In both his raps and his visuals, 21 Savage depicts himself as ghoulish and disaffected, which is probably the appeal for his many fans. It’s no secret that despite its characterization as “CNN for Black people” by Chuck D so long ago, hip-hop is primarily consumed by an audience with experience in the difficulties and idiosyncrasies of lower income Black life. Rap music gives that audience a window into a highly dramatized version of that world, like an audio rendition of The Wire, letting them feel the excitement of the precarious situations faced by struggling folks in the ghettos in America, with none of the physical danger. The more dangerous-seeming the medium of delivery, the more “authentic” the experience is, which makes 21 Savage the realest rapper out.
The 24-year rapper uses violent, borderline gory imagery in his presentation, wearing horror movie masks in publicity stills and prominently featuring knives on all his murder-themed (The Slaughter Tape, Slaughter King) tape covers — and on his own forehead, prompting one of the greatest rap-related memes to hit the internet, which in turn fed back into the naming of his newest full-length release, Issa Album, which has been surprisingly successful since its release, proving the naysayers wrong. Everything is washed out in the same blood red overtone, suggesting a massacre has just taken place, and 21 is here to revel in the mess. The air of menace hovering over him is almost palpable.
Yet, peel away the layers and what you get isn’t wholly what you saw. Yes, he totes choppers (that’s lingo for “assault rifles,” a favorite of posturing rappers looking to assure their fans that they are indeed “about that life”) in his videos, he proudly represents and promotes the local Atlanta chapter of the infamous Bloods gang, and he is often photographed scowling, snarling, or smirking nastily rather than smiling. But he is also one of eleven children born to his mother Heather, who is of Dominica descent. He also practices Ifá, a religion and system of divination with roots in West Africa. He is currently dating model and activist Amber Rose, whom he treats far more respectfully than her ex-boyfriend Kanye West, which puts him in regular contact with the child of similarly-tattoo-blasted, but decidedly more laid back Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa, yet the two have decidedly less friction than any other high-profile mixed family of celebrities, such as Future, Ciara, and Russell Wilson or Tyga, Black Chyna, and Rob Kardashian.