21 Savage Somehow Made A Good Album
“I love all people.” That’s something that 21 Savage wrote on Twitter on Christmas Day. This was telling. 21 Savage came to fame by cannily broadcasting the idea that he loved no people, least of all himself. He was a muttering wraith, promising death to anyone who might say a sideways word about him. But that was then. With those early insurgent records, 21 Savage got himself noticed. He became popular. He achieved some level of rap stardom. And then he had to take the necessary steps to maintain that rap stardom, which is a much harder thing to do.
Here’s the context for the “love all people” thing: 21 Savage had just released his i am > i was album. On a song called “asmr,” he’d rapped this line: “We been getting that Jewish money, everything is Kosher.” LeBron James had quoted that lyric in an Instagram caption. He had then apologized for quoting that lyric. And so 21 Savage then had to apologize. In response to that mini-PR storm, he wrote that “the Jewish people I know are very wise with there money,” a line that’s slightly more endearing because we know that a publicist didn’t write it for Savage. (Or if it was a publicist, then it was a publicist who does not know the difference between there and their.)
The Jewish people I know are very wise with there money so that’s why I said we been gettin Jewish money I never thought anyone would take offense I’m sorry if I offended everybody never my intention I love all people
— Saint Laurent Don (@21savage) December 25, 2018
Now: That “Jewish money” line is both offensive and dumb, based in ancient stereotypes. It’s also nowhere near the dumbest or most offensive 21 Savage lyric. Savage was still using homophobic slurs on 2017’s Issa Album. There’s nothing like that on i am > i was. There are, however, many lyrics about killing people, or about treating sex as a status symbol. There’s a song where Savage raps about empathy for a woman — “You a star player, and he benched you / In your corner, I’d never go against you” — but only after he’d promised to “pass her to the gang” on the very same song. And there are also plenty of generally inoffensive but straight-up forehead-slap stupid lyrics: “I’m hanging with killers, serial / Still in the hood eating cereal,” “Malcolm might get killed in the middle.”
None of this is new. 21 Savage rose to fame despite a one-dimensional character, and despite entry-level rap abilities that everyone acknowledged. Or maybe he rose to fame because of those deficiencies. On 2016’s Savage Mode, the great EP that Savage and Metro Boomin put out together, Savage radiated all-consuming menace. He was a snarling demon who didn’t bother to raise his voice when he was issuing death threats. And in the years since that EP, Savage’s rap peers have used him as a mood, as someone who can show up to supply chilly intensity on guest verses but who never overshadows anyone else on a track. When Savage tried to flesh out his persona over the length of an entire album, he struggled. Issa Album had moments, but as a whole, it was an incompetent mess. Writing about it at the time, I wondered if 21 Savage was simply not an albums artist — if his strengths just would not work for more than 25 minutes at a time. I am now happy to eat those words.
I am > i was is no masterpiece, but it’s still a better 21 Savage album than I would’ve thought possible. There are reasons for this. For one thing, i am > i was is the first major post-Astroworld album. Astroworld, Travis Scott’s massive 2018 blockbuster, was not one of my favorite rap albums of last year, but it might turn out to be the most important. With Astroworld, Scott figured out how to take circa-now trap sounds and turn them into grand cinematic experiences. It’s an incoherent album with a limited rapper at its center, but it sounds lush and expensive, and it’s full of big-name guests, all of whom show up unannounced, their names not given the usual feature credits.
With i am > i was, Savage follows that blueprint almost exactly. Like Scott, Savage only barely announced the album before releasing it. Like Scott, Savage features some big collaborators, but he doesn’t advertise those features in the tracklist. Like Scott, Savage has teamed up with producers who have filled out his usual sound with soul samples and expansive textures. And like Scott, Savage has at least hinted at something like depth.
The first time you listen to i am > i was, the first things you’ll notice will be the guest appearances. On opening track “a lot,” J. Cole offers some half-formed thoughts about Tekashi 6ix9ine, a rapper who would probably never apologize for talking about Jewish money: “Pray for Tekashi, they want him to rot / I picture him inside a cell in a cot / Reflecting on how he made it to the top / Wondering if it was worth it or not.” (This is classic Cole, giving off a whiff of thoughtfulness without actually committing to any stances.) On “monster,” Childish Gambino contributes his only rap guest verse of 2018, recalling the moment that he jumped on the late Fredo Santana’s 2014 track “Riot,” becoming the first person I’d ever heard rapping about driving a Tesla. “All my friends” (which has nothing to do with LCD Soundsystem) is really a Post Malone song with a 21 Savage verse. “Can’t leave without it” is really a Lil Baby/Gunna song with a 21 Savage verse. “Good day” is a Schoolboy Q/Project Pat song with a 21 Savage hook but no 21 Savage verse.
