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21 Savage has a surprisingly tender side. While it’s remained relatively low key over the past two or three years of the Atlanta-based rapper’s career, on his latest effort, I Am > I Was, Savage finds all sorts of subtle ways to reveal this underexposed aspect of his personality. But that’s not all; over the course of a relatively quiet 2018 spent in the studio with longtime collaborators like Metro Boomin and Southside — and newcomers like Cubeatz and Wheezy — Savage has honed his craft in isolation, re-emerging to remind us he’s one of the rap game’s sharpest rappers on one of the year’s most subtly innovative trap rap projects.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Over the course of 2017, the stone-faced rapper’s stoic facade cracked and split, revealing flashes of a charismatic personality that seemed entirely at odds with his stage persona. He appeared awkwardly shy in the video for Blocboy JB’s “Rover,” as the exuberant Blocboy hopped and cavorted around him. 21 proudly attended then-girlfriend Amber Rose’s SlutWalk, taking the resulting criticism in tongue-in-cheek, menacing stride. He sang along with her to goofy, Carpool Karaoke-inspired, R&B-flavored Snapchats. Clearly, there was more to him than meets the eye at first glance. Behind that scowl and AK-47-toting, confrontational stance lived a rapper who had seen some things. Yes, he’d adopted a defensive posture as a survival mechanism, but he seemed as fun-loving and cheerful as anyone else.
That relationship served as a partial foundation to records like “Ball W/O You,” an appealingly confessional, TM88-produced breakup ballad that finds him reflecting on that and other past relationships, expressing a sense of both disillusionment and, oddly, hopeful optimism. “You can love somebody and still stab them in the back,” he offers in his trademark deadpan. “It don’t take much to love, you can love somebody just by being attached / See loyalty is a action, you can love or hate me and still have my back.” He bares further emotional wounds on “All My Friends,” “Monster” (which features a standout, possibly final guest verse from Childish Gambino, doubling as a poignant reminder that a hard knock upbringing can have multiple, disparate outcomes), and “Letter 2 My Momma,” meditating on the ways his newfound fame has affected — and in some cases, exacerbated — his traumas and relationships with friends, family, and community. His willingness to delve into his emotional state, however, is just one of the ways he evolves on I Am > I Was, which find him excavating inspiration not only from his prior relationships but also from the stylistic roots of his trap-grounded musical ethos.
Three 6 Mafia-inspired sounds thread all throughout the album, from the intruder alert klaxon blaring in the background of “Break Da Law” to the old-school 80’s gangbang funk of “Good Day.” Album opener “A Lot” features an unlikely-seeming collaboration between the profoundly dark, street-inflected tales of 21 Savage and the lyrical intricacies of aspiring hip-hop wiseman J. Cole over a UGK-esque, soul-looped, 808 roller of a beat from Kid Hazel, whose other contributions include album standouts “Gun Smoke,” “Out For The Night Pt. 2” featuring Travis Scott, and “Letter 2 My Momma.” “A&T” borrows an interpolation from Hypnotize Camp Posse’s underground classic “Azz & Tittiez” and offers up a truly stunning verse from Yung Miami of City Girls in a playful ode to the strip club that is unexpectedly fun and bright for the normally murky 21 Savage.
Of course, he still riffs on violence with an apathy bordering on disassociation, but now there’s an even sharper pen game guiding the nihilistic wordplay. On “Can’t Leave Without It,” he clips his verse with a particularly vicious, yet clever couplet that demonstrates his growth as a rapper: “Your mama gon’ have to make a GoFundMe, ya’ll n—-s keep doing that sneak jabbin’ / Gucci had to kill the whole woods just to make Young Savage this motherf*ckin’ mink jacket.” Meanwhile, the old-school influence that tethers his beats to the southern rap traditions that birthed his style undergird his “keep it real” mentality on “4L”: “N—-s drop an album, then pretend to be gangsta / Imagine every hood, you gon’ make it up, ain’t you? / He done made up dead homies, man this n—- a prankster / I got n—-s down to roll, for our flock, they’ll shank you.” It’s a shame that rap has overlooked the dagger-like lyricism of southern rappers like Savage. Constantly decrying “mumble rappers,” for instance, shouldn’t undercut the message or the audio innovations being served up by the new generation of rappers of which Savage is one of the vanguards.
Lines like this prove that Savage is certainly greater than he was, but the truly inspiring part is how dedicated he is to improve. Where many other artists this year were fine to rest on their laurels and churn out higher quantity to keep the streaming machine fed, I Am > I Was shows true dedication and concision at just fifteen tracks. He knew what he was going to say before he set out to say it, providing something that feels rare in the modern age — an album that centers quality over quantity. With his work ethic, he’s only going to get better, and this album shows that his potential is off the charts.
I Am > I Was is out now via Epic Records. Get it here.