Morgan Freeman. Legend of stage and screen. Owner of one of the greatest contemplative-rumble voices ever captured. Capable of conveying warm, grandfatherly authority even at his grumpiest. Memphis native. Made his Broadway debut alongside Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway in a 1968 production of Hello, Dolly! Got his start on the kids’ public-TV show The Electric Company and doing Shakespeare off-Broadway. Has acted in nearly 100 movies. Got nominated for five Oscars. Won one. The Shawshank Redemption. Glory. Seven. Unforgiven. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Played the president in Deep Impact. Played God in Bruce Almighty. Celebrated his 83rd birthday this past summer. Shows up on Savage Mode II taking about “At least a snitch is human, but a rat is a fucking rat.”
21 Savage and Metro Boomin got Morgan Freeman to narrate Savage Mode II. Like this new album of cold-blooded gun talk was the Hall Of Presidents exhibit at Disney World. Like this was March Of The Penguins. Freeman’s monologues recall the spoken-word bits that Big Rube used to drop on Dungeon Family albums, and Metro Boomin actually claimed today that Big Rube wrote Freeman’s script. Talking to GQ, Freeman says, “I read the copy and was like, ‘Wow, there’s some wisdom in here.’ I think this is the way I think. It’s basically saying don’t suffer fools and when you want something, go for that.”
It’s an incredible hall-of-fame flex, a brilliant use of resources. I don’t know how they convinced Morgan Freeman to be on this album, and I’m not especially interested in finding out, either. (Morgan Freeman also narrated a whole lot of Visa commercials and The Love Guru, and his job offers have probably dried up a bit since he was accused of sexual harassment a couple of years ago. So it might not be that hard to get Morgan Freeman to narrate things.) What matters isn’t the backstory. What matters is the absurdist gravity of the gesture, the commitment to the bit.
It’s always been a bit. Four years ago, 21 Savage emerged, as if from a cloud of pink mist, on Savage Mode. He’d already made a name for himself as at Atlanta mixtape rapper, but Savage Mode was his big entrance onto the national stage. At the time, Savage was a pretty limited technical rapper without a ton of personality, so he made his limitations work for him. Savage had survived serious violence, including six gunshot wounds, and he fashioned a persona out of that violence. He depicted himself as a hissing wraith, a mythic murderer with no feelings. It worked.
A huge part of why it worked was Savage’s chemistry with Metro Boomin, already one of rap’s top producers. Metro immediately understood what type of music worked for Savage’s voice. He surrounded Savage with horror-movie sounds — eerie minor-key synths, muted slow-creep drums, tingly flute loops. Savage Mode was short — nine songs, half an hour — but it was exactly as long as it needed to be. It established Savage as a character, a figure of malevolence. It may have been too successful. After that, every indication that Savage was human seemed to work against the purity of Savage Mode.
In the years since Savage Mode, 21 Savage has rapped on huge songs from people like Post Malone and Cardi B, and he’s had plenty of hits himself. But every time Savage made any kind of pop concession, it seemed to go against his own character. His life, of course, was a whole lot more complicated than the effective but shallow persona that he presented to the public. Last year, ICE detained Savage and threatened him with deportation, even though he’d been living in America since the age of seven. The arrest was an outrage, a clear and purposeless example of a federal agency attempting to make an example of a famous person. (His case is still pending.) But at the time, a whole lot of people’s first instinct was to laugh. 21 Savage was British?
Savage Mode II isn’t exactly a back-to-basics move for Savage. He never pretends that he’s the same kid that he was on Savage Mode, and he even sounds a bit nostalgic when he raps about his days of running wild, beating people up in clubs. Savage never raps explicitly about his immigration case, but he’s free to be a bit more of a three-dimensional person, since he’s rapping for people who have watched him go through things in public. At times, Savage is vulnerable, as in all the points where he talks about an ex cheating on him. At times, he makes pop moves — including the Drake-abetted sex song “Mr. Right Now,” immediately infamous for the moment when Drake talks about dating a young, pre-fame SZA. Mostly, though, Savage Mode II is a work of sharpened focus and new confidence.
21 Savage is a better rapper now than he was in 2016. He has a better understanding of how to use his voice. He switches up flows, leaves sly little punchlines, and plays around with meter and delivery without ever lifting his delivery above a menacing whisper. I love the way he uses pauses on “Glock In My Lap”: “Body full of… scars/ Face full of… tats/ You pray on your… knees/ I pray to my… strap.” He’s got a quiet kind of fluidity, the kind that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s almost hard to notice how much he’s improved as a rapper in the past few years, but over repeated listens, it makes a difference.
