21 Savage and Metro Boomin turn in an impeccably-curated project whose style clearly trumps its substance.
Any conversation about 21 Savage has to begin with talking about his voice. It's a just-woke-up-but-haven't-cleared-my-throat-yet croak whose closest analog is probably Lucki Ecks' rasp or Father's monotone mumble, but unlike those guys' avant-druggy styles, 21's operating at the most violent end of Atlanta's trap spectrum. His vocal delivery is the polar opposite of the guy who made trap music explode six years ago-- Waka Flocka Flame-- and for that reason, it's not just a novel approach, but also an experiment in contrast that mirrors the genre's move from Lex Luger maximalism to London On Da Track's understated piano ballads. Whereas on past projects The Slaughter Tape and Slaughter King, navigating a mixed-bag collection of beats (that still came from some of ATL's top-tier talents) required 21 to step into more standard, aggressive tones-- see "Gang"-- his debut commercial project consists of a perfectly curated set of beats by Metro Boomin that seem tailor-made for the young rapper's low-key menacing style.
Save for three abrupt lines in the middle of "Bad Guy," 21 Savage operates in that low register for the entirety of Savage Mode. His voice sounds more fit for blasé afterthoughts like a "fuck all that, ask your bitch how my dick tastes" just before the hook on "No Heart" kicks in, but he also says "pistol whip you while your bitch naked" in that same tone, the one you'd use if someone woke you up from a nap asking if you wanted to add anything to the delivery order they were about to place. He makes us believe that threats are as commonplace to him as a simple "I'll take a burger, fries, and chocolate shake" is to us, which is not only an effective addition to his self-mythologizing starter kit (see also: this profile that touts him as "respected" rather than buzzing or talented), but also an unnerving way to tackle trap and gangster rap. It's somewhat akin to Lil Yachty's approach, which has him threatening to do things like "turn this shit to Columbine" in a decidedly carefree, zip-a-dee-doo-da manner, but less jarring and more scary. If real killers and/or G's really do move in silence, 21 Savage makes himself sound harder than anyone else by barely rapping above a whisper. It carries over to his personality too-- he accompanied Key! and ManMan Savage to an interview I was conducting during CMJ 2014, and casting sharp relief on those two guys' boisterous personalities, said nothing, and never removed his sunglasses although it was cloudy. He was "that guy with the cross tatted on his forehead who never spoke," and I was a little surprised to learn a few months later that he was a rapper.
For someone who claims to be unbothered by internet shit, 21 has marketed himself perfectly, aiming to gain peoples' respect and/or fear without seeming like he's doing anything for shock value. As with any rapper in the post-Rick Ross world, it's a moot point (and, in the case of Bobby Shmurda, a potentially damaging act) to wonder if he's actually as hard as he says, but suffice it to say that 21 has seamlessly made toughness an crucial part of his identity while refusing to conform to a boilerplate style of rapping.
21 is at his best when he's finding intricate pockets within beats, usually using fairly simple language but bobbing and weaving through it to find intriguing strings of internal rhymes and flows. He'll hit these earworming runs-- "Last name savage but no I'm not Randy/Hit her with no condom had to make her eat a Plan B," "I sit back and read like Cat in the Hat/21 Savage the cat with the MAC"-- that'll stay fresh in your mind for hours just because of their vividness and how well they're tailored to the respective songs' groove. The opening three-peat of "No Advance," "No Heart," and "X" are among his finest vocal performances, where effortlessness, charisma, and memorable bars intersect, but beyond that, he falls off a bit. He's got a few too many verses based around single words (an intriguing approach for more gifted lyricists, but a little lazy when it's a guy who ends three out of four consecutive lines on the first verse of "Real N*gga" with the song's title), and ditto for the hooks, which begin to lose their juice with every ensuing new one that's just one phrase chanted ad infinitum. The closing pair of tracks, love song "Feel It" and trippy coda "Ocean Drive," are the most out-of-character, and a nice change of pace from a tape that's otherwise pretty one-note.
Instrumentally though, that consistency in vibe is Savage Mode's strength. Metro Boomin hasn't had the chance to executive produce a project since Drake and Future's scattered What A Time To Be Alive, and you can tell he was focused on creating a cohesive, immersive whole. The beats sounded amazing from the first listen, but it wasn't until I cued up "No Advance" in my car after exiting the highway a few nights ago that they truly came to life. Their nocturnal ambient glow seemed scripted for that environment, with each passing streetlight and neon sign on the small local streets pairing up with a new wrinkle of subtlety deployed by Metro or mix maestro Alex Tumay. Like 21's delivery, the music is low-key and subtle, and its strength lies in flourishes that only become perceptible with repeat listens. Metro continues to grow, not just as a producer whose sonic breadth widens, but also as an architectural stylist, someone whose vision is often much more integral to a full project than a rapper's.
Savage Mode sounds fucking cool and fucking menacing, there's no way around that. I see this becoming very popular with teens who want to stay ahead of the curve musically while also trying to terrify their parents. Its style unequivocally trumps its substance, which is par for the course in this school of arty street rap, but its form-- a compact, impeccably-curated product-- is sorely missing from the genre. If Metro continues to tap young talent for full projects though, Savage Mode could quickly be eclipsed.