“21 GRAMMYS, I’m a savage nigga.”
I remember the thrilling shock that surged through my body moments after hearing JAY-Z reference 21 Savage. It was an honest surprise, unexpected like watching President Obama brush off his shoulders or Tom Cruise replicate Yung Joc’s motorcycle dance. The line is far from his most clever, and the verse he delivered on “Shining” isn’t 4:44 caliber, but the acknowledgment of a newcomer like 21 further proved his rise was being witnessed by everyone in hip-hop―leaders of the old and new school.
Drake was one of the first elite artists to boost 21's stock, throwing the East Atlanta street rapper on “Sneakin'.” Now the young Savage is somewhere in a low-light Los Angeles restaurant feeding expensive chocolate to Amber Rose, far from the terrifying reality that I wrote about when he first began to receive attention from music blogs.
Next week will commemorate the one-year anniversary of Savage Mode, the collaborative album with Metro Boomin that propelled 21 Savage from buzzing new artist to budding star. He found radio success with “X,” a malicious stunt record with a verse from Future that allowed his inner savage to shine. The single was so hot that a Platinum plaque was eventually awarded, a huge trophy for the two red clay brethren. “No Heart,” a less aggressive “Red Opps,” was another single that did moderately well; once you threaten to commit drive-bys on the home of your adversary's mother, though, there’s little left that can top that.
Even though his singles did well, Savage Mode as a whole was an impressive formal introduction. Metro and 21 Savage created an atmosphere that was dark and moody, with lyrics and production that were a match made in cold-hearted heaven. Records like “Bad Guy,” “Feel It” and “Ocean Drive” are the icicle imagery of an authentic street rapper. When the bragging and boasting cease, you get the portrait of an artist who is a survivalist; who turned his grimy tales into an escalating rap career.
Now, almost one year later, 21 has returned with Issa Album, his official debut named after a viral clip from 2016. Prior to the release, 21 tweeted the names of the album's producers: Metro Boomin, Pi'erre Bourne, Southside, Wheezy, DJ Mustard and Zaytoven. While little else is known about the record, the producer credits alone tells us that 21 is following up Savage Mode with an elite group who all specialize in big singles and bigger trap bangers.
Unlike Savage Mode, which was a one rapper-one producer effort, Issa will allow 21 a chance to showcase a bit more range with the expanded palette of producers. There have already been a handful of notable summer releases (4:44, Big Fish Theory) but don’t be surprised if 21 slides in with the heatrock that will run July—he did it last year.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Issa a 1-listen review!
Famous Savage. Starting with some mellow piano keys, light with a bit of character. The Zaytoven tag confirms what was already known, while Metro's tag confirms its a tag team effort. Drums hit, but not too hard. Issa chill mood. Savage is juxtaposing his past and present, the darkness of his yesteryears and the beauty of his current day prosperity. Strong. This is the portrait of a survivor who still can’t go anywhere without his strap. He reminds me of when T.I. was doing Trap Muzik but even more tormented. It's really impressive to hear him being so honest about his circumstances. 21 is still talking about wacking niggas in traffic while musing on the difficulties of keeping up with fashion. I laughed. We got a few Auto-Tune drenched notes when he switched the flow up, you can tell by the unnatural strain of his voice. It was weird but cool. “The internet won’t help you understand me” is one of my favorite, most relatable bars of 2017. So many good one liners. This is cool, I just wish the beat was a bit more cinematic. It’s far from a flashy instrumental and Savage doesn’t keep his energy level high enough to keep listeners all the way engaged. “I’m a street nigga, yeah I’m famous,” this is a fact. Closing with the Zay keys, pleasant. A good intro, I'll come back to it.
2. "Bank Account"
I'm expecting a money counter sound effect. BOOM! The drums came in with the vengeance of a pissed off Freddy Krueger trying to get revenge on Jason. Hard! I know these keys, I believe they're from "On Dis Side," the Travis Scott record. Not bad, not bad. 21 is floating on a gangster magic carpet. Production wise, this feels like something out of a movie. Gotham City vibes. I really like 21’s delivery, he's finding comfort in searching for new pockets. He just counted all the M’s he has in his bank account. Ha. He just counted his shooters. He has a shooter for every M in his bank account. 21 Savage is a genius. “Want to tweet about me get you killed dog,” remind me to never tweet anything bad about 21 Savage. What makes 21’s music thrilling is the fact you believe every word. There’s no separation of fact and fiction, every lyric could come true. Don't be the one that Savage puts on the Summer Jam Screen or the evening news. Mad Max and Chingy references on the same song, hilarious. I would have loved the intro lyrics over this beat, but beggers can’t be choosers. This is a strong record and not a single money counter effect. Who said rappers are predictable?
