIP area. The most surprising guest here is Childish Gambino who lays down a verse and part of a chorus on “monster”. Unfortunately, he steals the show and 21 hardly attempts to steal it back with his laziest, most uninspired verse on the album.
Some of my favorite cuts on here sound like Three 6 Mafia bangers for a new generation. The distorted synths on “break da law” sound like ambulance sirens and 21’s delivery is about as energized and angry as he can get. “Gun Smoke” is equally unsettling with ambient horror movie sounds and some knocking bass that will blow out the subs in your car. “a&t” is a weird love song that has a hilarious Crime Mobb-like chanting chorus and some pragmatic views on romance. “good day” ft. Schoolboy Q, BEAM, and Project Pat is the most savage, heartless song I’ve heard in a long time. Schoolboy and Project Pat especially shine as they lay down two verses so cold they froze my speakers. The chorus is purposefully anti-melody and to the point, I mean Jesus it barely even rhymes, but it adds to the menacing attitude and general thuggery on display. I love everything about it.
Despite making a lot of progress on the artistic front, this album suffers from some of the unnecessary bullshit that ruined ISSA. “1.5” is a generic, uninspired mess with a flute sample that could drive you to suicide if played long enough. Offset’s verse in uncharacteristically lazy and SOAKED in auto-tune. I can barely understand what the fuck he’s trying to say. “out for the night” tries and fails to show off 21 Savage’s R&B skills. The singing, the sexy guitar sample, everything falls flat because it’s so out of character. The Travis Scott inclusion on the deluxe version of the song actually makes it work because it shows the dichotomy of a night out with 21 showcasing the glossy fun beginning of the night and Travis switching the beat up to show the dark, depraved end of the night. But without Travis, it’s a pointless track.
“4L” and “Padlock” are pure filler songs that aren’t terrible but also serve no purpose. “asmr” has an interesting whispery delivery from savage but he already did on “don’t come out the house” off Metro Boomin’s Not All Heroes Wear Capes. It doesn’t work nearly as well here or have the surprise factor that made it interesting in the first place. It’s now a gimmick that serves no purpose and mostly gets lost in the music. “Ball w/o you” is by far the worst song on the album. It has some R&B dreamy piano keys behind a tinny, drum machine beat and Savage attempts to sing falsetto which ends up sounding like a dog howling with a sore throat. I wish to God I could unhear it.
“letter 2 my momma” is an attempt at recreating 2Pac’s “Dear Momma” which I desperately wanted to hate but can’t. It’s not great because 21’s voice is devoid of emotion, but his lyrics are genuine and heartfelt, and the song doesn’t try to do too much. I must say it does bring the momentum of the album to a screeching halt. I just heard 13 songs about remorseless murder so its kinda hard to be sentimental.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this project and the fact that 21 made a somewhat powerful artistic statement. Even though this project is 15 songs and 57 minutes, it should have been shorter. The R&B stuff and the filler tracks just distract from the menacing, disturbing atmosphere that makes much of the album so electric. At its best, it sounds like seeing a great horror movie for the first time. If only it had stayed true to that vision instead of trying to be all things to all people it could’ve been a classic in the vein of Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury. Still, this is a solid release from a rapper who’s been struggling to match his hype with the quality of his music and it shows that he’s matured as an artist and started to find his niche. 21 is much greater than he was, but still not as great as he could be.