21 Savage I Am > I Was Epic / Slaughter Gang
When 21 Savage first broke out of Atlanta’s crowd of street rappers, his appeal came from an aura of menace. With producer Metro Boomin on board, 2016’s Savage Mode project offered up chilling authenticity. 21 boasted and threatened in equal measure, all by way of icy monotone, while Metro’s dark and melancholic production was the perfect sound palette.
Considering how integral the beatsmith was to 21’s rise, the scarcity of Young Metro credits on Savage’s latest album I Am > I Was gave immediate pause. Compounded by his guest feature last year on Post Malone’s powerhouse hit Rockstar, the potential for 21’s to abandon his grimmer fare seemed possible.
From the jump, things feel different, with DJ Dahi’s warm soul samples and J Cole’s presence on opener A Lot. Malone and his production go-to Louis Bell return the Rockstar favour on All My Friends, with Savage regurgitating old bars. When 21 debuted a new whispered vocal style on Metro Boomin’s 2018 album Not All Heroes Wear Capes it went viral. Here it’s reprised on ASMR, but this time the track made headlines for a brag about “getting that Jewish money”, prompting 21 to apologise.
21 Savage recovers the vicious side of his persona elsewhere on I Am > I Was by being himself almost to a fault, spitting vicious couplets like “One man army pullin’ kick doors / talkin’ out yo’ neck get you tag toed” on Gun Smoke. That old energy also returns on the Kid Hazel-produced closer 4L, a gripping collaboration with his cousin Young Nudy featuring a raging hook that tosses out references to Zone 6 violence. No less compelling, Letter 2 My Momma marks a classic entry in the canon alongside 2Pac and Kanye, while Ball w/o You sees him explore heartbreak in a manner which defies traditional rap machismo. With 21 Savage maturing personally and musically since he first gained notoriety, I Am > I Was is a varied attempt at reconciling both sides of the face-tatted spitter’s vexing world.