21 Savage gets it. On the outro of “My Choppa Hate Niggas,” one of his solo tracks from the new 21 Savage/Offset/Metro Boomin collaborative album Without Warning, Savage mutters about horror movies: “Feel like Jason, Friday 13th / Hockey mask with the .223 / It’s a nightmare on Elm Street.” The Metro Boomin track he’s rapping over is all gasping synths and heart-patter drums and howling-wind sound effects. As that track ends, it transitions directly into Offset’s solo track “Nightmare,” which Metro builds from a tinkling music box that reminds me of Goblin’s score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria. “Freddy Kruger, give ‘em a nightmare,” Offset half-purrs. “Soon as you close your eyes, nigga, we right there.” These guys are playing characters. They’re making self-consciously eerie scary-movie rap music. It’s stupid, and it’s silly, and it’s great.
21 Savage and Offset are not these guys in real life. Both of them are in high-profile relationships with brash, famous women. Both of them are almost certainly the less-interesting halves of those relationships. This past summer, Savage released Issa, his official debut album, and its big problem was that it found Savage trying to be less like the character that he’d established on past mixtapes and more like what we might believe his actual self to be. It had love songs, which is something that the Savage of last year’s Savage Mode never would’ve done. Offset, meanwhile, got down on one knee and proposed to Cardi B in front of thousands of people a mere few days before Without Warning came out. That video went viral with good reason: It was so fucking charming. These guys are nobody’s nightmare. But Robert Englund is apparently a very pleasant human being in real life, too. It doesn’t make Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors any less fun.
The songs on Without Warning aren’t about anything. They’re full of talk about money and murder. The two rappers are deep in their respective zones, Offset verbally dense and rhythmically sophisticated while Savage is numb and affectless and almost conversational. They don’t make sense together on paper — especially when you consider that, unless I’m missing something, Savage and Offset and Metro had never released a single song together before this album came out. But in practice, it works. Offset and Savage make nice counterbalances to one another. And what holds it all together is Metro’s beats, which are as tingly and evocative as they’ve ever been. Just as he did on Savage Mode, Metro goes for feel: rain-streaked and sustain-soaked keyboard refrains, muted drums, bloodthirsty harpsichords, ad-libs so muffled that they sound ghostly. Metro understands the power of restraint, and the minor-key evilness of Without Warning is what immediately makes it more arresting than last week’s big Atlanta rap blockbuster collaboration, Future and Young Thug’s Super Slimey. Future and Thug are two rappers with bigger names, deeper gifts, and heavier influence than Savage or Offset. But those Metro beats make Without Warning resonate in ways that Super Slimey never could.
In its seasonal charms, Without Warning reminds me of another cultural product timed to come out just as Halloween was hitting: the second season of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Like Stranger Things, Without Warning draws much of its power from the ominous ’80s-horror-movie synth tones that soundtrack it. Like Stranger Things, Without Warning is more interested in comfort than in actual scares; it’s a machine built out of familiar things, put together with slick competence. And like Stranger Things, Without Warning comes with a real risk of backlash, especially since the young people involved are all dancing on the edge of overexposure.
Right now, as Without Warning enters the world, 21 Savage has a verse on the #1 song in the country. Offset had his own #1 earlier this year, and he and the other Migos have spent all of 2017 capitalizing on it, showing up on literally dozens of other people’s songs, with decidedly mixed results. (Without Warning isn’t a solo album, but who would’ve guessed, a year ago, that Offset, rather than Quavo, would be the first Migo to come out with his own non-Migos project?) Before Without Warning was even out, Offset was on three of the top 10 most-streamed songs on Apple Music. Metro, too, has had his biggest-ever year, thanks to “Bad & Boujee” and “Mask Off.” And even as Metro changes up his sound to something low-key and dark, there’s the sense that Atlanta trap is no longer at rap music’s vanguard, that people are going to get sick of seeing these guys everywhere the same way they got sick of seeing the Stranger Things kids rapping at the Golden Globes or whatever.
But the second season of Stranger Things is good! (Or, anyway, the first four episodes are good; that’s all I’ve had time for thus far.) That’s a show built out of recombined parts, one that preys on cultural memories more than it creates its own. But the people making that show know what they’re doing, and the season came out at the exact point in the year when I was ready for something like that. Without Warning works the same way. It’s a low-stakes album, and it’s not going to be a major career milestone for anyone involved. The three guys who made it haven’t even bothered to pose for a photo together. Its 10 songs are over in half an hour, and it would’ve gotten boring fast if they’d tried to make it any longer. But the album hits all its marks, and it’s coming out at the exact right moment. I’m writing this column on Halloween, when it feels fresh and new and perfectly timed. I don’t know if I’ll listen to it past today. But who says art has to last forever? My kids’ Halloween-candy piles aren’t going to last long, either, but they still brought a whole lot of pleasure. And sometimes an album will come along, sound perfect in the moment, and disappear forever. That’s fine. That means it did its job.
1. Big K.R.I.T. – “Big Bank” (Feat. T.I.)
Before Without Warning showed up, I was planning on writing this week’s column about Big K.R.I.T.’s massive, overstuffed indie-rap double album 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time, a record that seems beamed in from a very different time. It’s a good album. You should hear it. It gets a bit overlong and ponderous, just like virtually every double album ever. But when K.R.I.T. is on, he’s an unstoppable force. And on “Big Bank,” we get the distinct pleasure of hearing him rapping alongside T.I., the man whose flow always seemed like one of K.R.I.T.’s chief inspirations.
2. Skepta – “Ghost Ride” (Feat. A$AP Rocky & A$AP Nast)
It’s been a while since Rocky has sounded this fluid on any of his own songs, and those heavy pianos pull great menace out of Skepta. Nast sounds great on this, too, which is almost never the case when random A$AP guys show up on songs with bigger rappers.
3. Trippie Redd & Lil Wop – “Gleam”
Trippie Redd and Lil Wop are two of the bigger names in the rising SoundCloud-rap wave, but they spend way too much of their new collaborative EP Angels & Demons whining about girls. Their whining sounds way, way better when it’s applied to flossier ends, as it is here.
4. Jeezy – “Cold Summer” (Feat. Tee Grizzley)
A younger Jeezy helped start the whole Atlanta trap wave more than a decade ago, but what he was doing then sounds worlds removed from what’s happening now. But put him alongside a gifted street-rap pseudo-traditionalist like Tee Grizzley and he makes perfect sense.
5. Migos – “Motor Sport” (Feat. Nicki Minaj & Cardi B)
Cardi B won.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
imagine being excited about a Migos tape where Quavo is 21 Savage and Takeoff is also 21 Savage
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) November 1, 2017