3. "Close My Eyes"
Mumbling about dirty glocks. He just threatened to put you on the evening news. Don’t be the one. 21 needs to be a character in the next Call Of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. He has to be. I like the build up. Metro tag and the drop stayed true to his name. “Close My Eyes” sounds like an extra from Savage Mode. “Feel like the last real rapper left,” I’m pretty sure this is going to cause a few unnecessary responses. The production is starting to grow on me, like being pulled deeper into a nightmare. He’s doing this oddly amusing vocal exercise where he says “for real bitch, not for real bitch.” The beat is becoming even more menacing. “I see dead bodies when I close my eyes dog.” That’s the kind of line that will send a chill down your spine. I take back what I said about this being a Savage Mode throwaway. That could be true, but 21 just found his stride and the chemistry between his voice and the beat is better than free WiFi. No bars, no punchlines, all threats. It's strange how the songs feel much longer than they did on Savage Mode like 21 has a lot more to get off his chest. Every time he mentions not being able to sleep the hair on my arms stand up. Again, I believe every word. These are raps of a man who has seen hell more than once. “If you froze up last time you can’t ride dog,” street rules 101. 21 just asked if I ever did a homicide or made a nigga momma cry and I’m frightened. “They killed one so we gonna kill five, nigga,” gangster rap lives in 21 Savage. Vince Staples has never said anything this cold. There’s a blizzard in his veins, a snow globe where his heart used to be.
4. "Bad Business"
Nah. The end of that song took the darkest turn. JESUS! THE BOOM! This has to be Southside. It felt like a mini bomb just went off in my ear drums. And this snare is cracking! I don’t know, man, I’m still dealing with what I just heard. 21 can’t go from talking about killing five niggas to going on baecations. Life doesn’t work like that. First verse is pretty slick, just an overload of sexual innuendos and savage remarks. Savage Mode 21 21 21. This is good. A lot of flow switches. Another Mad Max reference, I’m pretty sure he’s a big fan of the movie or saw it during the making of Issa. Hennessy and Xans sound like a terrible combination, probably worse than orange juice and cow milk. Is it too late to cast 21 Savage as the super villain for Black Panther? Production is bananas, easily the hardest hitter of the album thus far but it was hard to follow up “Close My Eyes.”
5. "Baby Girl"
Predicting this will be simp savage. Nope. Shit talking Savage. He just compared himself to a blizzard. WOOOO! NOW THIS IS A BANGER. The kind of music that will make you update your car speakers and have the neighbors calling the cops and then running from them. 21's ear for beats is near Rick Ross level. When he finds the one, it's the one. I'm starting to feel like the last few records have been freestyled. No real hook, no real structure, just 21 boasting. YOOO!!! DID 21 JUST SAY SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION IN A RAP!? THAT WAS IMPRESSIVE. I don’t even know if the reference made sense but the fact he fit all that into his nimble flow was a moment. He's really into movies. Mad Max references and don't forget the Menace II Society inspired music video. Free flowing boasting, less focused on crafting songs and just really getting bars off. If SZA gave women a caption for the summer, 21 Savage is here for the men. Crazy one-liners. Freestyle Savage is cool, production is really the star of this song but hearing 21 request his girl do the bunny hop on his dick is also a hilarious highlight. We have to kill the “suck me like a lollipop” lyrics, I feel like Wayne pretty much buried that back in 2008.
6. "Thug Life"
Sample loop. Very Metro-esque. Not exactly sure what it is, feels like a '90s R&B record. En Vogue? I need to brush up on my '90s R&B. You know how a drum drop can electrify a record? This drop could’ve lit up a Christmas tree. It felt like Static Shock is behind the boards. Oh! This is AMAZING. Okay, Freestyle Savage has been replaced by Introspective Savage, a far more enthralling rapper. “I slept with rats and roaches that’s why I don’t smoke no roaches,” I hear you 21. Trap soul records need to take over the rest of 2017. Of course, Tupac was referenced, inevitable. By far the best song on the album. Somedays, I think about how 21 Savage got his first Macbook and microphone from a home invasion—I wonder what happened to the rapper he robbed? Does he quit and get a job or buy a new Macbook and Mic? What he doesn't do is confront 21, that's for sure. These are things that I ask myself on rainy days. Back to the record, "Thug Life" is an early favorite and I'm only half way through. Drum pattern switch. This flip is sweet! If this is Metro, he’s really flexing some new muscles. A Donald Trump presidential reference, oh no Savage. Followed by a Denzel reference. I have to say this kid is entertaining. Reminiscing Savage is my favorite Savage. Some of his best imagery by far. “We used to jump niggas now we jump in crowds.” The kind of song that will have you considering getting Issa tatted across the stomach. A++.
