I Am > I Was clearly demonstrates a dreadful wrong turn in the reading of 21 Savage's perceived maladroitness as a lyricist. Prior to its unveiling, 21 Savage was pegged a character belonging to the middle ranks below the upper echelon, due to his vocal inflections being misconstrued as lacking in passion. What was then misunderstood to be a symptom of inexperience is now gaining a sense of propriety all its own. In some respects, 21 Savage became a victim of his success when he opted to say, "I ain't really know what it was gon' be," in relation to his then-career goals.

I Am > I Was, as the title suggests, is a self-affirmation of the unsolicited variety - akin to a politician taking the podium, only to rely on rugged dignity as a figure of merit, instead of delving into superfluous language. 21 Savage has made a habit out of shortening the understated message of his music, as a way of hitting back at "speak-up culture," and the adulterated filters that stand in his way.

From an artistic point of view, 21 Savage traces his musical trajectory all the way back to his Issa debut on his new project, with subtle inferences of change undertaken with absolute control: the exploration of a (slightly) broader sound, and a newfound sense of camaraderie with the invited guests on I Am > I Was, giving off the illusion that he is venturing out of pocket when in truth, there is no plausible change to his madness at all, only slight improvements across the board.

The rub against his vocal inflections being inexpressive starts to wear off the deeper you plunge into I Am > I Was, almost to the point of fixing the broken signals that arose on his debut LP. To correct those wrongs is to admit that 21 Savage was always in control even though his conflicting personality traits continue to give us fits, especially the fair weather fans taking up valuable real estate.

I Am > I Was, as a comprehensive exercise in itself, explains why 21 Savage was left open to misidentification in the first place: because there was little in the way of a reference point drawing 21 Savage to other rappers from a historical perspective. As always, 21's mournful repose is the epitome of "mercy kill jobs" giving way to a numbing effect. When 21 Savage launches into a sadistic chuckle, he does indeed pass for a sociopath. But what makes his presumed sociopathy more or less palatable, and therefore less dangerous than behavior exhibited by a twisted demagogue like Donald Trump, is that he gives his audience a wink and a nod between takes - so his audience can rest comfortably.

On "alot," 21 Savage doesn't mitigate his ruthless disposition for no one, much less a rapper as earnest as J. Cole - nor does he pander to those who want to see him sputter out in flames. In lieu of tipping the scale or demonstrating any kind of inconsistency, J. Cole and 21 Savage agree to terms given the nuances of their disparate beginnings.

As the title I Am > I Was would suggest, there's no way of projecting intrinsic value onto a project cut in the mold of 21 Savage's personal experiences, with a toothless whisper note technique unbeknownst to us all. In theory, 21's musings are wholly connected to real-life events in a way that doesn't push us to underscore an underlying truth. 21 is inherently guilty of making the Zone 6 experience seem palpable to outsiders with no real connection to the subject at all. The wink and the nod that he musters only suffices in provoking a deeper exploration into a two-ply character uniquely his own, equal parts controllably deranged and funny.

The most tasteful change to his creative output on I Am > I Was, distinguishable from Issa, Savage Mode, and the collaborative efforts with Offset and Metro Boomin among othersis his predilection towards hip-hop history. On I Am > I Was, we find 21 Savage paying homage to noted figures like DJ Paul of Three Six Mafia, and to some extent Ice Cube, in naming his collaborative song "good day" after the 1992 classic "It Was a Good Day." It's plain to see, the Three Six formula has been copied ad nauseam in 2018, to varying degrees of success, but only 21 Savage manages this conversion by keeping his whims in check. With "good day" redressed to its full potential, we find ourselves listening profusely to a song bustling with 21 Savage's DNA, even as it borrows from Three Six on a structural level, from Ice Cube for its naming rights, and through the coercive interplay of ScHoolBoy Q, and Project Pat, the latter of which wrote the book on "darkly transgressive" mood music.

With respect to the darkly transgressive moods displayed on I Am > I Was, no one, and I mean no one is better able to elicit a cutting-emotive responsive in fewer than two bars, than 21 Savage at peak levels. As he readily demonstrates on "letter 2 my momma," moral details don't always follow the typical stretch pattern of storytelling. 21 Savage's motions to his momma as the inspiration to all his madness, however incomprehensible as it may seem for him to jump from boiling ramen to committing the act of a felony with unimaginable efficacy. 

With Metro Boomin's presence looming overhead, 21 Savage shows a willingness to pull from the musical canon that worked for him in the past, before either party opted for yearlong sabbaticals. In fact, there is only one instance on I Am > I Was where the general atmosphere is upended by the obsequious presence of a guest, and that's on "all my friends" with Post Malone where a Louis Bell string arrangement momentarily knocks loose a series of seamless transitions, but not for a lack of fruitfulness in its own right.  I Am > I Was is unequivocally the moment we will start to view 21 Savage with a thicker lens, with respect to past misgivings, and most importantly, with a positive outlook on the bright future that lies ahead for the Slaughter Gang initiative.