“In my feelings, she got my in my feelings.” That’s 21 Savage murmuring at the beginning of “Special,” one of the songs from his brand-new debut LP Issa Album. For most rappers, that’s a benign and forgettable lyric. For 21 Savage, it’s a direct and confusing repudiation of everything that made him stand out in the first place. On his early mixtapes and on Savage Mode, his great 2016 collaborative EP with Metro Boomin, Savage rapped about himself as if he was some cold-blooded death-dealer, a gun-toting wraith with blood in his eye and emptiness in his soul. Savage never yelled about wanting to kill you; he issued his threats in a bored, matter-of-fact half-whisper, and that made them all the more unsettling. He put forth this image of being a guy who would murder you, in-between sandwich bites, for looking at him wrong. In a rap landscape full of Auto-Tune warblers and vulnerable emoters, that’s what made him stand out. So when that guy starts singing about wanting to give all his money to a girl, you sit up and take notice.
Persona is a funny thing. Nobody can expect anyone to maintain the same image forever, especially if that image is as nihilistic and anti-human as the one that 21 Savage has been working. You can’t make an entire career out of “they say crack kills, nigga, my crack sells.” It would be downright fetishistic to be pissed off at 21 Savage for refusing to evolve. He recently started dating Amber Rose, and while the relationship definitely looks like some TMZ-bait that a couple of publicists cooked up together, who knows, maybe it’s real. Maybe 21 Savage is head-over-heels in love for the first time in his life and he just has to rap about it. But still: love songs? This early? From 21 Savage?
Issa Album only has two love songs on it, so it’s not like he’s made his first album into a gangster-falls-in-love concept album. Most of the time, he’s still acting like a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm. And so when he starts purring about how you shouldn’t take his love for granted, it doesn’t seem like a natural evolution of Savage’s character; it seems like a calculated attempt to expand the appeal of a rapper who was really only ever good at doing one thing. And it’s not even the good kind of calculated. It’s not a “21 Questions” situation, where 50 Cent was clearly and knowingly selling out his own tough-guy image to make a blatant radio song but where it turned out to be a pretty decent pop-rap chart-crusher anyway. 21 Savage’s love songs are virtually unlistenable. These songs sound like disastrous miscalculations. They sound like bad advice taken to heart.
And it’s not like these are the only times 21 Savage took advice. Consider the album’s title. It’s a reference to a moment in a VladTV video interview last year. DJ Vlad, interviewing Savage, asked about the cross tattooed on his forehead. Savage, reclined all the way back on a leather couch and clutching an enormous styrofoam cup while hugging an enormous pile of cash, deadpan-hissed back, “It’s a knife.” That moment went viral, as these moments will do. And now Savage has gone running with it, embarking on his Issa Tour and recording a Drake collab called “Issa” and now titling his debut album Issa Album. Does anyone really want to see 21 Savage, of all possible rappers, becoming self-conscious? Does anyone want to see him depicted as a cartoon character on his own album cover? And when Savage’s pure rapping abilities could barely pass muster at a lunchroom table, who thought it would be a good idea to end the album with a track called “7 Min Freestyle,” which really does sound like someone taped Savage freestyling for seven minutes? Also: While nobody goes to 21 Savage’s music to hear anything remotely socially acceptable, it still sucks to hear him throwing around homophobic slurs a couple of times. The best dark-minded street-rappers, like Prodigy or Z-Ro, tend to be the ones who surprise us by unexpectedly speaking out against homophobia, not the ones who blindly reinforce it.
Maybe the problem is just that 21 Savage shouldn’t be making albums? Savage Mode was a perfect dose of this guy, ending after nine songs and 32 minutes so that Savage’s forbidding monotone and bleak worldview didn’t get the chance to get old. The best moments on Issa Album have some of the same dark power as Savage Mode. The beats, from old ally Metro Boomin and likeminded Atlanta producers like Southside and Zaytoven, understand that restraint is a huge part of Savage’s appeal. They rest on eerie piano melodies and muted drums and empty space, and they give him plenty of room to operate. Savage was probably wise to record the album without guest rappers; nobody ever ruptures the album’s mood. “Bank Account,” the album’s big early streaming hit, is almost mournful in its minor-key intensity. Even better is “Numb,” on which Savage mutters “numb the pain with the money” over and over to himself, like it’s a self-help koan.
Another EP of tracks like those two would’ve helped further establish Savage as the photo-negative alternative to his day-glo peers. But Issa, with its muddle of intentions, sounds like the work of a rapper who isn’t sure what he wants to be. That didn’t used to be a problem for 21 Savage. On the Issa track “Close My Eyes,” Savage himself sums up his own appeal: “Feel like I’m the last real rapper cuz these niggas weird.” Lately, for obvious reasons, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to early Mobb Deep. And while there are certainly things separating Savage from the Infamous — geography, cultural context, actual ability — they shared a certain vibe. They made eerie, atmospheric, whispering-knucklehead music, music that was so hard that it could purr ominously while everyone else was hammering. Almost nobody is making music like that today. 21 Savage used to be the one guy making murder music on a large scale. But for too much of Issa, he’s just another guy.
1. French Montana – “Bring Dem Things” (Feat. Pharrell)
God bless French Montana. Last year, in this space, I was urging labels to stop trying to make French happen. Now, after scoring a massive hit with the Afropop style-jack “Unforgettable,” he’s using his goodwill to make the Harry Fraud version of a Tunnel banger, and he’s getting Pharrell to bring back some of his crispy “Move That Dope” nastiness in the process. I rescind my complaint.
2. Nef The Pharaoh – “Create A Wave” (Feat. 24hrs)
There are few things in this life more beautiful than a perfectly realized hyphy bassline. And one of the great things about Nef is that he knows exactly how to ride a bassline like that, bringing the energy without ever overwhelming it.
3. DJ Shadow – “Horror Show” (Feat. Danny Brown)
Of course an aging rap nerd like Danny Brown wants to work with DJ Shadow. And of course a hit-hungry mercenary like Shadow wants to make a festival-banger with Danny Brown. It could’ve gone wrong a million times, so it’s only through the grace of God that we got this galumphing monster instead of the mess that could’ve been. Now someone please convince Brown to just rap over “Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil.”
4. Cousin Stizz – “Lambo”
Boston’s rising underground hero continues to prove that he’s just as good at Migos-style flossing as he is at beautifully rendered self-reflection, and this time he doesn’t need to rope in an actual Migo to prove it.
5. Meek Mill – “Young Nigga Dreams” (Feat. YFN Lucci & Barcelini)
Of the four new tracks that Meek released last week, this, at least for me, is the keeper. It’s all desperate, loud, haranguing intensity over a spaghetti-western synth-whistle, with Lucci, who might be Atlanta’s urgent street-rap version of Meek, along for the ride.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Amber Rose got 21 Savage singing on his album ? pic.twitter.com/5ntSSPemK4
— Chris (@oghoanina) July 7, 2017