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.
“People believe me, and they don’t really believe a lot of people,” he explained in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “They feel like I’m telling the truth – ’cause I’m telling the truth. That’s why a lot of people gravitate towards me: I’m a real n—- in a fake-ass industry.” Yet, Issa illustrates that there is far more to such a designation than a sinister leer and violent lyrics. “Bank Account” is a decidedly rapper-ly celebration of his newfound wealth, while his monotonous, disaffected delivery both belies and reaffirms the refrain of “Numb”: “Numb the pain with the money.”
21 Savage is someone who’s seen and experienced a few things that would scare some of his more straight-laced fans back across to the nice side of the tracks if they even caught wind such goings-on were unfolding within a thousand yard radius. “I was running around robbing n—-s and shooting n—-s and sh*t. I was just hanging out around a rapper that I knew on some n—-s-be-wanting-street-cred type sh*t. He was introducing me to everybody. I met Sonny (Digital) first, then Metro (Boomin). They pushed me to rap,” he remarks, but it still took getting shot six times — on his 21st birthday, no less — for him to clean up his act and start taking music seriously.
His history might just explain why he has no use for elaborate delivery or metaphors; his rhyme patterns are almost simplistic, his tone muted, as if even when he is celebratory, he knows that it could all be gone in an instant. Call it “PTSD rap.” Even on the innocuously-titled “Baby Girl,” he brags of the clarity of the diamonds in his chain, but all in the same laconic flow, like he won’t allow himself to get too excited over anything, even the possibility that his paramour may “suck me like a lollipop, baby girl.” It’s affected disaffect; it’s the approach of someone who numbs himself to the sweet dreams to keep the nightmares at bay.
He explicitly addresses this on “Nothin New,” evoking Civil Rights and the destitute conditions of impoverished citizens: “Treat us like slaves then they lock us up in cages / Young, black, poor, ain’t had a father since a baby / Why you think we skip school and hang out on the pavement?/ Why you think we ridin’ ’round with choppers off safety? … Anger in my genes, they used to hang us up with ropes / Civil rights came so they flood the hood with coke / Breakin’ down my people, tryna kill our faith and hope / They killed Martin Luther King and all he did was spoke.”
21 Savage keeps it real, but not just in the traditional sense of sagging pants and mean mugs for the camera. He is willing to spill anybody’s guts for the narrative, not just his own, but never mistake him for a mindless killing machine. To say that he revels in the nightmarish realm he depicts and presides over as Slaughter King in his raps is to miss the point of the raps.
He clips and cuts off his phrases because of the fear that if he takes any longer to say what he has to say, he’ll be cut off anyway, by violent means. And he’s more aware of the history than less astute may want to give credit for as well. “It’s hard being black,” he further told Rolling Stone. “I don’t think people really understand how hard it is to be black. Especially when you coming from nothing. In the hood, there’s already a lot of hate just amongst us black people. We killin’ each other and everybody else killin’ us too. We poor. And the world hates us. People always say I don’t ever talk about that type of sh*t, then when I talk about that type of sh*t, they do everything in their power to not talk about that song. They don’t give me the credit. F*ck ’em.”” Savage is more than meets the eye, but he’s real to the core.