As of late, when I think of 21 Savage, a quote from British novelist Zadie Smith’s Dead Man Laughing essay comes to mind: “And that’s another reason to envy comedians: when they look at a blank page, they always know, at least, the question they need to ask themselves. I think the clarity of their aim accounts for a striking phenomenon, peculiar to comedy: the possibility of extremely rapid improvement.”
Smith is right. A comedian's goal is straightforward: make the audience laugh. Knowing and working toward this goal allows a comedian to experience growth at an exceptional rate. What rappers often seek from the public is respect, they want listeners to hear in their music someone that’s elite, someone exceptional. Each 21 Savage guest verse released in 2018 has strengthened the public’s opinion about his lyrical proficiency. His verses sound thoughtful, and humorous, balancing the authentic image he’s known for, and the developing artist the public didn’t expect him to be.
21 Savage’s haunting whisper flow on Metro Boomin’s “Don’t Come Out The House” is one of the most unforgettable moments of 2018. Both “10 Freaky Girls” and “No More,” two songs featured on Metro’s NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES album, further solidified how serious the East Atlanta rapper is taking his craft. The release of i am > i was, 21’s sophomore follow-up to Issa Album, comes just four days before Christmas.
If i am > i was continues his current streak of rap excellence, 21 Savage could enter 2019 as one of hip-hop’s most exciting artists. In 21 I trust.
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.
21, 21, 21.
1. " a lot" ft. J. Cole
DJ Dahi gave 21 the SOUL. Not how I expected the album to start. You could put these drums in Pookie’s pipe and he wouldn’t know the difference. This is good, really good. The "a lot" delivery is incredible. The sample Dahi used for the hook is something you wouldn’t expect on a 21 album. “My brother lost his life and it turned me into a beast.” Yep, he is in his Jansport. One of the most soulful, best-constructed intros I've heard this entire year. COLE! Holy shit. He just popped up with no invitation. I bet Cole is great at surprise parties. “How many faking their streams?” YEP. Let’s go COLE! The feature killer brought a gun to a knife fight. Was that a 6ix9ine line? Man, Cole's heart is big, maybe too big. I can’t get over how in the zone he is. This is a great verse. This is a great song. How many album intros also begin with a feature? That’s a ranking I wouldn’t mind writing. It goes without saying, keeper.
2. "break da law"
Southside drop. Metro tag! Trap music, baby. 21 is RAPPING. He sounds so comfortable, improving, the kind of rapper that’s simply enjoyable. Belly bar. Two songs in and he’s obviously leveled up beyond Issa Album. “Don’t you cross the gang dawg, we like barb wire.” LET'S GO! Savage is calling rappers biters. I don't want to jinx it, but I’m hoping i am > i was is to 21 what Trap Muzik was to T.I. So, so good. No hook, at least not one that I noticed. He got a lot of real talk off.
3. "a&t" ft. City Girls
FKi 1st drop. This beat is sounding better than a tax-free weekend. Yep, this is going to turn the strip club upside down. City Girls feature! The “Ass-N-Titties” interpolation is fire! Tuition will be paid to this song. I heard some of this record last night during the album release party. 21 turned an entire motel into an album installation right off Glenwood. Impressive is the word. This is a banger. He didn’t have to call out struggling strippers, lmao. The flow is so tight! City Girls and 21 made for a deadly combo. Three for three.
4. "out for the night"
My sister-in-law texted me saying this was her song. My expectations are pretty high. This beat belongs in Arkham. “Draco makes you put up that little Uzi,” yep, that’s a bar. The bounce is infectious. 21 has this seamless way of working hooks into verses. Everything works in unison. The hi-hats are HITTING. Savage is switching up these flows the way Brian Tyree Henry switch up acting roles. I need a remix of “Paper Boi” featuring 21.
5. "gun smoke"
This loop is ominous. I'm a little shook. Takes me back to Savage Mode when all his music sounded like it belonged in a haunted house. The whispering is a nice touch. Wonderful build-up with drums that didn’t disappoint. Based off how these records are constructed, 21 is paying attention to all parts of a song. This is an experience. The whisper ad-lib! This is war music. 21 will make you feel like there’s an AK-47 in your truck when it’s really a toolbox. He is on fire.
6. "1.5" ft. Offset
Production is incredible. Rapping has been a step up. This is a great album to end the year with. Loving this tempo. “I slept on my back so I didn’t have to cuddle,” a true savage. Another hard-hitting record. Is that a feature? OFFSET! Kulture’s dad came with the energy. This beat was made for him. This flow is putting on a show. Man, everyone is showing up and showing out on this album.
7. "all my friends" ft. Post Malone
Something moodier. Slowing things down a bit. Post Malone sounds good. “I lost all my friends counting bands” is a mood. This feels like a rightful successor to “Rockstar.” “Lost a few friends chasing money.” 21 talking that talk. Brought back up the 12 car garage line. The self-awareness is appreciated. This is going to be the anthem for all creatives focused on their future and not partying away the present. The beat dropping out on the Post hook is a spiritual moment. He's rapping like he means it. I hope Jeff Weiss doesn’t hate me when I send him this song. I love you, Jeff. “I don’t need no friends if you really want to know the truth” takes Drake’s “No New Friends” to the next level.
