21 Savage was one of the most underrated rappers of the last decade. Underrated in the sense that he deserved even more success and acclaim for his releases. Savage Mode, his 2016 collaborative mixtape with Metro Boomin, was one of the best tapes of the 2010s; the grimy trap record painted a rich picture of a life anchored by gangs, guns, and love. That tape was a transformative moment for 21’s career. The project launched him into stardom and led to the release of two official studio albums: the “Bank Account”-featuring Issa Album and the #1-charting Grammy-winning i am > i was. 21 Savage’s gruff monotone delivery made him and instant favorite, but his monotone somehow packs more emotion than the most traditionally expressive voices do. It’s a voice that held his albums together as he was still polishing his flows and improving his lyricism. In the years since Savage Mode, super-producer Metro Boomin’ produced hits like Big Sean’s “Bounce Back,” Solange’s “Stay Flo,” Post Malone’s “Congratulations,” and The Weeknd’s “Heartless.” He also put out Without Warning, a collaborative album with Offset and 21 Savage, Double or Nothing, a collaborative album with Big Sean, and Not All Heroes Wear Capes which featured appearances by Drake, J Balvin, Wizkid, and Gunna.
Now, in a valiant effort to make the hell hole that is 2020 feel a little bit better, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin reunite on the excellent sequel to their 2016 mixtape: Savage Mode II. Obviously, Metro and 21 in 2020 are in completely different spheres of commercial success and personal development than they were in 2016. The grandiose production of Savage Mode II highlights this evolution. Like any good sequel, Savage Mode II is thematically consistent with the original; 21 contemplates familiar subjects like guns, survival, violence, and romance, but he also expands his view with more nuanced takes on disillusionment and mortality. Similarly, Metro retains the gritty Southern trap foundation of Savage Mode, but he gives Savage Mode II a more cinematic feel with swelling string and horn arrangements. Oh, and they also recruited the legendary Morgan Freeman to narrate the album. It truly is incredible to hear that iconic voice introduce Savage Mode II. With a script written by spoken word artist Big Rube, Freeman’s presence adds a certain gravity to the record and makes for the best intro of the year.
Savage Mode II is a triumph on all fronts. The album’s first proper track, “Runnin,” sets the tone for 21’s return to the rap game. Over a soft vocal loop taken from a sample of Diana Ross’ “I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I Fell in Love),” 21 raps “I’m Slaughter Gang, pussy, you know I brought my knife/He was talkin’ gangster, we caught him at a light.” Violence is a cornerstone to 21 Savage’s raps, and his emotionless delivery of particularly graphic bars over violin-accented beats makes for a near-perfect macabre moment. Like “Runnin,” “Glock in My Lap,” “Brand New Draco,” and “Slidin” all recall the gritty edge of Savage Mode. The way 21 views violence on Savage Mode II is particularly interesting. There are notes of winking humor in some of his lines and delivery (“Black Air Force 1s dancing with the devil”), but he mostly sees violence as a necessary evil. He only enacts violence against those who cross or disrespect him and the people he loves (read: snitches and rats). 21’s exploration of violence is reflected through Metro’s production; every beat slyly evokes the horror genre, not through a menacing bass line, but through ominous trap loops juxtaposed against violins. There’s definitely some correlation between the dark sounds of Savage Mode II and the horror remixes of hip-hop songs like “I Got 5 On It” from Jordan Peele’s Us.
Savage Mode II doesn’t spend its whole runtime making 2020 versions of Savage Mode tracks. Like they did on i am > i was and Not All Heroes Wear Capes, 21 and Metro make it a point to expand their sonic palettes and they make some truly great tracks while doing so. 21 pays some homage to New York rap on “Many Men,” which interpolates the seminal track of the same name from 50 Cent. Admittedly, it’s nowhere near as good as Pop Smoke’s “Got It On Me,” which also interpolates “Many Men,” but it is one strong example of 21 and Metro reaching across the country for inspiration. The duo look to the West Coast on the standout “Steppin On Niggas.” From disc scratches to disco-influenced synth patterns, 21 Savage has ventured into pop territory with a song that would not sound out of place on a playlist with The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” or Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now.” The song is quite literally about stepping on niggas, but the bouncy feel makes it sound more like a dance track than a traditional trapping anthem. The Drake-featuring “Mr. Right Now,” on the other hand, places 21 in a genre he loves: R&B. With Beyoncé, Sade, and SZA name drops and bars about past sexual endeavors, this could be the album’s big crossover hit. “Rich Nigga Shit” continues with the opulent production trend as Metro blends guitar, strings, and trap beats while 21 and Young Thug trade verses about their lavish lifestyles. On “RIP Luv,” the duo slow things down as 21 delivers a heartfelt trap ballad that details his increasing disillusionment with love and romance. He solemnly raps “I had your back, you put a knife in mine/If you was finna lose your life, I woulda gave you mine/I sit back and reminisce sometimes/I used to drink my syrup while you drank your wine.” The song is a revelatory look at pain, drug abuse, the evolution of 21’s romantic and platonic relationships, and more. It’s the perfect way to help bring the album to a close because it, once again, shows off just how far 21 has come. His flows are tighter and less one-note, his lyricism is clever without sacrificing his natural humor, and he has more to say about more things than ever before. It’s great to have 21 back again.
Key Tracks: “Runnin” | “Mr. Right Now” | “Steppin On Niggas” | “Slidin” | “RIP Luv”