All of that stuff (including the Post Malone song, which is about as good as Post Malone songs get) is fun. None of it is responsible for making i am > i was a worthwhile album. Instead, that comes down to Savage himself, who has quietly been turning himself into an interesting character and a better rapper over the past year or so. On “asmr,” Savage raps in a forbidding whisper, something he first tried on Metro Boomin’s “Don’t Come Out The House” a month before he released his own album. On “ball w/o you,” Savage breaks into a full falsetto, a gloriously unlistenable sound even when it’s smothered in Auto-Tune. Elsewhere, he dips in and out of double-time flows, showing serious development from the halting entry-level snarl that used to be his only trick.
But more to the point, he’s developed into a character, not just a persona. Savage is no longer dating Amber Rose, but when they were together, he was a vulnerably public figure. If you were paying any attention to rap Twitter during that time, you saw Savage supporting Amber on one of her Slut Walks, or allowing her to subject him to Green Day. Savage has said that “ball w/o you” is a generalized breakup song, one that’s not specifically about Amber, but it definitely builds on what we already know about him. And it shows an intriguing tension between the let-down feelings that Savage displays and the harsh way he kicks it all off: “I was getting some head earlier, and you crossed my mind.”
That’s awkward, and dumb, and funny, and it rattles around in my mind for a while. The same thing happens on “letter 2 my momma,” Savage’s love song for his mother. During the confessional part of the song, things escalate quickly: “I did some things when I was young that broke your heart / I’m the one that stole the cookies out the jar / I’m the one that went and stole the neighbors’ car.” Cookies and the neighbors’ car are not the same thing! I’m not even sure if those lines constitute good rapping or not, but they force you to think about them.
And Savage’s mordant sense of humor has been coming out more and more, too. On i am > i was, he brags about receiving an autographed assault rifle from Osama Bin Ladin and about having bullets so big that he might shoot from Atlanta and hit someone in Belgium. He warns you that, if you keep talking shit, your mother might have to start a GoFundMe campaign. He offers the least sexy sex simile I have heard in a long time: “Got a model and she tighter than a grill plier.” He brags that he wears Fendi condoms. He’s still using that same violent-young-zombie persona, but he’s getting looser with it, seeing just how ridiculous he can get.
And there are also moments where Savage gets emotionally open, another new thing for him. That happens on “ball w/o you,” but it also happens when he talks about his own bloody past in matter-of-fact ways. He lays out an origin story in two lines: “My brother lost his life, and it turned me to a beast / My brother got life, and it turned me to the streets.” He considers the terrible things he’s done, and the terrible things that have been done to him: “All these days bodies got me seeing strange things / Both sides of the gun, I done dealt and felt the pain.” He muses that, back when he was pulling robberies, he would’ve killed everyone in a house to get the watch that he now wears. He plainly says that he has PTSD.
21 Savage still isn’t a great rapper. Maybe he never will be. But he’s an intriguing one, and he’s finding ways to remain intriguing beyond the shock value that was so central to his initial appeal. With i am > i was, he’s punching above his weight, releasing a pretty-good album that’s much better than it had to be. He’s shown growth, both as a rapper and a public figure. And who knows? Maybe he really does love all people.
1. Valee: “About U” (Feat. DRAM)
Valee is a rapper, not a singer, and yet he sings on “About U.” DRAM is a singer, not a rapper, and yet he raps on “About U.” Both of them are having fun, and both of them are fun to hear. This would be a Christmas miracle, but Valee has effectively trained us to expect things like this to happen.
2. O.T. Genasis: “Bae”
Absolutely everything “O.T. Genasis” says is catchy. He radiates otherworldly confidence, and he clowns your “unpaid ticket and a Groupon,” so I don’t really care that there’s nothing remotely original about him.
3. Wiki: “Elixir” (Feat. JJ & Obongjayar)
Why does Wiki, a rapper who sounds like a cartoon about New York accents, sounds so good next to British rappers? And why do they sound so good next to him?
4. YFN Lucci: “Guapo Season” (Feat. Blac Youngsta & YFN Kay)
“I sold dope to all my teachers” is the very definition of “weird flex, but OK.” “Water feature, I don’t need ya,” on the other hand, is just a great flex.
5. Key! & Kenny Beats: “Remember Me” (Feat. Rico Nasty)
Kenny Beats and his various associated collaborators are about to have a hell of a year. This beat is so stressfully bugged-out that I didn’t even mind its total lack of Coco-soundtrack samples.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
my favorite 21 savage quirk is his yearly 12 car garage updates:
2016: “why you got a 12 car garage?”
2017: “they like ‘savage why you got a 12 car garage / and you only got 6 cars?’”
2018: “why you got a 12 car garage? / cause i bought 6 new cars”
— my otter academia (@ottergawd) December 21, 2018