Another loop. DJ Mustard on the beat. Musically the beat feels like it should've gone to Rihanna or Drake. I sorta like this change in Mustard’s style. We finally get Simp Savage and he sounds like a flirting Macho Man Randy Savage. Nothing about this song is Savage. Not a single thing. Wait? Did Mustard flip the SZA joint? That’s what it sounds like.. “I’m too drunk to text so can we Facetime” is the line of the summer. We are getting Shakespearian Savage, the Romeo hip-hop needs. This song is pretty cringing, singing isn’t his forte. “Girl, I wanna taste yours if you gon' taste mine” in Auto-Tune makes me want to put my ears in a microwave. This is definitely a record fit for intoxication. It’s not “X” but this could be a single. A painful single. In the club, after a few drinks, this is going to ring off. Just make sure that you're shitfaceD enough not to realize 21 Savage is serenading you. Dope breakdown. I wish Mustard would’ve gifted this beat to someone with the range to make this a real winner.
8. "Nothin New"
Moody. These are keys fit for a funeral. I like the change in tone, we need some somberness to wash away what just happened. Zaytoven tags, but these soul tingling make that obvious. Metro tag. Another tag team attempt and this is the one. The keys and drums are working in unison, the kind of foundation to pour your heart out. 21 is doing just that, putting his thumping igloo on the beat. You can hear in his tone, this is a deeply personal record. “Lost his faith in Jesus Christ he praying to a bandanna.” A Black Lives Matter reference, this is the most grabbing song yet. He’s not talking about himself but the hood. You can tell he’s a product of his environment. He's speaking for all the hood boys who also come from the same background. “Used to sell dope now I can’t vote, popping Percocets to kill the pain.” So many lines! Mentioned Martin Luther King and how the hood was flooded with coke because of the Civil Rights movement. Man. Caught a slight chill listening to this. There’s nothing new happening that hasn’t been happening but the sad reality is the cycle he speaks of isn’t helping. The hood is the hood. Great song. One of 21’s most pure offerings.
These personal records are so good, so far the highs on Issa. I understand why he has to mix up the records, though. This album would’ve been heart wrenching without a few timeouts. We need the bangers. This is another record for the soul. 21 knows he’s an authentic street rapper and he’s giving the most authentic image of where he came from. I felt a punch to the gut hearing him say he kept secrets from his momma. “I’m having nightmares that the feds listening.” I don’t think 21 has had a good night of sleep since leaving the womb. Someone get my man some sleeping pills. “Numb the pain with the money.” Escapism is one of the loudest themes that can be found on this album. 21 doesn’t necessarily suffer from survivor's guilt, he’s proud that he’s removed himself from the darker days, but he also can’t forget where he came from. Almost like PTSD. “Numb” feels like the sequel to “Ocean Drive.” The final line about who would’ve thought he could make it rapping sounded like it came from a surreal place, as if deep down he’s surprised how far he’s gotten. Metro tag at the end. He killed this one. Sheesh, this album took a dark turn, I don’t want another “FaceTime” but a little light would be appreciated.
10. "Dead People"
A change of pace! Sadly, trap bangers are good in small doses but after a while, the production starts to feel repetitive. This is a case where the beat is not distinguished enough to be memorable. Even 21 Savage starts to feel as if he’s repeating similar thoughts. There’s a somberness to this record that I enjoy, but the last few have kept the same energy. Ha. This is a short one. It’s cool. Wouldn’t call it a keeper but I wouldn’t skip it. Just wish this album had a bit more life! No pun.
11. "Money Convo"
OHHH!!!! NOW WE TALKING! This has some deep bass from the bottom of the map. This is rattling my computer, Harlem Shake through the pressure music. Now this is the Savage that we all know! I would love to hear Rick Ross do a grunt on this beat. What’s interesting about 21 is how much confidence he exudes. The way he looks down on people you would think he stood 7 feet tall. It works with his branding. This is a banger! From the flow to the hooks, this is Savage back in Savage Mode. 21 Savage called himself humble, I don’t know if he knows what humble means. It’s probably the last word I would use to describe the rapper but maybe the man is a different story. I really like this. Future or Rick Ross would have made this record a monster. I'm surprised by the lack of features. Savage is trying to go Platinum with no features. Yep. This is a winner. I can see this one being the street anthem. Metro has started to put his tags at the end and what’s interesting is they don’t sound like traditional Metro beats.