It’s great to hear Metro Boomin operating at peak capacity, too. Savage Mode II is an album made with a sense of vision and cohesion. Metro’s music is deep and lush and absorbing, full of slick little touches like the mournful violin on the “Rich N***a Shit” outro. Some of these beats are just gorgeous: The woozy and echoing samples of Diana Ross on “Runnin'” and Stephanie Mills on “Said N Done,” the muffled 808 thunder of “Snitches & Rats,” the melancholy melodramatic swirl of “No Opp Left Behind.” On “Steppin On N***as,” Metro flips Rodney O & Joe Cooley’s “Everlasting Bass,” a 1988 rap classic that’s powered Southern rap stompers by people like Three 6 Mafia and Lil Wayne for decades. It’s an unforgiving beat, but Metro makes it work for Savage, and he even includes the classically minded touch of a DJ-scratch solo on the outro. When was the last time you heard one of those on an A-list rap album?
There are only a few guests on Savage Mode II, and all of them are deliberate choices. Drake is obvious. If you can get that guy, then you get him. (In a way, both Drake and Morgan Freeman show the scope of the thing.) Young Thug provides a counterpoint, melting all over “Rich N***a Shit” is ways that Savage himself would never do. And the presence of Young Nudy, Savage’s cousin, on “Snitches & Rats” speaks volumes. When ICE detained Savage last year, he and Nudy were arrested together. Now they’re here, defiant and unconquered, with Morgan Freeman declaiming wisdom about the differences between snitches and rats on their song intro. It’s weirdly aspirational.
21 Savage is a man of the people. That’s what the “Runnin'” video says. In that clip, people in Atlanta housing projects pass around the Grammy that Savage won earlier this year. That’s aspirational, too. It’s an extremely cool music video, though it would be cooler if I wasn’t worried about everyone involved getting COVID. (People making rap videos: Please wear masks! You’re stressing me out!)
In fact the whole presentation of Savage Mode II is extremely cool. Consider the cover art. On the first Savage Mode, Savage and Metro used imagery that seemed straight out of a ’70s giallo poster. For Savage Mode II, Savage and Metro went to Pen & Pixel, the legendary design firm who put together the famously gaudy art for dozens of albums from labels like No Limit and Cash Money in the late ’90s. The change in aesthetics makes sense. If the first album established Savage as a horror-movie villain, Savage Mode II places him in a grandly aspirational Southern rap lineage. The album itself, one of the best big-ticket rap albums of 2020, lives up to that hype. It’s proof that Savage belongs in that pantheon.
1. Bigg Jo, B. Ryan, & Payroll Giovanni – “West Side”
Detroit underground stalwart Payroll Giovanni always sounds best when he’s going in over smooth, laid-back approximations of ’90s G-funk. But I’m not sure he’s ever rapped on anything with this kind of effortless lope. This thing is sublime before Payroll even arrives on the song. When he spits his first line, it jumps up five levels. This is beautiful music.
2. Billy Bank$ – “Zaza”
This shit sounds to me like if circa-2012 Chief Keef was really into UK garage. I can’t even tell you what that does to my adrenaline levels.
3. YG – “Blood Walk” (Feat. D3szn & Lil Wayne)
YG’s new album isn’t anywhere near his best, but it’s a rock-solid collection of seasoned California tough-guy music. For me, its best moment is this, a breathless gang-talk lecture. Producers Mike Crook, Lethal, and Verrsaucy energetically chop up some flutes and Spanish guitars, and Lil Wayne is fully awake and chopping heads.
4. ALLBLACK – “No Time” (Feat. Offset Jim & Lil Bean)
“N***as try to knock me off, that’s gon’ be a mission/ You gotta fly to Philadelphia and start swimming.” Coming from a Bay Area rapper, that’s a hilariously specific and overstated threat. I also love how P-Lo’s beat sounds like it’s about to fall apart and then never does, and how calm all three rappers remain on a track this weird. The California post-hyphy underground hasn’t been getting a lot of national attention lately. We need to fix that. The music coming from that scene is just nuts.
5. Rio Da Yung OG, Youngaveli, Rmc Mike, & Slumlord Trill – “5 Minutes Of Fonk”
Larry Smith and Whodini’s “5 Minutes Of Funk” beat is now 36 years old, and it still goes irresponsibly hard. Flint remembers.