21 Savage's hip-hop horror stories on "Savage Mode" have aged like a fine wine.
21 Savage has only been a major public figure for about three years, but it feels like he’s been around for much longer. Though his second mixtape The Slaughter Tape came out in 2015 to minor success, it earned him a spot on XXL’s Freshman List in 2016 and gained him enough clout for a much more polished and thoughtfully produced follow up EP. That EP was Savage Mode, a nine-track collaboration between Savage and Metro Boomin,’ which dropped quietly three years ago today. It slowly gained steam, circulating across the internet and racking up play on streaming services. While not initially seen as a classic, the album has undeniable staying power and was a lowkey harbinger of the rap to come in the following three years.
You would be forgiven for not expecting the ubiquity 21 now enjoys. He was certainly unique, and his songs always had competent-to great production, but his deadpan delivery of brutal street tales and thorny public image didn’t exactly spell superstar. Savage had a rough childhood. He moved to Atlanta from the UK when he was seven. He had trouble with school, eventually becoming banned from every school in his hometown district in Dekalb County, Georgia, after bringing a gun on campus. He bounced around other schools in the area to similarly ill effect, and eventually ended up in a youth detention center, the "Pantherville" mentioned in Savage Mode’s second track, "No Heart."
Finding no solace in Atlanta’s public school system or the presumably rough corrections facility to which he was banished, Savage dropped out of high school after one semester and fell in with gang members and drug dealers. He and his friends formed a closely-knit Bloods-affiliated crew that eventually found itself losing members one by one to shootouts with rivals, drug deals gone wrong, and robberies. He lost his younger brother Quantavious (or Tay-Man) in a drug deal that turned disastrous. When he was 19, his friend Larry was killed in a shootout. On his 21st birthday he was shot six times in an attempted robbery that claimed his best friend Johnny.
Savage has mentioned in several interviews that the birthday shootout and death of Johnny followed by the death of Tay-Man a few months later was the turning point that determined his rap career. As is his style, he bluntly tells DJ Vlad in the now iconic VladTV video that those incidents made him say “Fuck this shit, these n****s dying back to back, I’m finna try and do some new shit, so that’s when I started rapping.”
Rick Ross’ outing as an ex-corrections officer famously demonstrated that rap can be theatre, a role-playing scenario in which artists take on a tough, violent character to imitate street cred. However, this was never applicable to 21. He lived through trauma, and his knowledge of the ins-and-outs of a life lived dangerously comes through in the matter-of-factness imbued within his music. It made him an instant curiosity and an effective storyteller. All of this was on display on Savage Mode. Like most great collaborations, Savage Mode is a document of two artists whose respective styles compliment each other so effectively that seams go unnoticed. Metro Boomin toned down his bass-heavy trap beats to a foreboding, nearly ambient noise that slowly creeps along underneath Savage's hood horror stories
The album’s opening half is stronger than its second, but that’s less a knock on the latter half and more of a testament to the unimpeachable greatness of the first five songs. Opener "No Advance" is a convincing boast that Savage was already so rich that he didn’t need to sign a deal and get an advance to make his the album. It’s also a fitting introduction to both Savage’s unrelenting frankness about women and violence, as well as his sometimes jarring but always weirdly ingratiating self-awareness; “drinkin’ all this syrup, I’m bout’ to fuck up my kidneys” is a strong example of a boast that turns knowingly sour.
"No Heart" works exceptionally well as both autobiography and statement of purpose. Savage talks about his childhood and explains what makes him so dangerous. He’ll pull your card because he has no heart. The Future collaboration "X" was 21’s first platinum hit. Future’s endless ability to find a hook in even the most barren corners plays nicely against Savage’s refusal to build any hook that isn’t one or two phrases repeated over and over. The fourth song, "Savage Mode," is all vibes, a cool ride through 21’s and Metro’s styles that persists with a quiet intensity, pulling the listener into its orbit with an almost imperceptible forcefulness. A fitting microcosm of the album that bears its name.
"Bad Guy" is a litany of the things that make 21 a villain. He raps faster and with more dexterity than he does on the rest of the album over burbling synths provided by Boomin’ and Savage’s longtime friend and collaborator Sonny Digital. The rest of the album, while not as intense or impulsively listenable, is still excellent. 21 sounds like he’s about to fall asleep on "Real Ni**a," even while making a convincing case for his realness. He gets as reflective as 21 could get at the time on closing track "Ocean Drive," as he reminisces about his rise from nothing to and the hurt he endured along the way.
21’s music was enough to make him a star with staying power, but it helped that he proved to be eminently meme-able. The first and most memorable (and now omnipresent to the point of annoyance) example of this preternatural talent showed up during the aforementioned interview with DJ Vlad. When asked about the “cross tattoo” on his forehead, 21, nearly horizontal on a couch, cradling stacks of cash and sipping from a styrofoam cup, answers forcefully and bluntly: “issa knife.” The Atlanta-fied portmanteau became an instant sensation, with people internet-wide using it freely and frequently. It neatly encapsulated 21’s unique languor and seemingly contradictory menace. 21 himself noticed the term’s popularity, and named his debut studio album Issa Album. The story behind the knife is sadder and more sinister than the meme would suggest, but that’s Savage in a nutshell. It was a tattoo he and Tay-Man planned to get on their hand together, but Tay-Man went full force and got it on his forehead. After he was killed, Savage did too.
21 will be around for a long time to come, and Savage Mode will continue to be the first real peek into the rapper’s deceptively curated world. He has since become a little less hard around the edges, starting charities to teach children financial savvy, and fighting against aggressive immigration policies that recently found him briefly detained and facing deportation. He raps more introspectively now (see ‘a lot,’ the opening track on Savage’s latest album i am > i was), but history will remember Savage Mode for its introduction to a fully formed personality. Sometimes, Savage seems to be winking at you through the oppressive darkness of his music. It’s hard to tell if this is to let you know he’s in on the joke, or because he’s about to ice you.