21 Savage, the name says it all.
Atlanta’s latest street rapper might be more street than rapper. There are no lies in his lyrics, the settings that he describes sound like recollections, reliving the moments that have happened or things that he’s prepared to do. Authentic is the word that has been used most when his name is mentioned, he’s real, a street rapper that is truly a savage, one listen to his music is all it takes to realize this. There’s a touch of realism that makes his stories about pulling up with the sticks and kids catching stray bullets while playing hopscotch very chilling. In his world girls are slaughtered before going to church, aunties are dope fiends with locked jaws, rounds are shot into mother homes, the plug is robbed and best friends are killed before they can truly live a life.
Imagine if O-Dog moved to Atlanta at the end of Menace II Society and became a rapper, that’s 21 Savage—raw, wild, and destructive. There's more pain than glory, more pain than fun, all the drugs, sex, and violence are to help cope with the nightmarish reality. It’s being embraced, he’s starting to pick up steam, from the streets to the internet his name is being mentioned with praise and a hint of fear. The FADER ran a profile on 21, and Noisey has covered him because, of course, Noisey has covered him. The fear is the reason for the praise.
With only two mixtapes on Soundcloud, there’s not much music to digest. It’s enough to see that he is following the same path of Chief Keef and Bobby Shmurda, selling his life in exchange for entrance into the music industry. The more real the better and he knows it. If rappers like Rick Ross can create a character and profit from a life that's largely imagined, why not enter the same business with a story that is delivered without worrying about if it’s genuine?
In one of his few interviews, a journalist asked 21 Savage about his history in the streets. He opens up about an incident that happened back in middle school, where a kid was talking slick and led him to bring a gun the next day. He reflects on the altercation with no remorse, even though the action got him expelled from every school in DeKalb County. It’s different hearing him talk about the things he raps about, without a beat banging in the background you have to confront the severity of his words. It’s the same with Future, coming to terms with what he raps versus how he lives. 21 Savage is truly a product of the streets in the darkest sense, with dead friends tattooed on his skin and a heart colder than a blanket of snow, he’s not fabricating a life.
It’s expected that you are a living testament to what you say on the record. Don’t proclaim being the shooter if you never shot anyone, don’t boast about the bricks unless your life resembles Avon Barksdale, keeping it real is a quality that is respected above all. In retrospect, the audience that you appeal to that is likely to buy and support your musical endeavors aren’t a product of that same environment. In the 21 Savage profile piece with Fader, Metro Boomin called him, “one of the last street niggas still making music,” for a producer that has benefited from supplying trap beats to trap rappers to indicate there’s a drought of realness in the music speaks volumes.
Once you realize that the inspiration for this music is based on real events, it’s almost like that scene in the Vince Staples music video, where you’re looking at these people through glass like a zoo. It’s like a movie, there’s a rush that you feel when hearing lyrics that you will never live but you find a connection with the words. To you, they are just words but to them, it’s rooted in truth, Mitch catching a body went from a hot rap line to him facing life in prison. It’s a sickening reality, the entertainment that is sought after is “real” until it gets too real.
Eminem never killed Kim in real life but there’s an entire song about how her murder would unfold. With humor that tends to lean toward dark and gruesome, Eminem spent most of his career being crude enough to be a South Park character. His music is filled with narratives that are far from pretty. Slim Shady was no saint, his vileness knew no limit even though Eminem was far from the villain in his real life. Eminem, the man, just wanted to rap and take care of his daughter. For all the headlines he has made throughout the years, almost all of them have been for what he says, not what he's done. He’s not a street rapper—he's never claimed to live the street life—but a lot of the images that came to life when he rapped also had a touch of realism. That touch is what drew people in; they could laugh at the bully that punches the kid while he’s pissing in the bathroom because the principal joined in. There was a bully who used to pound him—beat him black and blue—but on an album where everyone is a menace, it’s barely a noticeable detail. Those levels of savagery are nowhere near the father that’s burying his former lover while their daughter sits and ideally watches. It’s the hyper-realism of Eminem’s world that produced shock value, but he could do it without being worried about having to keep it real. Writing Kim didn’t mean he had to actually kill Kim. How thin is the line where realism and authenticity come into play?
Eminem never actually killed his wife, but the feeling that leads him to make the song is what people connected with. The rage and frustration that is built up when caught in a toxic relationship will have you imagining doing terrible things to a person you love. Some people take these momentary feelings and make life-altering decisions. Eminem is one rapper that made his life relatable, he was the underdog that had just the right amount of talent and heart. His point-of-view at times was outrageous but once you filtered out the extremes it’s easy to see your own reflection. 21 Savage doesn’t leave his audience with the same room for connection. Buying a pistol with a 30 round clip is not the same as documenting a turbulent relationship. Over 550K viewers have watched 21 Savage’s “Red Opps,” but how many of them could actually, truly relate?
Slim Jesus was very open about being a fraud, instead of faking the funk, he embraced that fact he was an imitator and far from original. Even before he admitted the truth, one look at his video and you aren’t believing he waves guns in real life. 21 Savage has a completely different aura, it’s that same aura that has caused him to become a local sensation. I have friends reciting his lyrics even though they come from a completely different background. You don't have to live the life to enjoy the music, the same goes for mafia movies, you don't have to be the Godfather to enjoy Al Pacino. The difference with movies though, no one is checking the writer's background for authenticity. It's only entertainment until it's no longer something we can classify as entertaining.
If 21 Savage ends up getting 25 to life how will he be viewed? How will you feel about blasting his music on the way to your suburban school? If it turns out that he's lying this entire time, does his career end? Am I the only one that feels the infatuation with real is problematic?
You want to see these young kids get out of their situations, but music can be the gateway out of one problem and into another. The authentic gangster has to continue playing that role or risk being forgotten. Trapped in the trap regardless if you’re flipping actual bricks or rapping about them. 50 Cent is nine bullets away from being back on top. If you’re prepared to die trying the music industry will make you rich. I hope that 21 Savage is successful, that he's able to make a solid living for his two kids and mother, that music brings his life to a better place, because it certainly looks like his life has been a living hell, and apparently thousands are happy to watch him burn.
By Yoh, aka 25 Pacifist, aka @Yoh31