Midway through Savage Mode, the fearsome young Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s new mixtape with producer Metro Boomin, there’s a song called “Bad Guy.” Really, every song on Savage Mode could be called “Bad Guy”; that’s just the song that makes it most explicit and obvious. As an artist, Savage’s entire message is that he’s a bad guy, that he’ll splatter your brains on the wall without thinking twice about it. And the thing that resonates about 21 Savage — the thing that pushes him past street-rap cliche and makes his music so genuinely unsettling — is in the way he raps appalling things and seems to care so little about them. On “Bad Guy,” he offers up this line, a fairly typical one for him: “As you know, I keep that glock with the red dot / Shoot a nigga in his face, he ain’t bad now.” Lots of rappers say things like this. Precious few of them say those things with the same distracted, casual air that I use when I’m ordering a pizza. He’s talking about this like he just rolled out of bed and like he’s vaguely describing what he did the night before. It’s scary.
The “as you know” in that line is key. If you know anything about Savage, you do know that. Savage is young, and he looks small, but he is also a genuinely terrifying real-life figure, a guy who has been through some indescribable shit in his life. A few years ago, while he was still a teenager, Savage was shot six times. And he’s on record describing the attack, saying he grabbed the shooter’s gun away from him, after already being shot full of holes, and then used the guy’s own gun to shoot him. I have no idea if that’s true, but the way he tells it, it doesn’t sound like he’s spinning some fantastical tall tale. It sounds blunt, deadened, matter-of-fact.
21 savage got shot 6 times took the dude's gun and shot him with his own gun and killed em lmfao this nigga a demon pic.twitter.com/mKdVsWvcDK
— ? (@6PAPl) July 18, 2016
Rap history is dotted with guys like this — fearsome tough-guy types whose reputations immediately make them some of the most feared people in rap. Some of them have even gone on to make good music. But when you’re talking about guys like this, whether it’s Freddie Foxxx or Hitman Sammy Sam or Trick Trick or AR-Ab, they tend to fit a similar mode. They’re barkers, growlers. They project authority and intensity. And none of them has ever made a piece of music as end-to-end powerful as Savage Mode, an EP that I’ve had on repeat since it came out on Friday. 21 Savage is a different kind of real-life tough-guy rapper. He sounds bored. He sounds like he cares about nothing. He takes the grim, grainy shark-eyed blankness of Chief Keef and pushes it even further, evoking a deep existential dread. And as an artistic choice, that turns out to be brilliant. It makes for absorbing music.
The distinction there is musical, but it also says things about the nature of villainy. Savage, like those other tough-guy rappers listed up there, is the villain in his own story. He’s just a more compelling bad guy. And the way he raps — that hoarse, deadened mutter — has everything to do with it. It’s the difference between Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs. They’re both dangerous, of course, but Bill is a more theatrical villain, and a less effective one. He puts on a display in his role, and he loses. Lecter, meanwhile, stands perfectly still, plotting and judging, and he never has to raise his voice. When he wants you to be dead, you get dead. So I guess what I’m saying is that 21 Savage is trap music’s Hannibal Lecter, and that’s what makes Savage Mode so entrancing.
The music makes it entrancing, too, of course. The credit there goes to Metro Boomin, who has spent the past few years reinventing the sound of rap music and who has reinvented his own sound on Savage Mode. Metro’s beats here have the soothing thrum of ambient music about them. They blur and twinkle. This time around, he’s making tracks out of delicate synth-plinks and blinking-light blips and washes of blissed-out, bucolic sound. There is nothing remotely raucous about these tracks. The drums never dominate. Tasked with producing some of the hardest rap music in recent memory, Metro has tapped deep into his well of new-age pan flutes. It’s such a beautiful, counterintuitive way of putting this music together. It makes no sense. It makes perfect sense.
Over tracks like these, Savage has the chance to talk about committing absolute atrocities — “At ya mama house, at ya grandma house, keep shooting until somebody die / So many shots the neighbor looked at the calendar, thought it was the Fourth of July” — in ways that force you to believe that his heartrate wouldn’t even tick up while he was out there death-dealing. On tracks like these, Savage sounds like a zombie wandering a grim apocalyptic hellscape. Savage offers context here, talking about watching his friends dying and growing up so hard that he had to become heartless. But he never expresses remorse. He never expresses anything — no anger, no exhilaration, no catharsis, nothing. I don’t know if that’s a sustainable way to make music. But right now, this moment, it feels like something new: rap music that, heard on headphones, makes you feel like you’re lost, alone, at night, in a part of town where you’ve never been, where the broken glass on the ground glitters like diamonds in the moonlight. When was the last time rap music made you feel that? 21 Savage is the bad guy. Say hi to him.
1. Gucci Mane – “Guwop Home” (Feat. Young Thug)
This is the happiest I’ve heard Gucci in years, and it might the most gloriously, understatedly unhinged I’ve ever heard Thug.
2. Peewee Longway – “Pocket Watchin” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
“Gucci Mane party, Ace Of Spades, poured out a keg / Gold Audemar look like I just cracked a egg / And I can’t keep in touch with the niggas I grew up with cuz I know them niggas probably keeping in touch with the Feds.”
3. Fetty Wap & PnB Rock – “Addicted”
Two crafters of infernally catchy sing-rap hooks team up to make a whole song — and a whole mixtape — of infernally catchy sing-rap hooks. It must be summer.
4. Beanie Sigel & Jadakiss – “Dinero”
If you lived through the late-’90s moment when these two were trading weekly murder threats, it will always be surreal to hear the two of them on a song together. And yet there they are, two wizened old survivors, their rasps at varying levels of health, both maintaining. It’s beautiful.
5. Shy Glizzy – “5 Minutes”
I love this current reality, where hard-as-fuck street rappers routinely go in over tracks that sound like the X-Files theme music. The future finally arrived.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Trump/Pence logo is so Phat Farm I want to sew it on a pair of 42-waist carpenter jeans pic.twitter.com/hHYKxFuLTp
— PAPPADEMAS (@PAPPADEMAS) July 15, 2016