8. "can't leave without it" ft. Gunna & Lil Baby
This album is so good. These keys are serious. Very mood-inducing. Is that Gunna? The features have all be utilized in great ways. 21! This verse! 21 used to rob with no mask on, that says so much. He mentioned sneaking a gun in Lacura, the only club in Atlanta that I walked through a metal detector to get in. Shoutout DJ Tom Cruise. Fam, 21 said Osama bin Laden signed his tool. I’m no longer on this earth. Fam, 21 said your momma will have to make a GoFundMe. I’m no longer where I was when I left the earth. The Drip Harder duo is a great combination. I hope Gunna and Lil Baby are forever. I love hearing Lil Baby rap slower, he's far more relaxed. “Still getting money my label don't know about” IS A BAR. Bring this Baby verse back! Keeper.
Metro tag! I’m loving the sound of a sword being unsheathed. There’s so much growth in 21's rapping. Metro gave him a BEAT. The whisper! It’s a trick man. One of the best tricks of 2018. Flow is nasty. “I’m on Glenwood” true, true. These songs aren’t long, but he's fitting a lot in them. The stripes bar. The “One Mic” bar. Savage bringing Skype back. Someone cut him a check.
10. “ball w/o you”
Loving these keys. Light, warm, feel good. There hasn’t been a single miss yet. Yep! This is the record. “You just want attention.” This is Savage’s wholesome version of Future’s “Throw Away." "I rather have loyalty than love” is Shakespearean. Can we get a Romeo and Juliet remake starring 21? Someone call James Cameron. 21 said he got his heart broken in middle school and stopped writing love letters, a genius. The voice switches up. Not in love with it, but I appreciate the change. “Now I gotta ball without you” sounds like snark but also rather sad that said person isn’t here with him. I know the feeling.
11. “good day” ft. ScHoolboy Q & Project Pat
I’m hoping for an Ice Cube sample. Wait, I think this is better than anything I could’ve hoped for. This is Menace II Society music! This is Trap Muzik! ScHoolboy Q!!! DROP THE ALBUM, Top! Incredible. Guys and girls, ScHoolboy Q is RAPPING. What a hook. “Today was a good day my brother beat his case.” Is that a Three 6 sample? Sounds like it. PROJECT PAT! This flow! Everything about this song is perfect. I’m levitating. Savage let Pat and Q snap. Bravo.
12. "pad lock"
These beats, man. It’s like going to a buffet and all the food on your plate is exceptional. The “On God” ad-lib is the one. “I didn’t have a father, he’s a bandit” is a bar. Savage is talking good investments. I can’t wait to play this album in the car. A perfect soundtrack for robbing season, word to FX's Atlanta. “I got rich nigga problems.” Good problems, sir. A nice mention of the Flea Market. I saw 21’s mom at the back to school event he threw, she looked so proud. “Make more than the teacher, I’m a dropout, dropout.” YEP! Another one.
13. "monster" ft. Childish Gambino
Keys. Elegant keys. “The money and the fame make a monster” Sample? I believe so. Gambino!? He’s rapping, rapping. The Eastside connect. I miss him rapping. “The industry savage” facts. This is a record!! I love how its arranged. “You can dump me in the middle of the ocean I’m still coming out dry.” LET'S GO SAVAGE. “All the pain and struggle made a superstar” is crying in the club music. I hope East Atlanta is proud. This is great. Keys to bring this one out.
14. "letter to my momma"
Beautiful sample. The chords are sweet. There isn’t a single song that slacked on the drums. In the installation, there were clips of baby pictures being showcased on a projector while this song played. “When the times got hard you made a way.” This is a tribute. “I know you proud but I’m proud too.” Paying off homes is a mood. “I’m the one who stole the cookies out the jar” hahaha. Still crying in the club music. What’s this sample? A great song. If the album ended here I wouldn’t be mad.
The only capital letter on the tracklist is the L in “4L.” Frank Lucas reference. 21 Savage is an American Gangster. He's talking the talk to close the album. Big brags. These ad-libs are taking me out. Fam, this man is going off. GO OFF! Young Nudy! Zone 6! The cousins are a deadly combo. He’s water walking. Nudy will be a star, I see it for him by 2020. That’s a feature. “Malcolm might get killed in the middle” SIR. “Made it to the top but I give back to the slums.” This is how you close out an album.
Final (first listen) thoughts on i am > i was:
21 Savage’s i am > i was is a title that perfectly encompasses what awaits listeners. On his highly-anticipated but delayed sophomore album, 21 is better than he’s ever been. The rapping, the flows, the features, the production, everything about this project is about showcasing artistic progress and human growth. There isn’t a single song, on first listen, that I would skip.
i am > i was is everything a 21 fan could ever hope for, and yet also everything a fan wouldn’t expect. There’s an understanding of what will resonate with the audience. He’s the trap rapper with the fierce flow and crude humor, but also an artist who is highly successful. Life has changed for the man born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph. Instead of resisting and hating fame, though, he superbly documents the newness of his life. It’s quite obvious that nothing has been the same since Issa Album.
What 21 Savage accomplished with i am > i was is what artists should strive with their sophomore releases: refinement. It’s what T.I. did with Trap Muzik, improving upon all the strengths he displayed on I’m Serious while minimizing the weakness. All the promise and potential that can be found on Issa Album is fully realized over a year later.
21 didn’t return to remind us what we love about him; i am > i was is about showcasing how much further he can go.