21 Savage is not known for high energy performances, but Friday night at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, the laconic Slaughter Gang spitter brought unexpected exuberance to a defiant performance.
To hear the 26-year-old “Bank Account” rapper speak — or rap — you might think he was bored. His flow, measured and borderline monotone, often caroms languidly against the aggressive, hard-pounding beats he chooses to rap over. All the tension lies beneath the surface; you must really listen to the words, not the way he delivers them, to glean the nightmarish trauma, angst, and violence-fueled despair that permeates his trap tales and leering threats.
Maybe that’s why a volcano is the perfect stage setting for his I Am > I Was tour set. On the surface, a volcano is nothing more than a mountain, a sometimes jagged but otherwise nondescript mound of rock jutting up from the earth. It appears stolid, unaffected by time and change, war and peace, rain and thunder. But underneath, a roiling river of volatile magma under incredible heat and pressure is the catalyst for the massive force of a volcano’s devastating eruptions and is where coal can be pressed into diamonds.
Pressure is a force 21 Savage knows well; it’s a theme that plays into the two separate short documentary clips that section his set off into the well-known mixtape material that helped him stake his claim on the rap world and I Am > I Was, the 2018 album that solidified his reputation as one of the rap game’s premier hitmakers. In the first, before he sets foot on the stage — at the apex of his artificial volcano, which lights up with lava flows and lightning flashes throughout the set — his origins in Atlanta, Georgia are depicted with bone-chilling starkness.
In the next, after roughly half his set has gone by, Savage recounts his more recent brushes with the law, this time in the form of an ICE investigation which paints him as a fraud, an outsider to both Atlanta and his adopted nation as an immigrant on an expired visa. Of course, the entire point of his album’s title is that we are not what we were — no one stays the same throughout the entirety of their existence, nor should they. Our circumstances are only a part of the mix; we can be born into the instability of a boiling cauldron of hot magma and incredible barometric force, but that pressure can turn us into something more, something better.
21 Savage’s performance works as a prime example of this principle. The last time I saw him perform, a bare eight months ago at Rolling Loud in Exposition Park, his stoic nature seemed to be a weight holding him back from his full potential — as it had in previous circumstances. This time around, perhaps because he was the star of the show or because he’s grown more comfortable in his role as an entertainer, he was as electric as the flashes of artificial lightning jolting down the sides of his stage volcano, snarling through renditions of album standouts “A Lot,” “Ball W/O You,” and “Out For The Night.”
He’s also apparently learned how to structure a set: Play the hits, but space them out enough that the energy of the crowd never flags. Rather than having to string together an extended run of iffy album cuts, his savvy decision to split the set between standout mixtape material and the I Am > I Was material kept him sounding fresh and hitting the crowd with doses of nostalgic appreciation. “My Choppa Hate N—as” was a theme-appropriate opener, while “Don’t Come Out The House” and “10 Freaky Girls” from 2017’s Without Warning operated as the tentpoles on the front half of the mixtape segment, balanced by a surprise appearance from Post Malone to perform their wicked 2018 collaboration “Rockstar.”
The closers, appropriately, were the songs that seemingly introduced 21 to the world at large: “X” and “Bank Account,” the latter of which featuring another surprise appearance from Metro Boomin, the secondary driver of that early success who also confirmed that a sequel to the duo’s groundbreaking Savage Mode mixtape is in the works. The songs acted almost as a calling card; here was 21 Savage reintroducing himself to the fans that perhaps felt they knew him best but may have also felt floored by the sudden revelation of his expanded origin story. It was as if he knew that the best way to re-earn their trust was to remind them that the surface never tells the full story — just as 21’s seemingly reserved demeanor hides fire inside. His true genius was in finally letting enough of it out to let us all know it’s still there and ready at any time to once again shift the earth.