Simp Savage is back. 21 Savage making love songs is like Dracula writing love letters to girls he wants to bite. Like A Pimp Name Slickback buying Valentine's Day gifts or like Michael Jordan apologizing to Chamillionaire. All these things are weird. This is not okay. Remember when Amber Rose had Wiz singing “Roll Up”? Yeah, I’m blaming her for this. I’m happy that Savage has found him a Ms. Savage but she should ban him from Marvin’s Room. This is painful but I would love a Flavor Flav-style For The Love of 21 Savage series. Can you imagine that? He just tried to hit a note that wasn’t meant to be. Let's stop the madness. Some expressions of love shouldn’t be shared, keep it on Snapchat and away from the studio. For the love of Ray J, never again.
13. "Whole Lot"
21 Savage is the fighter who should never try to be a lover. Lean cup in the booth. Young Thug's voice! Issa knife reference. 21 has done all the lean talking and Thug is the first time you hear the ice shake. OH! Okay. There’s a weight to his voice that is perfectly attuned with the bass. This beat sounds like midnight drives and running red lights. Young Thug doing the ad-libs for 21 is friendship goals. These two have an interesting chemistry, it's unfortunate that the “Issa” song didn’t make the album. No hook, literally just bars and Thugger libs. Would like this more if the album was a bit shorter, again, the repetitiveness tends to hurt 21 when it comes to albums. He’s able to set different moods but repeating similar sentiments begins to drag. No Thug verse, sadly, but this one is cool. Another banger Metro.
14. "7 Min Freestyle"
I’m hoping that this is joke. I really hope this isn’t a seven-minute freestyle. I'm hoping for a four-minute freestyle with the rest of the time dedicated to him shouting out the Slaughter Gang or something. Metro and Southside on the beat, it’s pretty much if a T-Rex and King Kong did the fusion dance and performed the east side stomp in the studio. Okay, we’re a minute in and I’m wondering who thought this was a good idea. Everything good about this 21 Savage album has been erased in under four minutes. He has some funny lines but it’s too late to laugh. Joe Budden was the last time a rapper had me sitting through a seven-minute song. No, it was when Ab-Soul battled Daylyt and I’m not even 100% I finished that track. Halfway through. I’m impressed he hasn’t ran out of breath. He just called someone a shrimp. 21's effort here reminds me of those freestyle sessions after school. OK, he's starting to sound a bit winded. I’m actually impressed that, despite the simplicity of the bars, he’s still going five minutes later with no break. “No trigger finger I got a trigger hand,” hahaha. Imagine 21 shooting someone with his pinky. “I can’t respect a nigga with cornrows.” OH! Allen Iverson would like a word. Last minute. I'm trying to savor this moment because this will be the last time I will ever hear this track. Yep. He’s starting to fumble. “Fuck 12 no seat belt.” Wear seatbelts, kids.
Not a single soul asked for that seven-minute freestyle. I admire his dedication to the craft but there’s such thing as an overzealous performance. Never again.
Overall, I’m pleased with most of Issa Album. Excluding the love songs, an unforeseen attempt at showing a softer Savage, Issa Album expands on some of the strengths that made Savage Mode a good overall project.
21’s one-liners are memorable, he can be hilariously spiteful or brutally candid; the terse approach to lyricism allows him to wedge a mountain of reflection or boast into each verse. He tends to pick a perspective, but some of my favorite moments are when he contrasts past and present. It gives this complete image of the struggles that came before his success.
Even at 14 tracks, the album is a bit long, almost like they wanted to make sure no piece of his personality was left out. Shorter would’ve been better, Savage Mode length, but at least he wasn't taking cues from DJ Khaled.
When 21 peels back the layers of his life prior to rap, the mood is somber, and the sex and money juxtapose the pain and torment, giving us a balance of his highs and lows. The most authentic street rapper continues to keep it realer than most. Hip-hop’s most savage artist has a heart, he has scars that still burn, and he enjoys the luxury of high fashion and foreign cars. Issa Album does an excellent job painting a complete picture of 21. There's more than one side to this Savage.
Early Favorites: "Close My Eyes," "Thug Life," "Nothin New"
Early Not-So-Favorites: "FaceTime," "Special," "7 Minute Freestyle"
By Yoh, aka Issa Yoh, aka @Yoh31