21 Savage has always had his own lane within trap. His uniquely deep and deadpan timbre and his subject matter comprised of criminal anecdotes and murder ballads make him into something resembling a Shakespearean lawbreaker. Tapes like The Slaughter Tape and Savage Mode flaunt an almost theatrical ghetto-centricity, music injected with the desire to present human existence at its most fetishibly and fantastically bleak. It’s the white evangelical’s idea of what inner city gangster music sounds like, a negative stereotype exultantly taken to the hilt.
Yet I’ve always found 21’s solo music boring precisely because of this one-note caricature of darkness. For sure, he’s a creative lyricist and he has a real knack for enunciating words catchily. But after a while his style tends to devolve into a depthless drone. In contrast to the psychedelic elements incorporated by melodic trappers like Travis Scott and Playboi Carti, 21’s instrumentals are diminutive in their scope, refusing to adventure beyond the spartan template of 808, snare, kick, hat, etc. There’s no interesting play going on with reverb, sound effects, or vocalisations. His most enjoyable tracks have been carried by excellent production, and specifically that of Metro Boomin, a long-time collaborator, whose mosaics of sound effects and sample-manipulating skills always liven things up.
While 21 Savage is more famous now than ever, his new album serves as a litmus test: can he make something by himself that’s stylistically mature, a world of his very own?
I Am Greater Than I Was (stylized i am > i was) presents itself as 21 Savage’s duality realized, showing that the cold-hearted killer does in fact have a soft side. But besides the inclusion of some gentler, mellowed beats, which serve 21’s style in no way whatsoever, there’s nothing really indicative of emotional or stylistic maturation. Even 21’s brazenly titled “letter 2 my momma” (which one thinks would be the perfect opportunity to display maturity) sees him ad-libbing “skraight up” after would-be-sincere lines like “I'm still your baby even though I got a child, too.” If you take it sardonically (in that despite his age and fatherhood he still needs his mom’s advice, and the childish ab-libs is tongue in cheek) then it’s sort of funny, but I doubt that’s what he was intending. He botches his own attempt at conveying profundity. In this new album, 21’s aesthetic is split, stretched thin between his trademark style and the more conscious, meaningful side that feels all too forced now.
Everything about the album is bizarre. After his song “Don’t Come Out The House” on Metro Boomin’s recent album was lauded for its inclusion of “whisper rapping” -- to my ears more unpleasant than innovative, like inventing a word that no one’s ever going to use -- 21 decided to make a full song dedicated to whispering, titled “asmr.” It has one of the better beats on the album, courtesy of Metro Boomin, but once again the whispering makes the song extremely unplayable. A whispering section would actually be interesting if built around the right ambient beat, but Metro’s drums don’t simmer at all, creating a sour juxtaposition. It’s even more unpleasant simply because 21 doesn’t have a fit-for-whispering inflection, his raspy croak sounding like an annoying friend trying to keep quiet in a library. Other strange lowlights include his descent into sing-songy, AutoTune-lathered decrepitude on “all my friends,” and the most irritating, distracting hi-hat rolls I’ve ever heard on “ball w/o you,” which sounds like someone desperately trying to squirt ketchup out of a bottle with barely anything left over and over again.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the album is that 21 Savage released a second one, a deluxe version, only three days later. The sole discernible difference between the two is that 21 added “out for the night - part 2,” a track that literally copied and pastes the original “out for the night” and adds a less than two minute section featuring an entirely different beat and an entirely different vocalist, Travis Scott. If it wasn’t bolted onto the first bit, you’d have no way of knowing that it was even supposed to be the same track. The appendaged bit is actually great, with massive synthesizers that scan across the soundscape like stadium lights. Travis is ushered in like a holographic superhuman, his verse hitting like an omniscient force along with ad-libs that iterate and reverberate in myriad directions like shapeshifting gusts. It’s an incredibly exuberant performance that’s more deserving of being a single than an accessory to 21’s miserable original cut.
What’s most surprising about the album is how unmemorable it is, as I’ve listened to the album quite a few times now and can barely recall a third of the songs. Although the best track by far is “monster,” which has a great beat and feature by Childish Gambino, it’s still only the apex of a hill barely formed. In the past, 21 has usually mustered up at least one track that endured; on Savage Mode, it was “No Heart,” and on Issa Album, it was “Bank Account.” It should be alarming that there’s nothing on here that stands out.
Rating - 1/5