Joint albums have become all the rage in hip-hop. There have been any number of attempts at Best Of Both Worlds-style pairings of two rappers who ostensibly complement one another released, planned, or rumored since Jay-Z and Kanye West shook up the world with Watch The Throne. However, very few have lived up to the hype surrounding their initial announcements.
What A Time To Be Alive, a much-ballyhooed collaboration album between Drake and Future, turned out to be mostly ho-hum, while Super Slimey, likewise a Future co-production — this time with Young Thug — also turned out to be more flash than substance. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have long been rumored to be working on a joint project, but good luck finding it on any label’s docket.
The truth is, for one reason or another, these things rarely meet fans’ lofty expectations; the vibe doesn’t work with both acts involved, the styles don’t mesh, or one artist ends up carrying the other for the majority of the project. 21 Savage, Offset, and Metro Boomin‘s Without Warning is just another in the increasing line of projects that work better on paper than in the final execution.
Part of the problem is that such collaborations actually do work well with one or two tracks. They are intriguing novelties which catch the listener’s attention and temporarily unite fanbases (or serve fans that exist in the overlap between the two), and often times, the pairings push each side to a new respective height or dimension of their own unique style. However, when this effect is stretched over the course of ten to fifteen tracks or thirty minutes to an hour, the initial spark of curiosity is lost. Usually, both artists lapse back into their own comfortable veins, co-existing but not exactly cooperating, and neither elevating the other or allowing their self to be elevated.
That’s exactly what happens on Without Warning. To be sure, both 21 Savage and Offset are entertaining enough on their own and for different reasons. Savage’s lethargic flow and snarled threats lend him the affect of an apathetic, remorseless serial killer, a la Michael Myers of Halloween fame, whose violent acts are committed as off-handedly as possible. Meanwhile, Offset is a ball of energy, bouncing off the walls of the beat with his clipped, precisely measured couplets firing off in controlled bursts like a Marine’s rifle. They provide each other a nice, yin-and-yang, push-and-pull dynamic that should serve to balance and — ahem — offset their respective styles.
Instead, they just sound like two rappers creating two separate takes on Metro Boomin’s excellently eerie production, and then an engineer slapped the two verses from each together. They rarely interact on the records, which is one of the aspects of Offset’s delivery that’s made him such a joy in the past twelve months or so. The way he and his Migos cohorts relay-race over beats tends to cover up his flaws as a lyricist (with Takeoff usually picking up where he leaves off), but whereas he takes energy from his bandmates on Migos projects, here, he and 21 sound stuck in neutral.
After the initial shot in the arm of “Ghostface Killers,” with its skittering drumline and welcome appearance from Travis Scott (with one of the best verses of his career), the continental drift between the stars’ individual styles starts by the third track after a typically stellar appearance from Quavo on “Rap Saved Me.” “Ric Flair Drip” is Offset’s solo track, but the absence of 21 doesn’t detract from the song at all. In fact, it allows him to completely stretch out and inhabit Metro’s hypnotic beat and experiment with multiple flows, speeding up and slowing and flipping wordplay like hotcakes on a flat top.
21’s solo set follows right after and immediately illustrates how little he needs assistance himself. The slightly faster beat draws more energy out of him than Offset’s reckless jackhammer flow has in their two previous collab tracks, which is already a bad sign for their chemistry on the latter half. Of course, Metro doesn’t try to vary the sounds for them as much as he could and has on previous projects like Savage Mode. He gets props for sticking to the Halloween horror movie theme, with creepy laughs, howling wolves, and whispering breezes, but the drums are so similar from track to track, it becomes difficult to differentiate where one ends and the next starts.
By the time they get to the ringing music box loop from “Run Up The Racks,” each rapper has lapsed into a complacent groove, and they aren’t even trading ad-libs on the hooks, which was the one thing that could have made the whole exercise truly worthwhile (these are two of best ad-libbers in the game right now). Just hearing them gas each other up on their respective verses could have been very entertaining, but we’ll never know. By “Darth Vader” I found myself wondering why Metro hadn’t just created two entirely separate EPs with each of the rappers involved, because they’d barely sounded like they were ever in the same studio at the same time, and given modern recording practices that scenario is not only possible but likely.
Ultimately, Without Warning does so little to justify its existence as a project that I have to wonder why rap fans as a group keep clamoring for these sort of collaborative projects in the first place. The evidence that they just aren’t worth the hype keeps piling up, with very little being added to the opposite scale pan to keep the balance. It’s become clear that Kanye and Jay are in a league of their own and all the rest just might not be capable of creating anything near as strong as Watch The Throne. In the end, albums like Without Warning become curious in their creators’ respective catalogs and once the novelty has worn off, all that remains is a cheap knick-knack, cool to think about but ultimately not worth much.