By Trey Alston
21 Savage is proof that abundance isn’t always a good thing, even in the streaming age. Now, musicians and celebrities openly engage with fans on social media to establish an effective persona and keep people interested. With our attention spans shorter than ever, and fame especially fleeting, artists seek to overload the public with Q&As, unreleased snippets, and snarky posts to generate conversation. 21 Savage, meanwhile, wisely rides the bench while others try their hardest to score. He’s mysterious and unreadable, but with his new album I Am > I Was, which dropped December 21, he has peeled back the curtain to reveal not only his level of comfort in the mystique he’s cultivated, but also what resides behind his brow.
Despite his seeming ambivalence to celebrity, 21 Savage spent the better part of two years ensnared in some of rap’s biggest moments. He provided a menacing counterpart to Post Malone on their Grammy-nominated 2017 collaboration “rockstar,” which became one of the year’s biggest hits, surprised fans with venomous ad-libs on Childish Gambino’s mysterious single “This is America,”, and injected intoxicating amounts of testosterone into Cardi B’s “Bartier Cardi,” her expensive follow-up to “Bodak Yellow.” Outside of rap, he was involved in a very public two-year relationship with Amber Rose, a prominent pop-culture figure and sex-positive activist.
But in the face of so much publicity, 21 Savage kept, and still keeps, in the shadows. No matter how many interviews he does, the world never comes closer to understanding what makes him tick. 2016 was his most press-friendly year, when he became a member of the XXL Freshman Class and was the subject of an intense, detailed profile by The Fader. But several thousand words gave more insight to the various “beat-up ass apartments” he lived in as a kid in Atlanta than 21 Savage himself; the most prominent takeaway from the piece is that he’s just as stoic in real life as he is in pictures and interviews.
This stone-faced personality plays into the off-kilter rap he makes: music for horror-movie villains to sneak around bedrooms at midnight to. No one slinks through verses like he does. He prefers to build anticipation and dread before striking with blunt-force lyricism and then watching the blood spill out. His voice rarely evolves beyond a menacing murmur — sometimes an actual whisper — as he raps about brutal depictions of street violence, often more blunt and macabre than actual horrorcore rap, with which it shares stylistic similarities. His 2017 studio debut, Issa Album, found religion in dirty pistols, lust in downed liquor bottles, and solace in dead presidents. But its defining characteristic was his separation from reality and the idea of celebrity: “The internet won’t help you understand me,” he raps on “Famous.” It’s a striking, maybe purposeful observation of what he decides to give the world and what he decides to hold close to his chest. He tells vicious tales of violence, but won’t share what’s on his mind. A few months later, he doubled down by hitting the nail on the head and dropping Without Warning, a surprise project made in quiet collaboration with Offset and Metro Boomin.
21 Savage’s I Am > I Was also arrives at an unexpected time: right when things are winding down, when media coverage for the year closes after the releases of year-end lists. But the album begins on a more soulful note than 21 Savage has ever explored. The opener “A Lot,” featuring a near-whispering verse from J. Cole, flows smoothly with its background ambience, allowing 21 to dig into the dark corridors of his mind and explain himself. Throughout the album he stitches together disparate images in his life. The beats are just a little darker, more emotional, than his past works. His rhymes are delivered a little louder and looser than before. The album’s expansive world of production — ranging from the slow-moving “All My Friends,” to the frantic, jittering anxiousness of “A&T” with City Girls — brings heightened versions of the rapper’s many different personalities explored on Issa Album, from excited to glum, as if to brandish the growth evident in the album’s very title.
What connects each song’s thread is the simultaneously brutal and blank delivery of 21’s message. It makes the wide-reaching album sound like an authentic evolution for 21 Savage, where he’s just as concerned with his thoughts as his morose subject matter. It’s not an airtight exhibition of the rapper’s curatory abilities, but it’s not trying to be. I Am> I Was, instead, is a journal chronicling the maturation of the mind and what comes with it. On “asmr” he whispers, “All these dead bodies got me seein’ strange things/Both sides of the gun, I done dealt and felt the pain,” digging deep into his horrific past, but now viewing it from a distance rather than from beside it. Where he once reveled in the struggle, he now reflects on it: “I remember times was dark/Now I can shine in the dark/Lost a couple friends, I ain’t even really mad though, I ain’t even really mad though,” he raps on “all my friends.” That repetition is important. The past is now water under the bridge.
On I Am > I Was, 21 Savage takes the floor to tell his truths and his stories. But there was no dramatic roll out for it. While his peers spent all year shooting releases out of cannons and spilling out on social media, 21 Savage waited the length of 2018 to get around to sharing his story. He wasn’t in a rush. After all, in a telling Twitter pronouncement ahead of I Am > I Was, 21 revealed that he’d already earned one billion streams this year “without dropping any music at all.” Mystery was still good for something in 2018, regardless of what the social media activity from other musicians may lead you to believe. Take that, transparency.